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Francisco Goya: The Change Agent

A life of change......

For sev­er­al months now, I’ve been mean­ing to write a blog post on Goya. Of course, just as I pre­pared to get down to busi­ness, we have been sad­dled with the great Goya con­tro­ver­sy” in Amer­i­can pol­i­tics. Please under­stand that the con­tro­ver­sy is about black beans, while my sub­ject is Fran­cis­co Goya, the icon­ic Span­ish painter. 😊 Fur­ther­more, I am so grate­ful to my friends and part­ners Fati­ma and Enrique in Madrid, for mak­ing a spe­cial video just for us on guess what topic….yes…Goya! So let’s get down to business. 

The peri­od of The Enlight­en­ment (late 18th and ear­ly 19thCen­turies) was seis­mic for West­ern cul­ture. The emer­gence of ideas that com­pet­ed with long-stand­ing insti­tu­tion­al dog­ma, cre­at­ed an era of vio­lent change close­ly tied to our own Amer­i­can Rev­o­lu­tion and cer­tain­ly with the icon­ic French Rev­o­lu­tion. These ideas (relat­ed also to the over­lap­ping Sci­en­tif­ic Rev­o­lu­tion) includ­ed the val­ue of rea­son, as well as the idea that while God exists, he does not have the same day-to-day inter­ests in the fab­ric of soci­ety that had been assumed. 

This was the world of intel­lec­tu­al upheaval that Goya lived in, and his art reflects this change. He is known as the last of the mas­ters and the first of the mod­erns. In oth­er words, he stood on the shoul­ders of the great pre-enlight­en­ment Span­ish mas­ters such as Velazquez, build­ing upon their tech­ni­cal and aes­thet­ic approach­es. But although he was employed by the court for much of his life, he was nev­er a spir­i­tu­al slave. One of the paint­ings that Fati­ma shares in the video below is the court paint­ing of Charles IV and his fam­i­ly (1801). The strange nobil­i­ty of this icon­ic piece is not in the roy­al supe­ri­or­i­ty of the sub­jects, but rather in their plain-look­ing fea­tures. These were not extra­or­di­nary fig­ures. They were, at best, well dressed ordi­nary human beings.

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The Family of Carlos IV (1801)

It was not sim­ply this slow­ly dimin­ish­ing sphere of the sacred that Goya’s work reflect­ed. More omi­nous­ly, it was this world in which God might not be as present as we thought. We see this in his reflec­tions on the Penin­su­lar War and the French atroc­i­ties. We see this in his Black Paint­ings, where he reflects on his inter­nal strug­gles against a some­times-mean­ing­less exis­tence. While we nor­mal­ly asso­ciate the enlight­en­ment with progress, we sel­dom stop to think about the price we pay by aban­don­ing the sys­tems of belief that pro­vide rel­a­tive com­fort and stability. 

Last­ly, before I turn things over to Fati­ma, I would men­tion that Goya was a bit of a rebel by nature, and might have got­ten him­self into quite a bit of trou­ble, had it not been for the chang­ing back­drop of ideas in Europe. (In fact, he was even­tu­al­ly kicked out of court.) Spain was always slow to adjust to new ways, and Goya used his influ­ence to encour­age Spain to keep in step with the rest of Europe. Regard­ing his own series of etch­ings, Los Capri­chos, Goya says that “…from amongst the innu­mer­able foibles to be found in any civ­i­lized soci­ety, and from the com­mon prej­u­dices and deceit­ful prac­tices which cus­tom, igno­rance and self-inter­est have hal­lowed, he (actu­al­ly Goya refer­ring to him­self in the 3rd per­son) has select­ed those sub­jects which he feels to be more suit­able for satire”. In oth­er words, he made no effort to hide his intent to instigate. 

Now I will stop my bab­bling and turn this over to my friend Fati­ma. She and her hus­band Enrique are both schol­ars and explor­ers. If I assist you in plan­ning a trip to Spain, it is like­ly that I will rec­om­mend them to you. Their com­pa­ny Explore the Unknown” focus­es on rich his­tor­i­cal and cul­tur­al inter­pre­tive guide ser­vices in Madrid and beyond. They will also soon be pub­lish­ing their own book on the his­to­ry of Madrid. I will sure­ly review it here on my blog. 

Click here for video!

Thanks again to Fati­ma and Enrique for shar­ing Goy­a’s Madrid with us. As always, please stay safe and look at for the next Iber­ian Com­pass newslet­ter two weeks from today!