Francisco Goya & The French Revolution: The Black Paintings

Why Francisco Goya painted the most visceral and striking images in history

The year is 1819. Napoleon has invaded Spain in a storm of victories. King Charles IV has abdicated into the night, and his son, the rightful heir, has been replaced by Napoleon’s older brother, ‘the Imposter’. Unrest spreads across the land as the French sack and conquer major ports and cities, and every provisional government is ineffective, corrupt, if anywhere to be found. A painter, recovering from a series of a number of serious illnesses and going deaf, retreats into his cottage, alone, and begins painting on the walls. So troubled by the tragedies in his life and country and filled with emotion, he paints possibly the most visceral and psychological masterpieces the world has ever seen.

Francisco Goya’s black painting that many have named “the dog”, showing a dog with its head raised paddling through water.
* Francisco Goya gave no names to what we call the “Black Paintings”.

The French Revolution, thirty years earlier, overwhelmed Europe and brought the world to its knees. Like a tragedy written by Dostoevsky, peasant turned against landowner, citizen against clergy, noble against the impoverished, radicals against monarchists. In the wake of the fire and ferver that spread through Europe, a man gazed through his lenses as he painted between the lines, brushstroke after brushstroke, figure after figure — a witness to the blessings of liberty and the curses of war, a witness to the partisanship around him that seemed ready to envelop his nation entirely in fire, prejudice, misunderstanding, and destruction.

He would soon bear testimony to one of the most important events in history, if not the most important — for in one single stroke, it seemed that the past, present, and future of our world were suddenly bound toFrance and the changes produced therein. In one moment, the world stopped to stare at this Revolution, the giant of history that cried “Liberté, égalité, fraternité” — the cry of the French Revolution, that anthem that led to the Napoleonic Wars and established the modern world. For the French Revolution’s influence surrounds us today in our countries, our ideologies, our governments, our languages, our wars…directly or indirectly, the French Revolution tethers us in its thrall, its great influence, its hegemony.

Everything from the World Wars to modern-day conflicts are lines cast by the the Revolution. And Francisco Goya, that painter who began painting on the very plaster of his walls, nearly deaf and reeling from his own demons — he had the opportunity to watch the French Revolution from his home of Spain. This is his story, but also the story of modern civilization— the story of how lowercase ‘europe’ the continent became capital-letter ‘Europe’ the idea, how one man created some of the most powerful images in human history, and so much more.

A painting of a frightened crowd looking at a dark, horned figure (Francisco Goya, Black Paintings)
Francisco Goya’s “Black Paintings”.

On June 20th, 1789, the commoners of France (known as the Third Estate) met in a tennis court, swearing together the famous Tennis Court Oath: that they would not separate until their kingdom had a Constitution. Inspired by the successful independence of the British colonies, these merchants, professionals, and lawyers dreamed of a kingdom where taxes and food would be distributed appropriately under the King’s guiding hand — a dream of an independent and democratic constitutional monarchy. As the days passed, they named themselves the National Assembly, and set to writing a Constitution.

The clergy of France (the First Estate) and France’s nobles (the Second Estate) all initially denounced the Assembly, but they carefully monitored the upstart government’s broad public support. After all, the Third Estate consisted of a majority of the French population. Fearing revolts if they opposed change, clergy began to trickle into the National Assembly, their options limited and the bulk of their massive income derived from tithes and taxes on the Third Estate. Nobles, too, acquiesced, afraid of opposing the Church and their laborers. King Louis XVI, his hand forced, gave recognition to the new National Assembly, and progress seemed near for the French people — a constitution and financial equality would surely be established in the coming months.

Surely.

The path to peace appeared in their grasp; if only the French knew what the next fifty years would hold. But any dreams of a peaceful transition melted away with the urgency of the people’s situation — fear was rising in city-dwellers and countrymen alike. The King’s army seemed to be gathering around major cities including Paris. The entire government was deeply in debt, having funded the American Revolution, and impractical and crowd-pleasing programs only deepened the systemic corruption in the courts. Peasants were over-taxed and starving, not to mention terrified of a plague outbreak that seemed certain to spread to the cities. Furthermore, the separation between the citydwellers of France and the countrymen became even more deep as opinions shifted over budget allocation, power, bread, and money. Imminent disaster seemed to be ready to engulf France, and rumors of witchcraft and demons only fed the hysteria as the nation held its breath.

In mid-July, the tension reached its breaking point.

Two men flying in the air, pointing at a hazy monastery built atop a cliff (Francisco Goya, Black Paintings)
Francisco Goya’s “Black Paintings”.

On July 14th, 1789, French protesters stormed the Bastille fortress to secure gunpowder and weapons, fearing that the King’s army was going to attack Paris, their own city. Blood, fire, revolt, and hysteria bled into the countryside as de Flesselles, the leader of the Bastille, was shot on the Bastille’s front steps and his body decapitated, his head held up to the seething crowd. Peasants, oppressed for generations, stormed tax collectors’ houses, violently looting, burning, and killing as landlords and the wealthy fled to neighboring countries, terrified for their lives, stuffing their clothes with gold and bribes as their decorated carriages sped across the border. And on August 4th, the National Assembly abolished feudalism, destroying the system that elites had perfected over a thousand years. The remaining nobles fled from France even faster than before, terrified and shocked that the uneducated masses (and the merchants and lawyers of the cities) had risen against them.

The King of France was spared no liberties.

In the short time that followed, Louis XVI of France was practically imprisoned inside his own home, where an angry mob surrounded the complex, deterred only by the King’s guards that stood in lockstep formation around the building. And if any Frenchman still didn’t have an opinion on the conflict, Louis XVI was soon caught fleeing in the dead of night, discovered on a country road in his dainty carriage, wearing a disguise. The whispers only intensified. Louis XVI was probably conspiring with foreign nations to conquer France and restore himself back to the throne.

Kings of foreign countries demanded that the National Assembly be dissolved, and threatened invasion if not — and as the Assembly debated the proper response, a dictum was proposed, voted on, and decided. If the King was a threat to the French people — and if his reign would have to end so that freedom to prevail — then all of Europe’s monarchies must be destroyed in the coming days, because neither liberty nor royalty could live while the other survived.

Talks of a republic, instead of a constitutional monarchy, began in the National Assembly. The events that followed were dominoes, one after another, each burning away the threads that held France together, and revealing deep class, urban, religious, and political differences.

Francisco Goya’s “Third of May 1808”, depicting a firing squad of French soldiers killing Spanish civilians.
Francisco Goya’s “Third of May 1808”, depicting a firing squad of French soldiers killing Spanish civilians.

In many ways, transport inefficiencies and a lack of mass media — and the absence of literacy — meant that news traveled significantly slower before the age of media . But while information moved slower, it built up over years of misinformation, abuse, corruption, and neglect, because corrections and updates were nigh but impossible. Throughout it all, our human problems have always been the same. Hysteria reigned, protests over legitimate concerns inflamed divisions between races, opportunists profited from chaos, propagandists railed against the system without offering any solutions, and the ineffective, self-righteous, decentralized leadership — and their corrupt opposition — were helpless in governing, only filling their coffers while their nation burned.

In what seemed like a rapid succession of events, the peasants seized an entire town, angry at the National Assembly for trying to reduce the Catholic Church’s power. A Prussian General invaded France, fearful of the instability beside their state. The National Assembly was renamed the Legislative Assembly, as powers were gradually stripped from the King. The revolutionary Paris Commune, France’s version of a concerned citizens’ committee, began searching for traitors in Paris, paranoid that rumors of prisoners planning a rebellion were true.

And so the Commune committed themselves to nonviolent protests, making the first posters in history out of starched breeches and sheepskin as they conducted fair trials to eliminate the systemic corruption in the French government.

No. I’m kidding.

On four days in early September, 1792, French citizens and Commune-led National Guardsmen broke into Paris’s prisons, raiding and murdering nearly 1,400 prisoners, mostly Catholic priests imprisoned for refusing to pledge loyalty to the Revolution. If that wasn’t enough, the Paris Commune even sent out a letter asking nearby towns to do the same. Prominent radicals of the Legislative Assembly, such as Jean-Paul Marat, called for the nation to follow the “Parisian Example”, and ‘dispose’ of their prisoners to prevent a loyalist rebellion. And after what historians would eventually name the “September Massacre”, on the 21st of September 1792, the National Assembly declared that the French Republic was established. The Monarchy was dissolved instantly, and the government stated that there would never again be another King of France as long as liberty endured.

As the year drew to a close, France declared war on constitutional monarchists Great Britain and the Dutch Republic. And just as quickly, the new National Convention (the government, renamed after becoming a republic) voted on executing Louis XVI for conspiracy against public liberty and general safety, again fearing that he was conspiring with the exiled nobles in a vile plot to return him to power. The former Louis XVI, now referred to as “Citizen Louis Capet”, was escorted out of his palace, introduced to the crowd, and quickly executed by guillotine on January 21st; the executioner’s assistant held Louis’s head up to the crowd so they could verify the identity. In the coming months, the horrified Kings of Spain, Portugal, Naples, and Tuscany all declared war on France, which, ironically, had already declared war on them.

A painting of Francisco Goya’s visit to what was then called a ‘lunatic asylum’
The Lunatics, Francisco Goya. While not part of his later “Black Paintings”, the work shares many compositional, lighting, and content similarities with his more mature work.

Goya’s Dynasty

The Bourbon dynasty and a nation reckoning with the ripples of unrest

In May 1800, Francisco (de) Goya, the prominent Spanish painter, was summoned by the King Charles IV of Spain to paint a portrait of the Bourbon dynasty, and show the public that the Spanish monarchy was secure, established, and resilient — and that it would stay that way. Like every other royalist nation in Europe, the King feared the fire of revolutionary France would bleed into Spain as well, especially given the shadow of the recent guillotining of Louis — who was Charles IV’s first cousin. One wrong step could be the downfall of a King, or even a royal line. In high society, safety and public support had always beena privilege justified by divine right. But now a King had been murdered by his own people. The natural order was broken, said the royal families of Europe, this could not happen, it was a violation of nature. Why would it happen?

The Spanish people, meanwhile, attempted to go about their normal business. But nobody could ignore the whispers that reached them about France — rumors of arbitrary arrests and frequent guillotining that happened at least 37 times a day, guillotining that could go on and on for hours until hundreds of faceless bodies were piled into mass graves and burned. Even being suspected of harboring counter-revolutionary ideas by the French National Convention was a death warrant without a trial. Legitimacy, it was decided by Spain’s Charles IV, would be conveyed in a portrait of the dynasty. That would be a first step towards security. Surely.

Goya’s life-size portrait of the King’s family was modeled after Las Meninas, the famous painting by his hero, the late Diego Velazquez. Noticeably, Goya provided extensive allusions and references to Las Meninas in The Family of Charles IV.

Las Meninas, painting by Diego Velazquez. La Infanta of Spain is being dressed by her companions.
Las Meninas, by Diego Velazquez — if greatness was determined by composition alone, the geometrical complexity of Las Meninas would have every critic writing raving reviews. In Velazquez’s masterpiece, layers of people, light, and spatial cues indicate both the painter’s talent for framing, as well as his passion for linear, structural composition broken by realistic, moving figures.
Charles IV of Spain and His Family (Francisco Goya, painting)
The Family of Charles IV, Goya

The primary difference between both paintings is Goya’s ambiguity in his portrait of Charles IV and his family. While Velazquez presents La Infanta with beauty, grace, and innocence, with light spilling over her dress, Goya presents Charles IV in two lights, visually and metaphorically. Nonetheless, Charles VI was delighted by the portrait, and he ordered it placed in the center of the royal court. It’s overtly sympathetic towards his wife, showing her close love of her children, and the King is depicted as the center of light upon his family. But when the piece is compared to its inspiration, the brighness of Velazquez’s painting only reveals the stark ambiguities — and the darkness — in Goya’s portrait.

Notice how the darkness seems to be creeping up on the family, nearly overshadowing them. Charles IV’s face is presented so realistically that he appears weak, sickly, out-of-touch… a man worn down by an office he could not handle? His wife stands at the center of the portrait, her head tilted up — possibly a symbol of the Queen’s overwhelming control over the King’s decisions? She holds his children in her grasp, the future of the dynasty, and her face is calculating, proud, and tilted, indicating suspicion.

Was Goya commentating on the dynamics of the royal family? In 19th century Europe, suggesting that the Queen held authority was a damning insult to a King. More, if Charles IV hadn’t been so boyishly delighted by the painting, nobles would have absolutely maneuvered to block a lowly court painter’s power grab. But Goya the painter, having retained his position for years, surely must have been at least adequately skilled in court politics. He must have mastered the wit and sparring necessary to convey both deference to the King and deterrence against the plots of fellow nobles. Otherwise, he would have been dismissed, or worse, dead.

Likewise, there is a sense of danger in this painting. Goya’s background in Charles IV is ominously foreboding. The family of Charles IV looks out of place, out of touch, and Goya himself looks at the viewer with a fearful or foreknowing eye of the coming doom. Compare that to Velazquez’s proud expression in Las Meninas. Most importantly, the picture behind the family is a painting of the biblical Lot — the man who fled the burning cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, where he was seduced by his two daughters and laid with them, a symbol of the judgement of God.

Goya knew the risks. He had to. As the King’s painter, he would have been educated in royal history and symbolism. He would have learned, by observation, how “keeping the royal blood pure” resulted in stillbirths, deformed children, and disabled minds (ironically). The painting of Lot and his daughters is not just an allusion. It’s simultaneously a warning and a will. It bears testament to Goya’s condemnation of the royal family he served, but also to his friendship with the King…and possibly reveals his opinions about monarchies in general. Perhaps it was a warning that the King never caught. We will never completely know.

Two old men eat, smiling and pointing towards an unknown being in the foreground. (Francisco Goya, Black Paintings)
Francisco Goya’s “Black Paintings”.

The Descent Into Chaos

The Jacobins, the National Convention, and the Death of Marat… what was to come?

Goya’s physical and mental breakdown seems to have started a few weeks after the French declaration of war on Spain. The court painter suffered each day from tremendous noises in his head, and the complications of deafness from an undiagnosed disease crippled his everyday communication. Balance problems, also, prevented him from moving more than a couple feet before having to clutch a wall. These symptoms indicated several negative possibilities: a viral encephalitis that had continued spreading until it completely dominated his hearing system, perhaps, or possibly a series of miniature strokes resulting from high blood pressure. Perhaps tuberculosis. Ménière’s disease was cited as a possible candidate by later scholars, but it is also possible — and maybe more plausible — that Goya suffered from the dreaded disease that seemed to favor the great painters, the disease that drove them mad and intelligible, the terror of the blood and the lungs — what we now call lead poisoning.

(Painters, until recent times, used massive amounts of lead-based white both as a canvas primer and as a primary color. And Goya ground all of his paint himself. He refused to let his apprentices help in any way.)

The French Revolution, meanwhile, was drawing to a close. In February, a man named Robespierre and his Jacobin faction of the National Convention (the far left) seized on the public’s anger at food prices, being resoundingly voted into the majority on a wave of animosity towards the ineffective moderate government. The Jacobins began setting state-ordinated food prices and executing offenders; in July, the National Convention adopted the finally-finished Republican Constitution of France and established universal (male) suffrage. Soon after, Jean-Paul Marat, a Jacobin leader, was killed by the moderate faction of the Convention, and the Jacobins rallied in both public and private quarters to consolidate their influence over the government. Violence, slowly ceasing outside of the government, now seemed to be building within.

Two women and two men cackle for some unknown reason, probably in a tavern or inn (Francisco Goya, Black Paintings)
Francisco Goya’s “Black Paintings”.

As the years dredged on and the winters became even more uncomfortable for their foes, the French army finally began pushing back against the Austrians, Prussians, British, and Spanish. At last, they repelled their opponents with the firm (or tyrannical, depending on your perspective) hand of the Jacobin government. The government then tried to implement mandatory prescription (spoiler: it didn’t work, and caused a rebellion, which was quickly quashed), and the ironically-named Committee of Public Safety was formed as France surged in a now-inevitable civil war.

The city-dwellers of France were tired of bloodshed. They were exhausted of conflict, their Republic had been successfully established, they just wanted peace. But the government, which was currently controlled by the anti-clerical factions who wanted to secularize society, was still deeply in debt. And there was one institution that held massive amounts of money, and this institution also was the only one that refused to be taxed — the Catholic Church. And that’s where the last domino fell.

Declaring religion a public enemy of the Revolution was not enough for the Jacobins. The churches were to become museums, the government decreed, their land was to be given to the Republic, their gold was to be melted, and the priests must voice allegiance to the State over the Bishop of Rome (the Pope). No longer would the Church’s corruption and greed keep the State in perpetual debt.

Similarly to America today, France coalesced into two distinct nations, bound to their own internal creeds and values formed by their geopolitical environments— pro-Church peasants rallied around their local priests and churches, and urbanites grew wary of the countryfolk who were explicitally and implicitally extending the violence. In the months that followed, hundreds of thousands died from militias set up across the country, priests were beaten in the streets, and the cities continued their daily public guillotine executions.

Commanded by Robespierre’s Committee of Public Safety, a newly-formed secret police targeted anyone who dissented or didn’t support the Revolution enough. 15 right-leaning moderates of the National Convention were rounded up and executed, accused of being counter-revolutionaries — and the surviving moderates grew fearfully silent in the Convention’s chamber. For a limited amount of time, though, it was the bribes that silenced the Moderates, the bribes from the exiled nobles that flooded their pockets — the exiled nobles’ strategy, it appeared, was to let the radicals spiral out of control until the people revolted for the stability of monarchy again. And then the rich would step in to save the day.

Meanwhile, Robespierre and the Jacobins, with nearly complete control of the Convention’s floor, had free reign to propose every program and policy they wished. Always, of course, was each statement met with thunderous and unanimous applause. In one of the most bizarre and random moments in world history, Robespierre soon advocated for a newly-created state religion of “Supreme Being” to replace Christianity; following his attempts, the Jacobins also decreed that anyone accused of being a counterrevolutionary would be denied a trial and sent to the guillotine immediately.

A pale, ape-like creature whispers in an old man’s ear, whohas a bushy white beard, long cloak, and stick. (Francisco Goya)
Francisco Goya’s “Black Paintings”.

The Moderates took notice of the ever-expanding power of the Jacobins, and with private conversations, bribes, and secret pacts, the majority of the National Convention decided that they had taken enough of Robespierre the idealogue. In a matter of days, Robespierre was being shouted down in the Convention, and soon after that, the government announced that he and 21 other Jacobins were under arrest. On the 29th of July 1794, all were arrested, fed through a sham trial, and then publically beheaded.

Again, the false hopes of peace flickered, then went to smoke. In what became known as the White Terror, the remaining Moderates swept back from hiding and seized the National Convention, initiating revenge against the Jacobins while ignoring the poor’s cries for food, laying the foundations for further instability. In the midst of the chaos, a popular General returned to Paris. The popular General, a certain man named Napoleon Bonaparte, would overthrow the weakened government in the coming weeks and would establish his Empire in the coming years, seizing the Spanish throne in a coup d’état and replacing it with a Frenchman.

Historians have remarked how everyone, no matter their political opinion, knows that the French Revolution was important. And even if no one can agree on what made the Revolution so important, they all agree that it was important. Indeed, the concept of “political ideology” was born in the French Revolution, an idea which did not even exist in today’s modern form… the “left and right” politics of today were the factions who physically sat on the left or the right of the French revolutionary governments. The modern liberal democracy emerged from the Jacobins’ attempts to abolish feudalism. Colonialism, too, became impractical, as far fewer Empires would survive the next hundred years.

Indirectly, the Revolution nearly wiped out all European monarchies. It laid the foundation for conservative Islam and conflict in the Middle East. It even fostered the idea of a nation-state and nationalism, laying the groundwork for far-right movements like Fascism and Nazi Germany. This one Revolution was the largest influence for socialism and communism; every modern Revolution owes itself to the French Revolution, including those of Russia, Persia, China, Ireland… the list goes on. It shifted power from the Catholic Church to private land owners, transforming mercantilism into capitalism. It’s because of the Revolution that Protestants are the largest religious group in the world. It’s because of the Revolution that the Jewish diaspora spread through Europe at Napoleon’s Emancipation, escaping the ghettos of the Holy Roman Empire to immigrate into foreign nations. The effects of these years even destroyed the international slave trade. And yes, too, the Revolution laid the foundations for modern warfare and “total war”, as seen during WWII. Its influence over Enlightenment thought would define all major geopolitical events well into the 20th century. Lastly, without the French Revolution there would be no Napoleon Bonaparte. This one man conquered Europe, uniting it into one idea and initiating the Napoleonic Wars — the French, in their haste to topple one King, ironically ended up with another.

The rest, as they say, is history. And a man, tortured by the horrors he’d seen, began painting on his walls, paintings that he never intended anyone but himself to see…paintings of witchcraft, war crimes, monsters, and cynicism, popularly known as the “Black Paintings”.

They terrify me to my core. They terrify me more than any image or movie, because they tell a story of a man’s fears invading his everyday life, a story of a man who painted on his very walls to remind himself of the evil all men were capable of…

There is so much darkness, defeat, and brute fear in these paintings, paintings that were never meant to be shared, paintings that Goya painted on the plaster of everything from his hallways to his dining room. These paintings have been analyzed by psychiatrists, historians, artists, but their content exceeds typification — these masterpieces show the subjugation of being haunted by your greatest fears, day in and day out, as your nation is tortured around you. Goya’s wife and mother died months before these paintings became a reality. He knew pain dearly. And in great suffering, great evil is tempting to the artist — Goya’s Black Paintings are his ‘Picture of Dorian Gray’, his cursed sacrifice. He took his nation’s history and demons, and layered them onto plaster, purifying himself in a deeply personal ritual that bound him to his art.

A painting of a riot, French Revolution (Francisco Goya, Black Paintings)
Francisco Goya’s “Black Paintings”.

Because of that, there’s something so real and authentic about these pieces — art that was never meant for anyone but the artist, art that was never meant to be seen and was supposed to be destroyed after Goya died. These are Spain’s fears surrounding Goya on every wall of his house. Brother turning against brother, desperation, hopelessness, demons, faceless men, devils, riots, manipulation and evil.

The Black Paintings don’t need to be analyzed more because they need to be experienced — these images are a cry for help not by Goya, but by Goya’s Spain that he so loved. And the theme of “tortured artist”, tempting as it may be, ends here: Goya returned to court and painted for years afterward, seemingly enduring — if not overcoming — the struggles that surrounded him. There’s a meditative, stoic quality in that. And in a way, art itself is meditation. At the very least, that’s what I think it should be. Art should have a purpose, it should show the life inside, the pain and the joy. Missing that, I think, is missing yourself.

Sophomore at UNC-Chapel Hill, interested in too many things for too little time.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store