Goya Can Be Creepy

Halloween is here and I can’t help but think of all the creepy, spooky art that exists. I think some of the creepiest art belongs to Goya’s “Black Paintings” series (1820-1823). These fourteen paintings were created during the period that Goya was recuperating from yellow fever. Some have interpreted these works as Goya’s response to constitutional freedom, but I think (along with many other art historians) there must have been a lot more personal, psychological motivations that inspired Goya’s work.1

Goya created the “Black Paintings” on the walls of his home, Quinta del Sordo (you can see a virtual tour here). Later, the paintings were transferred to canvas in the 1870s. The most famous painting in this series is Saturn Devouring His Children (shown above to the right). This painting refers to the classical story of Saturn, the king of the gods, who feared an prophecy which said that one of his children would overthrow him. In order to stop this from happening, Saturn ate each child upon birth (although you will notice that Saturn is eating an adult body in this painting). (You can read more of the mythological story here). With grim sarcasm, Goya painted Saturn Eating His Children on his dining room wall. Doesn’t it whet your appetite?

Another creepy work from the “Black Paintings” series is Witches Sabbath (The Great He-Goat) (shown left). This painting shows a group of witches who have convened with the devil, who has assumed the form of a goat. Goya was obviously drawn to this subject matter, since he created a more light-hearted version of this subject earlier in 1789 (see here). I think the “Black Paintings” version is infinitely more spooky and ominous. I identify most with the figure of the little girl on the right, who seems resistant and apart from the frightening crowd.

The earlier 1789 version of Witches Sabbath was one of six paintings of witches and devils. Goya created these six paintings for the Duke and Duchess of Osuna. If the “Black Paintings” don’t convince you that Goya was interested in creepy subject matter, maybe two of these Osuna paintings will:

The Bewitched Man, c. 1798
(More information here)

Witches in the Air, 1797-98
I think this painting is freaky. (More information here)

Still not convinced that Goya liked creepy art? Then check out some of the lithographs from his Los Caprichos series, which he created around the same time as the paintings for the Duke and Duchess of Osuna. You can see a few here. Another one in the series, “There is a lot to Suck” (Capricho 45), depicts a greedy witch with her mouth wide open. The witches are catching babies in a basket, in order to drink their blood. This superstition might be connected to abortion, since women who assisted with abortion were labeled as witches.2

Are you spooked? Which work by Goya do you think is the creepiest?

Happy Halloween!

1 Priscilla E. Muller, “Goya, Francisco de“, in Grove Art Online. Oxford Art Online, http://www.oxfordartonline.com.erl.lib.byu.edu/subscriber/article/grove/art/T033882, accessed 30 October 2009.

2 Rose-Marie Hagen and Rainer Hagen, Francisco Goya: 1746-1828 (London: Taschen, 2003), 36. Available online here.
  • e says:

    What a fantastic post for Halloween!

    So, since I always ask dumb questions, I'm wondering how paintings are transferred from walls to canvas?

  • heidenkind says:

    Goya is pretty creepy, although I think my favorite creepy artist of all time is Odilon Redon (I might take inspiration from you and do a post on him tonight, if I have enough enough energy ^_^). I love Goya's scenes of the madhouse. BUT I once read this super-duper interesting article about cannibalism in the New World and connecting it to Goya's scenes of witches and incidents from the Protestant Wars (apparently there are reports of people eating their own children to survive).

  • Rachsticle says:

    This is a very good post. I think he is one of the creepiest artists of all time, although he is still one of my favorites. I think part of the reason Goya was so creepy was his sad life.

    I agree with heidenkind. Redon is very creepy.

  • M says:

    To be honest, e, I don't know the details of how wall paintings are transferred onto canvas. I do know that the Goya restorers took the crumbling plaster off of the wall and then mounted that plaster onto canvas, but I don't know specifics about the transfer process. I know there are some art restorers who read this blog, and they are more than welcome to comment and explain. I'm interested to know, too.

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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.