Works By Goya (Analysis of Four)

by Dave

Goya was an 18th-century Spanish painter who lived through the Spanish Inquisition and the Spanish War of Independence. He was very prolific and painted throughout his life, even becoming director of the Royal Academy of Painters. Here we analyze four works done throughout his lifetime and explore how they relate to his idea of the perfect universe.

Goya was a famous Spanish painter in the 18th century who lived through the Spanish Inquisition and the war. He was very prolific and painted throughout his life, even becoming director of the Royal Academy of Painters. Here we describe four of his works, given throughout his lifetime and analyze them and how they relate to Goya’s perfect universe.

The Swing, 1779

During the time this painting was created, Goya was working for the Royal Tapestry Factory. The Swing was painted as a cartoon that would be the basis for a tapestry woven for a series depicting relaxation in the countryside. However, Goya had a specific function for this piece different from his usual tapestry cartoons. By examining the influence of the Academy on this painting, we can see how outside intervention influenced Goya’s work.

In the lower half of the painting, there is a chaperoned meeting of women and their suitors. Another meeting of gazes is taking place between the reclining shepherd in the background and the woman in the foreground who has her back to the viewer. The relationship between these two can be interpreted in many ways. The swing has no influence on these two stories, despite its implied importance through the title. Why the disconnect between apparent function and form? This is because the Academy was focusing Goya’s attention. The Academy rejected Goya in October of 1779. The rejection letter contained instructions to improve his talents with his position at the Royal Tapestry Factory, and The Swing is evidence of this change.

Analysis of Work by Goya

Goya’s scene here is not entirely cohesive. Closer inspection of the story of this work reveals the unity and purpose; to entertain and instruct. This direct allusion to the values of the Academy would have elevated this cartoon. In the eyes’ of the Academy it would be an emblem worthy of its placement in a Palace. Then the painter would be worthy of a position in the Academy. Indeed, Goya was to become a member of the Academy in 1780, and its director by 1785.

In this work, Goya delivers his story on different planes and uses a transference of movement and emotion. Goya makes the viewer feel the loss of gravity from the swing through the lightness of the painting and the wispy nature of the leaves towards the top. However, the age of the structure darkened the painting.

The prominence of the sky and forest draw our gaze upward, as if we were the viewer in the swing. His attention to detail and creation of a specific feeling in the viewer shows Goya’s value of this work.

The Threshing Ground or Summer, 1786-7

During the time of this work’s construction, the Royal Tapestry Factory had employed Goya for nearly a decade. This means he had gained some autonomy in his designs. The dining room of the El Pardo Palace originally hosted this oil painting. Summer was part of a series of the seasons.

The notions of relaxation and happiness are subjective. So Goya would have drawn from his perfect universe and added well-known traditions to ensure he was relatable to his audience. There are many small scenes superimposed in this work. Each is a different part of summer experienced by those in the lower class. From the left, there is a group of drunkards, then a mother feeding a baby, then a group of children. It also includes peaceful horses, a baby playing with his father and a worker tending to a pile of hay. Seen by the intended audience, this Summer would be a traditional scene of boorish peasants. This is evidenced by the free-flowing wine, gaping shirts, and general chaos.

However, using the structure of pyramid, Goya creates a unified scene. This undercuts the stereotypical response to the lower class from his intended audience. Goya asserts that their actions and lives create a beautiful, glowing pyramid. This shows that Goya did not totally agree with the class distinctions of his society.

Analysis of Work by Goya

Goya believed himself capable of presenting scenes of a perfect universe when he accepted this commission, and he delivered by infusing his works with intense emotions. The most well-know of Goya’s works, those depicting the war, deliver negative emotions. However that is not the entirety of Goya’s ability. In Summer, Goya brings the viewer happiness, even though they might be a different class than those depicted. These bright memories of a large harvest would delight a viewer of Goya’s time perhaps more so than a modern viewer. However, the underlying perfect universe remains the same: that a peaceful society includes the happiness of the lower class, not a common view in upper society during Goya’s lifetime.

Duchess of Alba Fixing Her Hair, 1796-7

At the time of this work, the Duchess of Alba had recently become a widow and withdrew to her estate, accompanied by Goya. Goya had become deaf only five years before. There Goya created albums of sketches and cartoons. In these eight albums the sketches, numbering around 539, were not preparatory, but a whole work unto themselves. The Duchess is from Album A, which included many depictions of unposed women. The intimacy in this series could have been all truth or imagined by Goya. However, either way, Goya’s works in these albums could take us where no formal visitor could have gone.  

In these albums, the intended audience would only have been Goya himself. So the works may not have been completed or were only parts of larger works that existed in Goya’s mind. However, we will can glean meaning from what Goya did complete.

Analysis of Work by Goya

The lack of background directs the viewer’s focus. However the balance between the play of shadows and the delicate details of her dress and hair reveal a deeper intricacy. There is a flat, monotone background. However the Duchess comes across as very three dimensional. This complexity most likely comes from the personal relationship between Goya and the Duchess. However because of a lack of documents, we can only extrapolate what exactly that relationship entailed.

At any level of relationship, we know Goya respected the Duchess, and this work shows this. Many of Goya’s depictions of women also contain a leering male gaze. The next work presented is an example of this. However, the Duchess has no such accompaniment. Here a moment of completely ordinary life presents a respected woman. The capture of such a moment, especially concerning a woman, would not be valued by the Academy of Goya’s time nor by the religious authorities. Goya shows no allusion to that tension in this work. The Duchess is a glimpse into a perfect universe. Goya did not live in this universe, but he aspired to, and by creating this work, he pushed us closer and closer to it.

Young Woman bathing at a Fountain, 1796-7

Album A from Goya’s personal collection during his stay with the Duchess of Alba also contains this work. The works in this first album were a close study of women: forms both modest and exposed, and the entire range of emotions, from delighted dancing, to intense weeping. We will examine one now.

In this work, a nude woman sits on the edge of a fountain paused in her bathing, seemingly lost in thought, while two men leer in front of her. In contrast to the Duchess’ sketch, this depiction of a nameless woman is less cohesive and detailed. However the formless background places the woman more fully in the context of her space. The skillful use of ink lines defines the men with harsh brows and creepy smiles. Also larger strokes create the general shape of shadows that define the light and the body of the woman. Goya and the viewer’s position preserve the woman’s modesty and so set Goya apart from the leering men. He does not see himself as one of them, and so they would not exist in his perfect universe.

Analysis of Work by Goya

The ambiguous placement of her left leg shows the effects of contemporary societal constraint. These were not due to purposeful awkwardness on Goya’s part. Instead they are a true testament to the lack of nude studies of women during this time period. This may not be a direct critique on Goya’s part of the standards set by the Academy and the religious sects, though he had many. However it certainly represents Goya straining against the conventions taught to him and widely accepted at the time. Including the value of certain subjects, among which the place of women in art was predominantly as religious allegories.

The scene here would not be found in Goya’s perfect universe, because of the intrusion of the leering men. Without that influence, the bathing woman would be left in peace. Even naked she would be modest to the viewer’s eyes. Therefore Goya here is showing what would destroy a perfect universe: the intrusion of a possessive male gaze.