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,, accessed 30 October 2009.

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

The Cyclical Nature of Art

When I was in college, one of my professors explained her theory that art is cyclical in nature. Over the centuries, there are certain themes and styles in art that keep emerging and fading in popularity. I have often thought about this theory in regards to the Classical and Baroque styles. Although this theory can apply to different types of art, I am in the mood for looking at sculpture, so I’ll only mostly use sculptural examples.

In early Greece, the serene, harmonious Classical style pervaded the artistic scene:

Polykleitos, “Spear-bearer” (Doryphoros), original dated c. 450-440 BC.

However, a short time later, the calm Classical style was disrupted by a taste for more dramatic, diagonal compositions in the Hellenistic period. In addition, relief sculptures were carved more deeply (some sculptures were practically in-the-round, almost jumping off of the relief wall) so that intense shadows could be cast:

Athena Battling Alkyoneos, Detail of the Gigantomachy Freize from the Altar of Zeus (Pergamon, Turkey, c. 175 BC).

The cycle between serenity and drama began again centuries later, when the Classical style became revived during the Renaissance:

Michelangelo, David, 1501-04

And only a century later, the Baroque period began as the artistic scene once again favored diagonal, dramatic compositions and subject matter:

Bernini, David, 1623

With the discovery of Pompeii in 1748, the interest in Classicism began the cycle all over again. This interest brought about the Neoclassical movement:

Antonio Canova, Pauline Borghese as Venus, 1808

The Romantic movement began about the same time and can be interpreted as a continuation of this cycle. In a way, the Romantics reacted against Neoclassicism by favoring drama and emotion over the serenity. This painting by Géricault focuses on dramatic subject matter by depicting a real-life event of shipwrecked passengers that were on the boat “Medusa.” A shortage of lifeboats caused 150 passengers to build a raft, and survivors resorted to cannibalism in order to stay alive on the open sea. (You can read more of the story here.) Can you see how this subject matter is dramatic? To heighten the drama, Gericault depicted an emotional moment when the survivors spot their rescue ship in the distance. Géricault even follows the same dramatic diagonal compositions that were favored in earlier dramatic styles:

Géricault, Raft of the “Medusa”, 1818-19

Since the Neoclassical/Romantic periods, the artistic continuum really hasn’t seen another revival of the serene/dramatic styles. There have been some slight interest in traditional subject matter, such as the Regionalism movement (think of American Gothic). I guess Regionalism could be considered a continuation of serenity and tradition, if one is willing to categorize abstractionism (the style the Regionalists rejected) as dramatic. Hmm.

I’m curious to see if art will ever return back to this cycle. Since the 19th and 20th centuries, art has just exploded into different types of media and styles. Have we left traditional cycles altogether? It is interesting to think about what art will be like in a hundred years or so.

What do you think about the future of art? Have you observed any other types of artistic cycles besides this one?


Friedrich and Geognosy

Ever since I was a teenager, I have been fascinated by the mountains and rocks. In college I toyed with the idea of becoming a geologist, but changed my mind after realizing how much math and chemistry was involved. Luckily, though, art history dabbles in so many other disciplines that I can read about geology and art at the same time.

Today I read an article by Timothy Mitchell which argues that Caspar David Friedrich was influenced by “historical geology” in his painting of Der Watzmann (1825, shown here). As a German Romantic painter, Friedrich was usually interested in depicting forests and rocky seashores. This painting of Der Watzmann, therefore, is a departure from the majority of Friedrich’s oeuvre. Mitchell argues that this interest in the Alps was influenced by the new study of geognosy (“knowledge of the earth”) that was developed by Abraham Werner, an instructor at a mining school in Freiburg. Werner’s geognosy focused on tangible evidence and facts. One of Werner’s protégés wrote, “What the geognost cannot reach with his hammer lies outside his province.”1 (Isn’t this stress on facts and evidence such a product of the ongoing Enlightenment?)

The Germans viewed the romantic landscape tradition as a type of nationalistic celebration. Mitchell convincingly argues that since discipline of geognosy was considered by the Germans to be both “of our time” and “thoroughly German in origin,” Friedrich would have been especially intrigued by the subject.2

Interestingly, Friedrich’s depiction of Der Watzmann is full of errors. Different perspectives of the mountain were combined together in the final painting. Although Mitchell suggests that Friedrich did not aim to create the mountain exactly as it appears (Mitchell instead ties this romanticized depiction as relating to the then-popular practice of worshiping God through nature), I also wonder if the different perspectives in this painting could partially have occurred because Friedrich never saw Der Watzmann in person – he was one of the few landscapists of the time who never traveled to the Alps. One would think that Friedrich would have been aware of the different mountain perspectives when examining other paintings of the peaks, but it cannot be certain. But, on the other hand, it was not unlike Romantic painters to, you know, romanticize their subject matter (!). That being said, I still am somewhat skeptical of Mitchell’s reasoning for the multiple perspectives.

I do, however, agree with Mitchell that the artistic stress on mountain peaks and rock formations in the foreground appear to be influenced by the geognostic theories regarding mountain formation. For example, one Werner’s theories is that the present state of the earth is due to a flood, which is best evidenced by the existence of massive boulders in the mountains. It appears that Friedrich added these boulders in the foreground of his painting as an allusion to this geognostic theory.3

There are more complexities to Mitchell’s argument which are also very interesting. If you care to read more, you can find this article on JSTOR.

1 Timothy Mitchell, “Caspar David Friedrich’s Der Watzmann: German Romantic Landscape Painting and Historical Geology,” The Art Bulletin 66, co. 3 (September, 1984): 454.

2 Ibid.

3 Ibid., 461.

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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.