Enriching the Arts

Horror and the artwork of Francisco Goya

Artist explored madness and fantasy


Francisco Goya, The sleep of reason produces monsters, 1797.

Francisco Goya, The sleep of reason produces monsters, 1797.

This October, the Alberta Society of Artists is going to take a look at some artists who have explored themes of horror in their artwork in honor of Halloween. The first artist in this Halloween series is Francisco Goya, a Spanish Romantic court painter who lived from 1746 to 1828. During his early years, he painted many rich and powerful members of the Spanish nobility and royalty.

After an illness left him mostly deaf in 1973, Goya began to withdraw from society and produce experimental art that explored the dark side of the society in which he lived. Notable among these artworks are the series Caprichos and the series known as the Black Paintings, which he painted on the walls of his house near the end of his life.

Francisco Goya, Now they are sitting pretty, 1797.

Francisco Goya, Now they are sitting pretty, 1797.


Goya began the series Caprichos in 1797, four years after sickness took away most of his hearing. He finished the series in 1798. Altogether, there are a total of 80 aquatint print etchings in this series. A condemnation of Spanish society as well as a criticism of humanity in general, these prints depicted the decline of reason in the face of corruption and ignorance.

As an exploration of the darker side of society, many of these etchings display what could be considered horrific material, such as a woman pulling teeth from the inside of a hanged man’s mouth to sell. But many of these images also incorporate the surreal, such as a witch teaching a younger woman how to fly and a gathering of misshapen monsters.

Perhaps the most famous etching in this series is the 43rd etching, titled The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters, which depicts Goya asleep at his desk, surrounded by impossibly large owls and bats. The 26th etching in the series, titled Now They Are Sitting Pretty, depicts two women balancing chairs on top of their heads, a possible commentary on ignorance and the confusion of the senses.

The Black Paintings

Francisco Goya, Saturn devouring his son, 1819-1823.

Francisco Goya, Saturn devouring his son, 1819-1823.

During the last years of his life, Goya worked on a series of 14 paintings given the name the Black Paintings when they were discovered after his death. Estimated to have been created sometime between 1819 and 1823, each painting was originally a mural painted on the walls inside of his house.

Each of these paintings portray dark and disturbing fears, embodying panic, terror and anxiety. Of particular concern to Goya was his fear of insanity and the further decline of the society that he had also explored in Caprichos. Since these paintings were not commissioned or meant for the public eye, he did not have to fear censorship and could explore these themes with complete freedom.

Like Caprichos, many of these paintings mixed the fantastic with the mundane to create a surreal image. Some of the most striking images are the most fantastical, however – such as the most famous piece from the series, titled Saturn Devouring his Son. Other paintings in this series include the supernatural, such as Witches Sabbath and Atropos (The Fates). These supernatural themes make this series of paintings perfect for contemplating during the Halloween season.

Francisco Goya, Witches Sabbath, 1819-1823.

Francisco Goya, Witches Sabbath, 1819-1823.

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