Francisco Goya’s Descent Into Madness: The Disturbing Black Paintings

Francisco Goya's life was scarred by turmoil and war. Let’s see how these horrors affected his private life.

Apr 16, 2024By Kerigan Pickett, BA Art History with History concentration

francisco goya madness back paintings


Francisco Goya grew up to be a vibrant young artist in late 18th-century Spain, yet he is known for some of art history’s darkest artworks. The Black Paintings were a series of dark, pessimistic subjects that an elderly Goya painted on the interior walls of his private home, never meant to be shown to the public. What happened in Goya’s life that caused him to create such horrific scenes in the comfort of his own home?


Who Was Francisco Goya?

francisco goya blind mans buff cartoon painting 1788
Blind Man’s Buff by Francisco Goya, 1788. Source: Museo del Prado, Madrid.


Francisco Goya was born to a middle-class family in Fuendetodos, Spain, in 1746. However, he was educated by Escolapian Fathers at a monastic school, where he was encouraged to think critically about things based on his personal experiences, to keep an open and flexible mind, and to take responsibility in gathering as much knowledge as possible in one’s lifetime. Using this mindset, Goya taught himself to paint and eventually pursued art as a career. He studied in Zaragoza under the artist Jose Luzan y Martinez before moving on to a new teacher in Madrid called Francisco Bayeu. While in Madrid, Goya married his teacher’s sister, Josefa Bayeu, whom he affectionately called Pepa.


With the help of his teacher and brother-in-law, he was able to network in the Madrid area and land a job as a cartoon designer for royal tapestries. These tapestries were light-hearted scenes, using copious amounts of pastels for the color palette, that recalled the rococo art of somewhat earlier in the century. This job was Goya’s way of getting his foot in the door, and more success soon followed when he was accepted into the Royal Academy—a feat he had been attempting for some time—and was commissioned to paint portraits for the Royal family. Today, these portraits are noted for how ugly Goya made the royals appear in them. Some argue this was a political comment on his opinion of the monarchy. At the same time, some agree that Goya had a unique painting style, which made his portraits become fashionable at the Spanish court. Nevertheless, he was living a grand and successful life.


A Loss of Hearing

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Courtyard with Lunatics by Francisco Goya, 1794. Source: Meadows Museum, Dallas.


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In 1792, Goya fell ill. The exact illness from which he suffered is unknown, though there are theories it was lead poisoning that almost killed him. He made a gradual recovery but experienced hearing loss, from which he would suffer for the rest of his life. It should be noted that besides painting, Goya loved music and conversation, both of which were either lost to him or made incredibly difficult by his new disability.


Adjusting to life without hearing at the age of 46 was the first of many dark moments in Goya’s life. He turned to his artwork, expressionistically painting a courtyard full of “lunatics.” They grapple with each other, rock on the floor with strange expressions, fight with empty air, and crawl on the ground. A guard beats the grappling men in the center. This painting was created at a point in Goya’s life when he exhibited apparent anxiety over the loss of his hearing and his general mental and physical health. He had visited asylums in his youth, and as someone who grew up to be a follower of the Enlightenment, he found them to be distasteful because of the way the mentally ill were treated. The sunlight in the sky at the top of the painting directly contrasts with the horror happening below.


Noticing Society’s Follies

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The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters by Francisco Goya, 1797. Source: Museo del Prado, Madrid.


Los Caprichos was created a few years after Courtyard with Lunatics as Goya’s pessimism took hold as he viewed the world around him through a new lens. Nonetheless, he held onto his enlightened values. His enlightened views clashed with Spanish society as he consistently noticed the foolishness of others. He viewed them as superstitious, ignorant, vain, and lacking reason. In this set of 80 individual prints depicting symbolic critiques of Spanish society, Goya depicts goblins, ghouls, witches, and more disturbing and intriguing imagery to send his message to the viewer. In these prints, women are attacked by monsters, gossiping older women whisper to each other, disasters occur, donkeys are taught to read, and demons fly through the sky.


The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters is the first of Los Caprichos and for an important reason. Goya held values in line with the Enlightenment, and Los Caprichos represents nightmares experienced in the dark of night. Therefore, art historians can assume that Goya believed that reason and rationality would stave off darkness from society and bring light and truth to the world if only it could be sustained by the general population. We know from his artwork that he was disappointed in society’s shortcomings.


A War-Scarred Artist 

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The Third of May, 1808 in Madrid by Francisco Goya, 1814. Source: Museo del Prado, Madrid.


Things only got worse for Goya in 1808 when Napoleon broke the Treaty of Fontainebleau and commanded his troops to invade by taking fortresses across the region. This event began the Peninsula Wars, which would wreak havoc upon Spain until 1814. Napoleon won control of Spain and put his brother on the throne, which was likely considered satisfactory by Goya initially, who was part of a group that believed looking to France for inspiration could bring modernity to Spain and the possible destruction of the Spanish Inquisition.


His opinion quickly changed, however, when he saw how vicious their new French ruler could be. When Napoleon’s brother, Joseph, was crowned King of Spain, Madrid had an uprising. King Joseph wanted to show his unwavering authority and quell the rebellion swiftly. To do so, the French rounded up any offenders from the uprising and shot hundreds of Spanish citizens, a horror that Goya witnessed with his own eyes. The war continued, with the Spaniards using guerilla tactics.


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The Coronation of Napoleon by Jacques-Louis David, c. 1804. Source: The Louvre, Paris


In 1814, Napoleon was finally defeated, and King Ferdinand was restored to the Spanish throne. After King Ferdinand’s return, all those who initially supported the French, including Goya, were questioned by authorities. However, he seems to have survived any punishment he might have received. In fact, he was commissioned to create propaganda commemorating the Spaniards who had died in the massacre. He made two paintings titled Second of May 1808 and Third of May 1808.


Second of May 1808 depicts the uprising as it occurred, while Third of May 1808 depicts the aftermath—the mass executions of everyday people who dared to challenge the French occupiers. A man stands in the center, illuminated by the light. He flings his arms out, fear showing wildly in his eyes. There are the bodies of those who came before him to his right, and a line of those who will go after him is to his left. The line of soldiers is stacked at a steep angle, creating a column of violence as they face away from the viewer to carry out their violence. It is a bitter depiction of war that shocked viewers when they saw the raw emotion of the scene.


Goya’s Black Paintings

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El Aqualarre (Witches’ Sabbath) by Francisco Goya, 1820-1823. Source: Museo del Prado, Madrid.


As politics continued to shift at court, liberals became more and more oppressed at court. Goya sought solitude in his old age and moved from the busy city of Madrid to the Quinta del Sordo, a house whose name translates to country home of the deaf man, named after its previous owner, who also had been deaf. It was in the Quinta del Sordo that Goya would create his Black Paintings. A series was born from Goya’s mind after a lifetime of illness, personal heartbreak, bloody wars and massacres, political suppression, and expressionistic painting. It was simply made for his own sake, as the purest form of self-expression and a look into the artist’s mind as he suffered from mental illness, bitter criticisms of society’s follies, and tragic memories of wars and massacres, all while spending his days in solitude.


He created the Black Paintings, of which there were a total of 14 disturbing paintings that were painted on the interior walls of his private home for nobody but himself to see. Goya never intended for the Black Paintings to be viewed by the public like his previous artwork had been. The Black Paintings were painted solely on the interior walls of his private home. In fact, people only found out about their existence after he died in 1828, roughly 5-8 years after their completion. The set includes La Leocadia, Witches’ Sabbath, Saturn Devouring his Child, Judith and Holofernes, A Pilgrimage to San Isidro, Asmodea, Pilgrimage to the Fountain of San Isidro, Two Old Men, Atropos, Fight with Cudgels, Men Reading, Man Mocked by Two Women, The Drowning Dog, and Two Old Ones Eating Soup. 


Goya was skilled in fresco painting, which happens when the pigment is applied to wet plaster, permanently bonding the materials as it dries. However, the Black Paintings were painted directly onto dried plaster with oil-based materials. Goya likely never thought to create the paintings as frescos because they were never meant to last. They were made for his eyes only, as his personal expression of emotion in his private home. It did not concern him whether they survived for a millennium or flaked off the wall in 20 years.


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Saturn Devouring his Child by Francisco Goya, 1820-1823. Source: Museo del Prado, Madrid.


But why did Goya create such horrific imagery for his own home? It can never be known for sure, but there are a few potential answers. First, they were a product of Goya’s traumatic experiences with illness, war, and society. So the works show how those tragedies affected his mindset. Second, they were a product of recurring illness due to possible prolonged lead exposure that affected his nervous system. Third, they were a product of Goya’s private reaction to the political suppression of liberals in Spain near the end of Goya’s life.


Some art historians consider the Black Paintings to be a look into Goya’s mind near the end of his life, after experiencing so much trauma and retreating to solitude in his countryside home. Saturn Devouring His Child exemplifies how these dark scenes may have served as expressionistic visual allegories to Goya’s mindset and opinions on society after having experienced their tragedies. Saturn chews on his son’s arm, the son who was prophesied to usurp him. Blood runs down the arm and headless neck as the body hangs limp in his father’s grasp. His fingers press into his son’s back. The child is not really a child—he is a full-grown adult.


This could be a symbol of Goya witnessing such horrors within society. When Saturn’s son was eaten, he was old enough to understand what was happening to him, though powerless to stop it. Likewise, in other paintings, such as The Drowning Dog, viewers can see Goya metaphorizing the dog, man’s most loyal companion. Here, he shows that loyalty is not always rewarded and that sometimes the loyal are the ones who are drowned.


Francisco Goya’s Thoughts on Artistic Freedom

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Two Women and a Man (Man Mocked by Two Women) by Francisco Goya, 1820-1823. Source: Museo del Prado, Madrid.


Art historians can also conclude that the Black Paintings were used as a private form of self-expression. Earlier in his career, he had written a letter to a fellow artist when suffering from his illness. In this letter, he complained about the lack of creative freedom, claiming he felt stifled by the status quo. He argued that if artists were allowed complete artistic freedom, the creative talent in Spain would explode with progress.


Goya believed that painting should not be taught or valued by its geometric preciseness but by expressing emotion through movement and technique. To quote him: “Academies should not be restrictive. […] They should banish the pattern of compulsion and servility which is found in schools for children, get rid of mechanical precepts and monthly prizes, and also grants in aid, which make the art of painting, which is liberal and noble, into something mean, base and effeminate. There should be no fixed periods for studying Geometry or Perspective.”


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The Drowning Dog by Francisco Goya, 1820-1823. Source: Museo del Prado, Madrid.


Goya stayed at the Quinta del Sordo for only three years. Feeling increasing political anxiety, he fled Spain and spent the rest of his life in France, where he died in Bordeaux in 1828. The artworks he kept secret and left behind for others to discover, his Black paintings, give viewers a clear look into the unfiltered creative process of a great artist whose work is full of angst, criticism, and terrifying violence. The Quinta del Sordo was demolished in 1901, but the paintings were safely removed and taken to the Museo del Prado in Madrid, where they can still be seen today.

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By Kerigan PickettBA Art History with History concentrationKerigan has a Bachelor of Arts in Art History from the University of Northern Iowa, where she also minored in History and earned a Museum Studies Certificate. She is also certified to tutor through the Saga Coach program by Saga Education, and she interned at the Cedar Falls Historical Society in Cedar Falls, Iowa. She is passionate about art, history, and writing. Her favorite historical subject is Tudor history. She currently runs a blog on WordPress called Gilded Histories, where she posts her latest art historical research in the form of academic articles.