top of page
  • By Adam Sedia

Francisco de Goya: Master Critic of the Human Condition

Francisco de Goya y Lucientes (1746-1828) is one of Spain’s best known painters. Heir to the tradition of El Greco, Velázquez, Murillo, and Zurbarán, textbooks consider him the last of the Old Masters and simultaneously first of the moderns. But Goya’s importance derives from a deeply individual approach to his subject matter, a unique appreciation for and insight into both human nature and individual character, as well as a remarkable ability to transfer those intangibles into a concrete visual representation – either on canvas or on paper.

Here we will explore three main genres of Goya’s works – his portraits, his aquatint etchings, and his private paintings – to show exactly how Goya approached human nature and character and the lessons his insights provide.

Background and Early Works

Francisco de Goya y Lucientes was born on March 30, 1746, at Fuendetodos, near Zaragoza. The son of a gilder and grandson of a notary, he received a basic middle-class education and began studying painting at fourteen. Twice denied entrance to the Real Academia in Madrid and denied a scholarship to study in Rome, he nevertheless went to Rome to study on his own expense in 1769, and returned to Zaragoza in 1771, where he was commissioned to paint frescoes in the famous Basilica of Our Lady of the Pillar.

In 1773 he married Josefa Bayeu y Subías, whose brother was a member of the Real Academia and director of the royal tapestry works. Through that connection, Goya received a commission to design “cartoons” – actually cartones, or painted canvases designed to be interwoven with cloth to create wall-sized tapestries. These early works – 42 cartoons between 1777 and 1782 – largely depict pastoral scenes showing countryfolk enjoying pastimes.

During this period also, Goya was commissioned to create engravings of Velázquez’s works in the royal collection. This would profoundly influence his later career, both familiarizing him with the work of the earlier master and allowing him to develop his engraving technique. Eventually he would master engraving, and his sets of engravings first gave him international renown.

Portraiture: Critique of Human Character

In 1783, Goya’s cartoons caught the attention of Spain’s First Minister, the Count of Floridablanca, who commissioned a portrait and ushered Goya into the inner circle of the royal court. There, Goya became a prized and sought-after portraitist, and numbered among his patrons the wealthiest and most powerful nobles in Spain: the Duke and Duchess of Osuna and the Infante Don Luis, the king’s brother, whom he also counted as a personal friend. Eventually in 1786, Goya was appointed official court painter, which gave him a comfortable salary and access to the royal family.

Goya’s portraiture was famous for his realism, stripping away the trappings of grandeur and showing the subjects as the people they really were. Perhaps the most notable example of this is his 1786 portrait of King Charles III (r. 1759-1788). The king wears simple hunting-clothes, and while his sash, medal, and sword identify him as a member of the high nobility, the only indication of his royalty is the word rey (“king”) written on the collar of the hunting dog sleeping at his feet. The king has a friendly, almost inviting look instead of the haughty gaze typical of royal portraiture.

Even more realistic – indeed, harshly critical to the point where it was speculated to be satirical when it was made – is Goya’s Portrait of the Family of Charles IV from 1800-1801. Understanding and fully appreciating this work requires an explanation of the politics of the time. Charles III was an energetic and reform-minded monarch, whose reign is considered the apogee of the Spanish Empire. Floridablanca, his “right-hand man,” energetically carried out the king’s policies: reforming the bureaucracy and university system, removing commercial restrictions, reforming taxes, and – significantly – removed many restrictions on freedom of the press. Under Charles III and Floridablanca, Spain was not only one of the wealthiest, but also one of the most open nations in Europe of its day.

But Charles III died in 1788 and the throne fell to his son Charles IV (r. 1788-1808), a well-intentioned buy ineffectual monarch. The new queen was his double-cousin, Maria Luisa of Parma, a domineering woman who exercised the real power behind the throne. She openly cuckolded her husband, maintaining an affair with a dashing young cavalry officer, Manuel de Godoy, who pursued the unattractive queen in an effort to improve his family’s fortunes.

Seeing the queen’s power, Floridablanca’s enemies flocked to her, and in 1792 she secured the dismiss of both Floridablanca and his successor, the like-minded Count of Aranda, and installed Godoy as First Minister. This was the time of the French Revolution, and the inexperienced Godoy was exactly the wrong man to lead a nation in those turbulent times. He led Spain into war with the French Republic, resulting in a humiliating treaty. Yet the king rewarded Godoy by making him the first non-royal to hold the title of prince.

Goya’s portrait of the royal family subtly captures all of these faults. Traditional portraiture would dictate that the king, as head of the family, should stand at the center, but Goya shows the king to the side, shoulders slouched, with a lackadaisical stare into nothingness. At the center instead is the real head of the family – the queen, in an assertive pose and confident stare, clasping her children in a show of intimacy unusual for official portraiture. Behind the king, his brother, the Infante Don Antonio Pascual, who profoundly disliked both Godoy and the queen, shoots a hostile and disgusted stare. Next to the king’s son and heir, the Prince of Asturias, a woman gazes away from the viewer: Goya’s solution to a betrothal that had not yet been made official.

In a tribute to Velazquez’s Las Meninas, Goya painted himself in the background of the portrait, standing behind his canvas with his head tilted towards the royal family and an expression that seems to say “you judge for yourselves.” To make the point clear, in the background hand two large paintings, one of which depicts Lot’s flight from Sodom, an allegory of a society fallen into a state of total corruption.

Through these subtleties of placement, expression, and background, Goya transforms the portrait into a criticism of his nation’s rulers and an invitation to the viewer to join him in that criticism. The portrait of the royal family is only the most monumental and famous of his portraits. All of his many portraits do a remarkable job of conveying something of the character of the sitter. His 1783 portrait of Floridablanca, for example, shows a confident and brilliant, yet careworn statesman. His portrait of Godoy from 1801, by contrast, shows the royal favorite slouching back – fat, lazy, and unjustifiably confidant.) It is for this remarkable insight that Goya’s portraiture continues to be studied for the way in which he depicts his subjects, not merely for technique or historical context.

The Caprichos: Critique of Human Nature

Francisco Goya - "Hospital for Plague Sufferers" (1808)

In 1792 and 1793, Goya suffered an unspecified illness that left him deaf. He became withdrawn and introspective, and his work took a new, darker direction. From this time the macabre began to figure prominently in his “cabinet works,” which he stated were “to occupy my imagination, tormented as it is by contemplation of my sufferings” and not intended for public display. These works include depictions of lunatic asylums and cannibals, as well as witches and ghosts.

Francisco Goya - "Madhouse" (After 1974)

But even his public works took a darker, more incisive tone. The Portrait of the Family of Charles IV displays this incisiveness, but the works that perhaps best capture this spirit is a series of 80 aquatint etchings he created between 1793 and 1799. He titled the series Los Caprichos (roughly “the whimsies”), and it became immediately popular both in Spain and internationally, and first made his name known outside of Spain.

In his introduction to the works, which he never published, Goya describes his intention as depicting “the innumerable foibles and follies to be found in any civilized society, and . . . the common prejudices and deceitful practices which custom, ignorance, or self-interest have made usual.” And indeed, the etchings are powerful and often hilariously funny criticisms of the society of the time. No. 41, Ni más ni menos (“Neither more nor less”) shows a monkey painting the portrait of an ass – an allusion to his own role in glorifying the nobility. Similarly, No. 42, Tú que no puedes (“You who cannot”), shows peasants struggling to carry asses, again representing the nobility, on their backs. No. 53, ¡Qué pico de oro! (“What a golden beak!”), shows monks listening raptly to parrot, criticism the clergy as uncritically repeating what it receives. But common people were not immune to Goya’s criticism, either. No. 55, ¡Hasta la muerte! (“Until death!”), shows a haggard old woman prettying herself before a mirror as foppish attendants stand by – an apt criticism of the eternal human quest to defy age and death.

Ni mas ni menos
Tu que no puedes

Perhaps the most famous in the series is No. 43, El Sueño de la razón produce mónstruos (“The dream of reason produces monsters”). Sueño can mean either “sleep” or “dream,” and conventional interpretations often opt for the former translation and read the etching as a criticism of the monsters produced when reason sleeps. But Goya produced the Caprichos at the height of the Reign of Terror in France, and while many in Spain, even among the nobility, at first supported the liberal ideals of the French Revolution, Spanish society, including Goya, were horrified at its results. And the Reign of Terror arose from a government that revered Reason as its goddess and purported to rest on rational principles alone. Thus, the “dream of reason” represents an aspiration that if not carefully checked can indeed produce monsters.

Despite its open criticisms of the noble class, the Caprichos were hugely popular among Goya’s noble patrons, with some of them paying large sums for advance copies, indicating the openness of that class and a surprising tolerance of criticism. More importantly, the Caprichos’ popularity across national and class boundaries indicates the universality of the truths they tell about human nature. Indeed, the subject are as relevant today as they were in Goya’s time exactly because they have human nature, and human foibles in particular, as their subject.

The War Years: Critique of Human Action

The events in France would have a direct and painful impact on both Spain and Goya years later. The French Revolution produced Napoleon, and the incompetent Godoy vacillated between supporting and opposing the new French emperor. Tired of Spain’s inconstancy and seeking to expel the British from their traditional ally Portugal, Napoleon directed his armies to invade Spain in 1808. The Spanish generals staged a coup, overthrew Godoy and compelled Charles IV to abdicate in favor of his son, who took the name Ferdinand VII. After a few days, however, on May 2, 1808, the citizens of Madrid staged a massive armed uprising against the French troops. Napoleon brutally crushed the rebellion, forced Ferdinand to abdicate, and installed his brother Joseph as king of Spain.

In response, politicians and generals loyal to Ferdinand assembled in Seville under Floridablanca, declared the king’s abdication void, and set up a regency council to govern the country in his name. The council then assembled a Cortés, a traditional medieval parliament, that set to work drafting a written constitution for Spain, which it approved in 1812.

In the meantime, a bloody war erupted all across Spain between local resistance and the occupying French troops – regarded as the first modern “people’s war.” The Spanish called this conflict the guerrilla, or “little war,” in contrast to the guerra, or war involving the British troops advancing from Portugal, and is the origin of the term “guerrilla warfare.” The brutality of guerrilla was amplified by prejudices: the French saw the Spanish as backwards and superstitious; the Spanish in turn saw the French as invaders and oppressors.

Goya himself was not among the afrancesados (“Frenchified”), or Spaniards sympathetic to the French Revolution. Instead, he was a liberal, a supporter of the House of Bourbon but also of the 1812 Constitution. Caught in the middle of the guerrilla and an eyewitness to its horrors, he commemorated the events in another famous series of etchings.

Los Desastres de la Guerra (“The Disasters of War”) was a set of 81 aquatint etchings made at the height of the war, between 1810 and 1814, finally completed in 1820. Nos. 1 through 47 depict individual atrocities; Nos. 48 through 64 depict the famine that resulted from the siege of Madrid in 1811-1812; and Nos. 65 through 81 the depict aftermath of the war and Goya’s disappointment at the restored monarchy’s rejection of the 1812 Constitution.

Los Disastres de la Guerra

Particularly poignant works from this series include No. 5, Y son fieras (“And they are ferocious”), showing woman battling armed French soldiers, and No. 9, No quieren (“They do not want it”), showing a soldier about to rape a woman. No. 2, Lo mismo (“The same”) draws a moral equivalency between the equally murderous soldiers and rebels. No. 16, Se aprovechan (“They take advantage”), shows thieves stripping clothes from the dead bodies. Nos. 37, ¡Ésto es peor! (“This is worse!”), and 39, ¡Grande hazaña! ¡Con muertos! (“Great feats! Against the dead!”) show purposeless degradation of the human body with an ironic resemblance to the fragmented nude statues of classical art. Nos. 50, Madre infeliz (“Unhappy mother”), and 60, No hay quien socorra (“There is no one to help”), show the desperation of the survivors viewing the loss of their loved ones. And No. 70, No saben el camino (“They do not know the road”), depicts a row of prisoners chained together being marched to where they know not – perhaps a metaphor for the seeming helplessness in the face of events.

¡Ésto es peor!

Two of Goya’s most famous paintings also depict events from this time. His monumental Dos de Mayo 1808 and Tres de Mayo 1808, though completed in 1814, depict the Madrid uprising that launched the brutal war and its repression.

The Dos de Mayo contrasts the citizens, wearing common street clothes and armed with knives and tools with the French cavalry mounted on horseback. Significantly, the French troops actually involved at the time included Mameluke mercenaries from Egypt, whom Goya depicts alongside French cavalrymen wearing their turbans and Middle Eastern attire – an explicit reminder of the Islamic occupation of Spain from 711 to 1492 and an equating of the French occupation to that historic age of foreign subjugation – still very much alive in Spanish cultural memory.

Detail, "Tres de Mayo"

But Tres de Mayo is the more powerful and influential of the pair. It depicts the aftermath of the failed Madrid uprising: the execution of the citizens who rose up. The entire painting is a contrast of light and dark: light on the victims, dark everywhere else. The French firing squad is in the darkness, faceless, uniform in dress and height, an impersonal, monolithic unit. The central figure, whose dress and tanned skin hint that he is a common laborer, throws up his hands in surrender or defiance, in a pose intentionally reminiscent of the crucified Christ (Goya even includes a stigmata mark on the right hand). Next to him, a clerical figure kneels in prayer as onlookers weep. Corpses on the ground give a sense of the passage of time: what just happened and what is to come, giving the work a “snapshot” effect.

Like the Caprichos, Tres de Mayo is straightforward depiction of the horrors of war. For a monumental painting, it breaks from the long tradition of martyrs shown in their glory, facing death heroically, and achieving apotheosis through their death. Here, by contrast, Goya shows no heroic or cathartic moment, no nobility in martyrdom – only a portrayal of brutalization, victimization, and futility. Even the victim is plain-looking. This has prompted art historians to regard Goya as the bridge between the old masters and modern artists, and Tres de Mayo in particular as the “first modern painting.”

The Dos and Tres de Mayo paintings were commissioned by Ferdinand VII on his restoration to the throne. Shaken by the experience under the French, Ferdinand returned to absolute rule, disillusioning Goya, who continued as court painter and made several official portraits of the new king, but was not on cordial terms with the king. Finally in 1819, disillusioned with conditions and fearing madness and death, he withdrew into private, to undertake his most remarkable set of works, the “Black Paintings.”

The Supernatural and the “Black Paintings:” Critique of the Human Condition

The Black Paintings marked the culmination of a long and increasingly pervasive focus on the supernatural and macabre in Goya’s work. The trend began almost immediately after the onset of his deafness in 1793. It complements, or rather forms part of the increasingly incisive outlook he employed. Abandoning the search for ideal beauty evident in his cartoons, Goya instead focused on the reality of human nature, with a particular fascination on the relationship between reality and fantasy in the human psyche.

The Caprichos already contain macabre themes that would feature throughout the rest of Goya’s work: No. 44, Hilan delgado (“They spin daintily”), features the Moirai, or Fates, from Greek mythology, spinning, measuring, and cutting the destiny of men; No. 59, Y aún no se van (“And still they do not leave”), shows reanimated corpses lumbering out of their tombs; and No. 71, Si amanece, nos vamos (“If it dawns, we leave”), shows the ubiquitous “Witches’ Sabbath,” with an ill-defined shadowy presence lurking among the witches.

The 1797 painting Witches’ Flight shows a man shielding himself with a white sheet from three floating witches, who have seized another man as a third cowers in fear and an ass looks on. Some critics take this as a criticism of religious superstition, but the painting is far too sophisticated for such a simplistic interpretation. The ass could perhaps reference Apuleius’s novel The Golden Ass, in which a man seeking supernatural knowledge through witchcraft finds himself transformed into an ass. The figures who are safe from the witches are the cowering man and the man blocking them from his view entirely. The man they have seized is naked, completely vulnerable to them. Perhaps the meaning of the painting is better viewed as

From 1815 to 1824, Goya also completed a series of 25 aquatint etchings, of which 22 survive, which he collected as Los Disparates (“The Follies”). These etchings display fantastic scenes of folly, but depicting dark subjects that clearly foreshadow the darkness of the Black Paintings. Nos. 2 and 18 of the series in particular depict funereal scenes.

The fifteen Black Paintings themselves date from 1819 to 1823. They were intensely private: Goya painted them on the plaster walls of a farmhouse on the outskirts of Madrid that he had converted into his studio and dubbed La Quinta del Sordo (“The Deaf Man’s Quarters”). No evidence exists that Goya assigned titles to any of these works, and they are known by the names assigned to them after they were transferred to canvas and displayed in the Prado Museum four decades after Goya’s death.

Saturn Devouring His Son is both the most famous and most remarkable of the set. It has a clear antecedent in a painting by Rubens showing the same mythological subject that Goya doubtlessly knew from the Spanish Royal Collection. Goya’s depiction, however, shows a gigantic, deformed, grotesque Saturn hunched over, clutching a partially devoured classical nude, lips smeared with gore, eyes bulging in manic craze. It is not a depiction of cruelty, but of man’s potential for sheer murderous, destructive irrationality. In Saturn Goya personified the tragedies of the war he had witnessed.

Saturn Devouring his Son

Two Old Men and Two Old Men Eating Soup both show Goya’s own obsession with his own old age, and serve as a memento mori. One of the “old men” in the first painting appears to be a demonic figure tempting the first. In the second painting, the fierce, almost mocking expression of the first man contrasts with the almost corpselike vacancy of the second, reflecting perhaps that old age should face death with a mocking grin.

Two Old Men Eating Soup

Atropos depicts the three Fates of myth, but with a fourth figure – a bound male, indicating both the individual’s and humanity’s enslavement to destiny.


Asmodea shows floating figures with French soldiers aiming rifles at them as they point to a distant, gigantic rock with buildings on it. The scene could reference the Rock of Gibraltar, which served as a refuge for anti-French partisans during the Peninsular War. Read more generally, the giant rock appears impregnable, and the figures seeking its refuge float in the air. They seek the realm of the ideal as a refuge from the brute forces governing the material world.

La Leocadia references Leocadia Weiss (née Zorrilla), Goya’s maid in the last years of his life, 35 years his junior, and who bore a remarkable resemblance to his wife, who had died in 1812. Goya paints Leocadia with an ethereal light, and behind a veil, almost as though she were an apparition from beyond the grave.

La Leocadia

The Black Paintings also feature a Witches’ Sabbath, but unlike Goya’s several earlier depictions of the same subject, the women worshipping the goat are hideously, inhumanly grotesque. Like Saturn, they are incarnations of the evil of which humanity is capable. While Saturn represents insanity, however, the witches here represent an intentional evil, directed towards a dark purpose, represented by the shadowy goat who appears to converse rationally with them.

Witch's Sabbath

The remaining eight Black Paintings are remarkably consistent in style and subject matter. Some, like The Dog are enigmatic in what they depict and mean. Others, like A Fight with Cudgels and Men Reading, are clear depictions, but subject to multiple interpretations. All of the Black Paintings, though, provide a fascinating insight into the mind of a genius grown old and weary of the world, depicting it to himself exactly as he saw it.

"The Dog"

Some critics read a political message into many of the Black Paintings, as a criticism of the absolutism of Ferdinand VII’s reign. The problem with that reading, however, is that Goya created many of the Black Paintings during the Trienio Liberal (Liberal Triennium) of 1820-1823, when army officers returning from fighting the revolutionaries in the Americas, having adopted their enemies’ ideas, staged a coup and captured the government. Holding the king prisoner in his palace, they took actions against the Catholic Church, forced industrialization in cities, abolished local autonomy, and negotiated independence with the rebellious colonies. If ever there were a time to openly criticize absolutism without fear of retaliation, that period was it.

But Goya had fled Madrid in disillusionment. Convinced he was facing death, he had no care for politics. The Black Paintings are best read as a critique of human nature in general, and of the folly and evil of which each human being is capable. That is why despite their grotesqueness and their narrow, neutral palette, they have garnered so much attention and wonder.

Last Years and Legacy

Ferdinand VII’s Bourbon cousin, Louis XVIII of France, troubled by the revolutionary coup in Spain, received the support of Britain, Austria, and the other European powers to invade Spain to restore Ferdinand's absolute rule. By then, the liberal leaders’ radical actions had alienated the church, the trade guilds, local leaders, and large sections of the army. Thus, the French “Sons of St. Louis” met virtually no resistance when they landed at Cádiz and marched to Madrid. The liberal leaders were executed and Ferdinand’s absolute rule restored.

In 1824, the following year, Goya abandoned Spain and moved with Leocadia to Bordeaux, France, where he would spend the last four years of his life. It was as much a statement of his disillusionment with his countrymen as a slap in the face to them, since he moved to the country that had just invaded Spain to restore order. He painted a few final paintings stylistically reminiscent of the Black Paintings, including the Milkmaid of Bordeaux. After he died, his remains were buried in the Hermitage of San Antonio de la Florida in Madrid, beneath the frescoes he had painted decades earlier.

Goya’s legacy does not really lie in the beauty of his depictions. In fact, many of his most important works depict neither beautiful figures nor uplifting subjects. Rather, their beauty lies solely in their truth – the truth of the follies, tragedies, horrors, and monstrosities they depict. Yet the darkness of his paintings and etchings is not gratuitous. Otherwise, they would not continue to attract the wonder and admiration they do. Rather, Goya provides us with a profound insight about the weaknesses, foibles, and even evil of the human condition, and through that darkness reminds viewers that they are visible and knowable only because of the light of truth that shines upon them. Goya holds up the candle that provides the light. And by seeing what he shows, each of us grows in our understanding of ourselves and our world, both the light and the darkness.

Adam Sedia (b. 1984) lives in his native Northwest Indiana, with his wife, Ivana, and their two children, and practices law as a civil and appellate litigator. In addition to the Society’s publications, his poems and prose works have appeared in The Chained Muse Review, Indiana Voice Journal, and other literary journals. He is also a composer, and his musical works may be heard on his YouTube channel.


May 01, 2023

I found this essay very informative because I knew little about Goya or his work, and reading your essay was like taking a crash course into the heart of it. I was especially struck by your comments regarding Goya's great realism and his propensity to depict even monarchs as they really were - flawed, earthly people. Hopefully, the Brits will see your essay and take note when their new king (King Charles 111) is being coronated next weekend, rather than getting caught up in the euphoria of worshiping false gods and false idols. A very timely essay indeed! Well done, Adam. And well done Goya for shining the light of truth on aspects of man's situation!


Evan Schmitt
Evan Schmitt
Apr 29, 2023

Thank you for your research! This was a wonderful read. Love his use of animals.

bottom of page