Francisco Goya: 10 Facts About This Expressive Spanish Painter

As a romantic artist, Francisco Goya allowed emotions to dictate his work, and the ups and downs of his tumultuous life are evident in his body of paintings and etchings.

Aug 13, 2020By Zoe Mann, BA Art History
saturn devouring son francisco goya
Saturn Devouring his Son by Francisco Goya, 1820-23, via Museo Del Prado, Madrid (left); Portrait of Francisco Goya by Vicente López Portaña, 1826, via Museo Del Prado, Madrid (right)


A painting in the romantic style is not a scene of young love or men and women with butterflies in their stomachs. It’s a painting full of rich emotions of any kind, such as happiness, fear, or hatred. Francisco Goya painted works that exhibited the emotional grief of war and death and also showed the emotional gratification of family, love, and lust. His work inspired individuality in the art world and the very idea of modern art as we know it today. Let’s learn more with these ten facts about Francisco Goya.



1. Francisco Goya Was Ahead Of His Time


portrait manuel osorio manrique
Portrait of Manuel Osorio Manrique de Zuñiga by Francisco Goya, 1787-88, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


The beginning of artistic modernity occurred in the mid 19th century, but some art historians date the origins of modern art to the 18th century with Francisco Goya. He was not afraid to depict the realities of his fellow Spaniards. Realism was an unheard movement during Goya’s career. 


Most artists stuck to biblical or mythological scenes while ignoring the physical world around them. Even though Goya worked as a court-painter, those portraits still show the realism of the sitter’s life. 


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2. A Painting Fit For A King


carlos iv on horseback
Carlos IV on Horseback by Francisco Goya, 1800 via Museo Del Prado, Madrid


Most of Francisco Goya’s career was painting for noblemen and royalty. The Count of Altamira and his family were a frequent subject for Goya’s royal paintings. One work displayed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art is Goya’s Manuel Osorio Manrique de Zuñiga, who was the son of the Count. 


Goya used symbolism not usually found in royal portraits. In his Manuel Osorio Manrique de Zuñiga, Goya paints a bird locked in a cage. Throughout the history of art, caged birds represent youth and innocence. The animals surrounding the boy could represent the separation between the boy’s childhood and the evil of the outside world. The cats lurk in the background, emerging from sinister darkness as if they are protecting the boy from whatever lurks behind them. In most royal portraits, the painter will use symbols to enhance the sitter’s elevated status. However, Goya uses emotional symbolism, making his royal sitters more relatable to any ordinary viewer. It’s clear Goya was heavily influenced by famed 17th-century Spanish painter, Diego Velazquez. Unfortunately, Manuel died a few years after Goya painted him, he was only eight years old. 


Eventually, King Charles IV appointed Goya as a court painter. Goya found himself working for a French Bourbon King, three months before the storming of the Bastille and the French Revolution in 1789. Goya painted for four different rulers over forty years. 



3. Not Just A Painter


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El Sueño de la Razon Produce Monstrous, print from Los Caprichos by Francisco Goya, 1797-99, via Bilbao Fine Arts Museum


In his lifetime, Francisco Goya created over a hundred etchings. Etching is a form of printmaking. Designs are created into metal using acid, and ink fills the incisions. Los Caprichos are a collection of eighty etchings Goya made between 1797-1799. His Los Caprichos prints were controversial, and Goya pulled them from sale in 1799.


The title of Caprichos is a nod to The Caprices, which were works promoting imagination over reality. However, Goya puts a spin on this idea. His etchings are fantastical with realistic topics. His work displays the horror his fellow Spaniards had to endure during this time, which is why Goya felt the need to hide them from the public after receiving backlash from his royal patrons. Los Caprichos influenced other great artists such as Salvador Dalí and other surrealists in the early 20th century. 


In 1810, Goya created another series of eighty-two prints responding to Spain’s political climate. Goya’s The Disasters of War exhibits Goya’s response to Napoleon’s invasion of Spain, the Peninsular War, a devastating famine, and the dangerous reign of Ferdinand VII. These prints are more violent and disturbing than Los Caprichos. Goya was unable to publish The Disasters of War in his lifetime. Eventually, The Disasters of War published thirty-five years after Goya died. 



4. He Married Into Artistic Fame


portrait senora sabasa garcia
Portrait of Señora Sabasa Garcia by Francisco Goya, 1806/11, via The National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C. 


In 1773, Francisco Goya married Josefa Bayeu who wasn’t just any woman, but the sister of Francisco and Ramón Bayeu. The Bayeu brothers were famous painters in Madrid in the mid 18th century with Francisco a court-painter. Goya met Josefa while a student of the Bayeus, which helped Goya’s career flourish. 



5. He Had An Affair With A Noblewoman


duchess of alba
Portrait of the Duchess of Alba by Francisco Goya, 1795, in the Liria Palace, Madrid, via the Frist Art Museum, Nashville


In 1796, Francisco Goya was seeing Mara Cayetana de Silva, who was the Duchess of Alba. The same year her husband, the Duke of Alba, died and Goya painted a portrait of her in mourning. In the picture, the Duchess is wearing all black and a dress in the style of a Maja, which was a traditional dress women of the lower class wore. By putting the Duchess in a Maja costume, Goya wanted her to relate to the ordinary Spanish citizen.


In a restoration of the painting years later, restorers found the word solo next to Goya’s name, hinting that Goya was her one true love. The Duchess also wears two rings in the painting, one inscribed with her late husband’s surname, Alba, and the other Goya. 


Goya never gave this portrait to the Duchess. Instead, he held on to work for fifteen years. Historians speculate that the Duchess didn’t want the painting because he wasn’t shy about their affair.  



6. Francisco Goya Used Real-Life Models


naked maja francisco goya
The Naked Maja by Francisco Goya, 1795-1800, via Museo Del Prado, Madrid


In The Nude Maja (La Maja Denuda), Francisco Goya used a real-life woman as a model. When artists before Goya’s time painted nude portraits, the subject was never a real woman but a Goddess or Biblical figure. This painting directly inspired Édouard Manet in the 19th century when he painted his controversial Luncheon on the Grass and Olympia, both featured everyday women in the nude. 


It is unclear who the model is. Historians believe she is Pepita Tudo, who was Prime Minister Manuel de Godoy’s mistress. The woman could also be Goya’s mistress, The Duchess of Alba. 


Goya’s later nudes were confiscated by the Inquisition when Spain took back the throne in 1813. 



7. He Believed Art Could Change The World


the third of may
The Third of May 1808 by Francisco Goya, 1814, via Museo Del Prado, Madrid


Francisco Goya was a firm believer that art could make a political difference. In 1808, Spain was at war with France. Goya believed this war unnecessary. In 1814, Goya painted two paintings, The Second of May 1808 and The Third of May 1808


In The Third of May 1808, Goya painted the moment Spanish men faced their death on the Príncipe Pío, a hill in Madrid. This painting is vibrant with terrifying emotions. Lit with a bright, white spotlight, a man holds his hands up in surrender, his innocence exemplified. The soldiers with their guns drawn are hidden in shadow, exhibiting their evil. Like RembrandtThe Third of May 1808 displays Goya’s brilliant use of light and dark. 



8. He Was Deaf For Most Of His Life


devout profession
Devout Profession, print from Los Caprichos by Francisco Goya, 1799, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


It is unknown what disease or incident caused Francisco Goya to lose his hearing, but in 1793, he moved back to Madrid without the ability to hear. Goya’s artistic style and sensibility changed after this tragedy. It was after he lost his hearing when he created his dark and angry Los Caprichos in 1799. Afterward, he lived a life of solitude, unable to come to terms with the tragedies of his life.



9. Pardoned For Painting French Royalty 

portrait ferdinand vii
Portrait of Ferdinand VII by Francisco Goya, 1814-15, via Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid



In 1813, a Spanish King sat on the throne once more. Ferdinand VII pardoned Francisco Goya for being a court painter to a French King. However, this King was not a fan of Goya’s work. When tension between the King and Goya grew, the commissions stopped and Goya self-isolated himself in Bordeaux, France, where he later died in 1828. 



10. Francisco Goya’s Self-Isolation In A Country Home


saturn devouring his son
Saturn Devouring his Son by Francisco Goya, 1820-23, via Museo Del Prado, Madrid


Isolated from his life in Madrid and suffering from an illness, Francisco Goya retreated to his country home: La Quinta del Sordo or ‘The Deaf Man’s House.’ There, Goya found himself alone and separated from the art world and any social life. He painted directly on the walls of his home. These works are called Goya’s Black Paintings, and they depict Goya’s depression. 


Goya’s Saturn Devouring his Son is one of his most disturbing works. Goya depicts Saturn eating the body of his son and might represent Goya’s loss of control in his life. The darkness of the image is quite striking, as Saturn, the personification of the tragedies Goya has endured, emerges from the darkness that is Goya’s life. 


Goya’s life was full of tragedy, illness, and violence. Goya created art to learn more about the world around him and understand the difficulties of life. Goya was not afraid to pour his soul onto the canvas, and he inspired others to do the same. 

Author Image

By Zoe MannBA Art HistoryZoë is a graduate student living in Los Angeles studying screenwriting. Originally from New York, she received her B.A. in Art History from Pace University. She has worked in art galleries in Manhattan and the Art Institute of Chicago. In her free time, she loves researching for her historical fiction projects and playing with her cat, Harrison.