Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Medical deafness or the madness of war: Goya’s motivation for creating the Black Paintings

Sarah Bahr
Indianapolis, Indiana, United States

Figure 1. Goya, Francisco. Saturn Devouring His Son. 1820-1823.
Prado National Museum.

The Spanish painter Francisco Goya darkened the plaster walls of his rural Madrid farmhouse with leering witches, a gaggle of grimacing hags, and a man with bulging eyes devouring a human form. The latter painting, posthumously titled Saturn Devouring His Children, features a Titan plunging a bloody child whole into his gaping mouth, “as if chomping on churros at a Spanish bar, with blood instead of chocolate sauce,” Guardian arts reporter Jonathan Jones writes (fig. 1).1 The first- and second-floor walls of Goya’s Quinta del Sordo country home, which he purchased in February 1819, featured fourteen such Black Paintings.2 These oil paintings, characterized by their dark tones and predominance of black, are all believed to have been completed between 1820 and 1823.3 The melancholy paintings were cut from the walls of two rooms of the Quinta del Sordo a half-century after Goya’s death by restorer Salvador Martinez-Cubells and transferred to canvas before moving to their eventual home in the Prado Museum in Madrid.4 They are currently displayed in their original arrangement, based on an inventory of the Quinta del Sordo completed by Antonio de Brugada after Goya’s death in 1828.5

The Black Paintings represent a stark contrast to Goya’s earlier work. Goya spent the early part of his career painting portraits of the Spanish aristocracy, and became a court painter to the Spanish Crown in 1786.6 Then disaster struck—a near-fatal illness Goya suffered in 1792, when he was forty-six, left him completely deaf and darkened his vision.7 The loss of his hearing and impaired vision propelled Goya to new artistic heights, and after 1792 his work became progressively darker and more pessimistic.8 In 1814 Goya completed paintings such as The Second of May 1808 and The Third of May 1808 showcasing the horrors of war.9 He also explored insanity, mental asylums, and religious and political corruption in his work, demonstrating an increasing concern for the well-being not only of Spain, but his own mental and physical health.10 Goya retreated to the Quinta del Sordo farmhouse on the outskirts of Madrid in 1819 when he was in his mid-seventies, where he lived in near-total isolation as he worked on the Black Paintings.11 In September 1823 he transferred the property to his seventeen-year-old grandson, Mariano, and retired to Bordeaux in France, where he remained until his death at age eighty-two in 1828.12

Scholars have proposed a variety of theories as to why Goya painted the Black Paintings during the twilight of his life. One theory is that the deaf painter, alone in his country home, painted the unearthly images as companions that reflected his bleak outlook on humanity amid the throes of his disease.13 Yet deafness alone cannot explain Goya’s sudden stylistic shift—after all, as Jones writes, “Not many people deal with deafness by filling their house with morbid murals.”14 Jones proposes that Goya was rather motivated by frustration with the horrors of war, and that he created the Black Paintings as a darker extension of his prior paintings on the subject.15 Yet even if it was the psychological madness of war that drove Goya to create such ghastly canvases, surely his physical deafness also played a role in inspiring the gruesome images. Neither the ailing artist’s deafness nor his abhorrence of war was the sole cause of the abject stylistic shift in the Black Paintings, but these factors, in conjunction with Goya’s acquisition of a rural farmhouse that allowed him to live and paint in isolation, contributed in equal measure to his fascination with the macabre in his later years.

Some historians hypothesize that Goya produced the Black Paintings as companions amid his deafness and darkened vision caused by his 1792 illness. The hermetic Goya had few friends, and the paintings that New York Times Magazine writer Arthur Lubow calls the “outflow of a tormented great soul” reflect a fear of insanity in a soundless, solitary world.16 One of the Black Paintings in particular, Saturn Devouring His Son, is a poignant visual representation of Goya’s fragile psychological state. The painting depicts the Titan Saturn consuming his son to avert a prophecy predicting that one of his children would overthrow him.17 The pale bodies of the deranged Titan and his bloody offspring stand in stark contrast to Goya’s stark black background, the monster’s bulging eyes hinting at the madness within. Might Goya have identified with the headless body being devoured by the wild-eyed Titan, a figure crippled in the same way as the deaf and partially sightless Goya?

X-rays indicating that Goya painted the Black Paintings over the top of formerly pastoral scenes lend credence to the theory that the creation of the Black Paintings was medically motivated.18 But was it his medical infirmaries alone that triggered Goya to replace the fields with horrors? After all, Goya’s deafness had lingered since his 1792 illness, more than twenty years prior to the creation of the Black Paintings.19 Furthermore, the influence of his ailments is evident in a series of prints Goya began in 1815 prior to his isolation.20 The twenty-two black-and-white prints, The Follies, prefigure Goya’s later ventures into the grotesque.21 Though neither as intense nor as desolate as the Black Paintings, the prints, teeming with leering chimeras and grinning giants, depict Goya’s vision of hell.22 Though Goya’s deafness and darkened vision exerted a clear influence on his stylistic shift in the Black Paintings, it would be shortsighted to characterize the creation of the Black Paintings as solely the product of Goya’s disease, as these ailments had influenced the already deaf and partially blind artist’s work for more than twenty years. So what triggered Goya’s stylistic escalation from the gloom of The Follies to the bleakness of the Black Paintings, if not any new medical event?

Figure 2. Goya, Francisco. The Third of May 1808. 1814. Prado National Museum.

Jones proposes that Goya’s weariness of the madness of war tipped the scales. Goya’s prior work, such as his 1810-1820 Disasters of War series and 1814 painting The Third of May 1808, suggest that he feared not only for his own mental and physical health, but for his country’s fate.23 The night of May 3, 1808 during the Peninsular War appears to have affected him particularly deeply. That evening, on the Principe Pio hill in Madrid, the French general Napoleon’s soldiers executed Spaniards who had rebelled against the French occupation of their city the previous day.24 The Third of May 1808 embodies Goya’s vehement opposition to war (fig. 2). Illuminated by lantern light, a Christ-like Spanish man spreads his arms in the crosshairs of a French firing squad. Jones writes: “More acutely perhaps than any other work of art, this painting makes you feel what it must be like to know you are going to die in the next few seconds.”25 Goya’s sympathies are clear: the Spanish victims’ distressed faces are illuminated in the painting, while the hunched French riflemen remain featureless, their backs to viewers.

Goya’s disillusionment with war remained a consistent theme in his work, particularly in his 1810-1820 series The Disasters of War. In eighty-two prints, Goya depicts the atrocities committed by both the French and the Spanish forces, condemning the madness of war itself rather than privileging one side over another.26 Soldiers are beheaded and mutilated, women are assaulted and raped, and, in one scene, a man simply vomits at the horrors he witnesses. Jones interprets Goya’s consistent opposition to war as a clear indication that it was the madness of war rather than deafness that compelled Goya to create the Black Paintings. “Here in Zaragoza—where people fought French soldiers in the narrow streets, and where as a young painter he churned out consoling religious nonsense about miracles and holy pillars—Goya looked into hell,” he writes. “And the Black Paintings are what he saw.”27

Yet even if the primary inspiration for the Black Paintings was Goya’s abhorrence of war, the role of the artist’s chronic deafness and partial blindness cannot be so easily discounted.

Consequently, many of the Black Paintings are most accurately interpreted through a dual medical and psychological lens. Saturn Devouring His Son, for example, might represent a Titan lustily devouring a bloody figure representing Goya’s ravished hearing and sight. Yet the image could also be interpreted through a political lens to represent the autocratic Spanish state devouring its own people.28 The Black Paintings are so enigmatic because Goya created them on the walls of an isolated farmhouse where he lived alone, with only his dreary thoughts for companions.29 Since he never intended the Black Paintings for public exhibition, they represent his psyche unfiltered, simultaneously embodying his fear of insanity and his abhorrence of war.

However, neither the artist’s medical infirmities nor his frustration with the atrocities of war was the sole cause of his production of the Black Paintings. Triggered by the purchase of a country farmhouse where he could paint isolated from the rest of humanity, both factors contributed in equal measure to Goya’s shift from the pessimism of The Disasters of War to the wraithlike, tortured, ethereal figures of the Black Paintings.


  1. Jonathan Jones, “Goya in hell: the bloodbath that explains his most harrowing work,” The Guardian, Oct. 4, 2015, https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2015/oct/04/ goya-in-hell-national-gallery-portraits.
  2. Valeriano Bozal, “Pinturas negras [Goya],” Prado National Museum, accessed Jan. 14, 2018, https://www.museodelprado.es/aprende/enciclopedia/voz/pinturas-negras-goya/3ac8fe0b-3dd9-4dcd-blel-a21877cc8163.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Arthur Lubow, “The Secrets of the Black Paintings,” The New York Times Magazine, July 27, 2003, http://www.nytimes.com/2003/07/27/magazine/the-secret-of-the-black-paintings.html.
  7. S. Betlejewski and R. Ossowski, “Deafness and Mentality in Francisco Goya’s Paintings,” Otolaryngol Pol 63, no. 2 (March/April 2009): 186-90.
  8. Lubow, “The Secrets of the Black Paintings.”
  9. Jones, “Goya in hell.”
  10. Bozal, “Pinturas negras [Goya].”
  11. Lubow, “The Secrets of the Black Paintings.”
  12. Ibid.
  13. Jones, “Goya in hell.”
  14. Ibid.
  15. Ibid.
  16. Lubow, “The Secrets of the Black Paintings.”
  17. Ibid.
  18. Bozal, “Pinturas negras [Goya].”
  19. Betlejewski and Ossowski, “Deafness and Mentality in Francisco Goya’s Paintings,” 186.
  20. Bozal, “Pinturas negras [Goya].”
  21. Ibid.
  22. Ibid.
  23. Jones, “Goya in hell.”
  24. “The Peninsular War, 1808-1813,” PBS, accessed Jan. 14, 2018, http://www.pbs.org/empires/napoleon/ n_war/campaign/ page_9.html.
  25. Ibid.
  26. Ibid.
  27. Ibid.
  28. Bozal, “Pinturas negras [Goya].”
  29. Lubow, “The Secrets of the Black Paintings.”

SARAH BAHR is a senior at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis pursuing majors in English Writing and Literacy, Journalism, and Spanish with minors in English Literature and Women’s Studies. She has previously contributed to Forbes Travel Guide, the Indianapolis Star, and Indianapolis Monthly.

Highlighted in Frontispiece Volume 10, Issue 2 – Winter 2018

Winter 2018 



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