‘Goya’s prints and paintings survive with terrifying force because they castigate not merely the superstitions of eighteenth century Spaniards but all the malevolent powers of bigotry…’ (Tomory, P.A., p.80). The imagery and imagination that pervades Goya’s work in the first phase of his career was deeply influenced by the cultural and social events of his contemporary world. The eighteenth century was a period of great social change in Europeand Goya was one of the primary artists to depict this time. In this essay I will focus on the cultural influences in his tapestry designs and paintings of the 1790s, and the social influences in his etching series Los Caprichos.

The eighteenth century ushered in a new period of thinking in the Western world which was to bring marked political, social and economic changes. This period was called the Enlightenment and encouraged critical thinking independent of religious or superstitious doctrines. Artists entered into the dialogue about the state and direction of society and played an important role in encouraging public consideration of these momentous changes. Denis Diderot (1713- 1784), a writer and philosopher of the time, wrote, ‘Every work of sculpture or painting must be an expression of a great principle, a lesson for the spectator- otherwise it remains mute’ (Diderot, D. p.64). The personality of Francisco de Goya (1746- 1928) was vividly drawn to this new social framework.

Goya was born in the village of Fuentelodos in 1746. His father was a master gilder. After being apprenticed to the painter Jose Luzan, in 1763 he went to Madrid to study with Francisco Bayeu (1734-1795), a court painter. He then studied in Italy in 1770 and upon his return toMadridwas associated with the painter Anton Rafael Mengs (1728-1779), who ruled the Madrid painters under Carlos III. This king is credited with bringing the Enlightenment toSpain. However, in Spain there was still a belief in the divine rule of kings, in which constitutional government played no part.

Even though Madrid had a thin veneer of ‘ilustrados’, (enlightened aristocrats), the ‘pueblo’, (common people), was far more conservative. There was a huge difference between popular and elite culture in eighteenth century Spain. To the ‘majo’, (man of the people), the ‘ilustrado’ was a virtual foreigner. The street culture of Madrid was full of superstitions, bullfights, flamenco singers and popular theatre. At forty-six, Goya painted himself as a ‘majo’. He stands in his studio with a white light from the window behind, dressed in the red-braided jacket of a ‘torreador’. Goya’s imagination in the last half of the eighteenth century was planted firmly within this world. He loved popular culture, the life of tavern keepers, gambling houses and rag sellers.

Robert Hughes writes in his biography “Goya” that in 1775 Goya was set to work turning out paintings as cartoon designs for the Royal Tapestry Factory of Santa Barbara. Between 1775 and 1792 he completed more than sixty cartoons. They were full size and in full colour, some being as large as four metres wide. These cartoon designs would become tapestries to cover the walls of the Palace Real in Madrid. The subject matter of the designs was essentially narrative and popular in tone; light-hearted stories about contemporary events and manners in the modern Spain of Carlos III. These were Goya’s ‘saintes’ or scenes from popular culture cleaned up for royal consumption (Hughes, R. p.83).


Hughes goes on to tell us that in the culture of eighteenth century Spain it was a man’s world and so the collective hero of the tapestries is mainly the ‘majo’. This is shown clearly in his tapestry cartoon Picnic on the Banks of the Manzaneras (1776). Five young men are having a picnic. The food and wine make a small, beautifully rendered still-life within the painting. An orange seller is coquettishly inviting the ‘majos’ to buy. She is a figure straight from the popular theatre of the times, as are the young men. All belong together in this ‘proletarian paradise’ (Hughes, R. p.88).


In Fight at the New Inn (1777), coachmen and muleteers in the dress of the Spanish provinces are depicted outside an old country inn. Two of the men are dressed on ‘majo’ style and the others as peasants, which Goya wrote imply ‘that they are fromMurcia’ (Hughes, R. p. 86). They are gambling; the table on the right shows the innkeeper scooping up the winnings. They begin to fight until they are rolling on the ground with sticks. A dog barks as a man on horseback draws a pistol, while another tries to restrain the horse. It was a design that possibly would have reminded the Royals and their guests of the ‘picturesque’ poverty of places that they would never visit.

IN 1786, Goya began painting for the Osuna family. The Duke and Duchess of Osuna were socially ‘enlightened’ aristocrats who played a major role in Madridpublic life through the Madrid Economic Society. The subject of the painting was a Rococo themed pastoral, complete with Fragonard-inspired foliage, into which he has introduced Spanish reality. Highwaymen Attacking a Coach (1787) probably represented what the Osuna family, being wealthy aristocrats, feared most. In the Spain of the 1780s brigandry was common, as outside Madrid little was policed. The outlaws were a violent and nasty lot which Goya would portray in later paintings and drawings.

Goya was a lover of the bullfight and earlier, in 1780, he had done a series of children’s games, one of which was a mock bullfight. Three boys play; one under a wickerwork bull and the other an infant picador on the shoulders of the third boy, his horse. While he was convalescing from a severe illness in 1793, he returned to the subject. On small metal supports, he painted a series of paintings following the story of the bullfight; the preparation, struggle and death of the fighting bull. One of the series, Death of a Picador 1793, is a painting of agony and death. This is expected as part of the entertainment, or as Robert Hughes describes, ‘this isSpain’ (Hughes, R., p.133).

In the eighteenth century the prison was an isolator. It was a place where people were locked up and left to fend for themselves with nobody to help or treat them. The madhouse was a place of degradation where the inmates were looked upon as a form of entertainment. Both places served as subject matter for Goya. On Yard with Lunatics (1794), Goya writes ‘…a courtyard of lunatics, in which two naked men fight with their warden, who beats them and others with sacks ( a scene I saw first hand in Zaragoza)’ (Hughes p.139). They are all there, each imprisoned by his neighbour, fighting, crouching, struggling, glaring, snarling and crawling like animals on the grey stone. This painting is also similar to Interior of Prison (1793), which shows a scene of abject despair in a contemporary prison of the eighteenth century.

In the 1790s Goya produced a series of etchings called Los Caprichos (1799). They parallel a sudden mood of reaction that swept the Spanish government. In 1790 French writings were banned and in 1791, most Spanish newspapers. Hughes writes in his review of a Goya exhibition that the etchings were meant as social satires on reaction, privilege, stupidity, exploitation and social vulgarity; a manifesto of liberal dislikes (Hughes, Nothing if not Critical p.62). In his advertisements for 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 has selected ‘those subjects which he feels to be more suitable for satire, and which, at the same time, stimulate the artist’s imagination’ (Hofmann, W. p.15).

Werner Hofmann in his discussion on Goya, writes that man lives falling:

This destiny with all its constraints, forms the metaphorical content of Goya’s art. When he depicts the social conventions and pressures which force human beings into precarious situations that descend into misery, crime or madness, his view is not confined to criticism of these realities. He draws and paints parables that illustrate the inescapable entanglement, the incurable sickness of the human condition. (Hofmann, p.40)

He goes on to describe that in Los Caprichos Goya was lashing out at contemporary Spanish uses and abuses, making fun of vices, ignorance and self-seeking. Goya transcends the specific contexts of the society scenes and turns them into paradigms and generalisations (Hofmann, p.104).

In the series of eighty etchings, Goya depicts a spoilt child stubbornly defying the authority of his nanny, the viciousness of child abuse, a chained couple that cannot escape each other; seduction and deception, exaggerated pain, and some comical misdeeds: someone getting robbed, beaten with a broom or being shaved or fleeced by a very experienced young lady. All over the chessboard of society, the pawns are watched, bullied and patronised. Pseudo partnerships are depicted in which trickery and hocus-pocus imposes brutal authority on the victim. Children are terrified by monsters and monks pray to a parrot on a pulpit. In All Will Fall the huge monster shrinks into a manipulated puppet. Here Goya is striking at the heart of those who abuse their political power, and at a weakling’s empty rhetoric. Hofmann interprets Los Caprichos as beginning by signalling the disintegration of the social body, parading the role play of the corrupted world, and ending with its descent into apocalyptic nightmare (Hofmann, p.118)


The culture of eighteenth century Spain and the social principles of the Enlightenment were integral to Goya and his creativity. In this twenty-five year period he moved from the depictions of contemporary Spanish life in his tapestries, to the fine paintings and portraits he created of his ilustrado patrons, to the satirical criticisms of Los Caprichos. Goya’s mission was to sharpen the minds of society by holding the mirror of his work to them.




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