The works of Spanish artist Francisco Goya, who created unsettling, macabre scenes inspired by historical events and mythology, as well as psychologically charged portraits, have captivated viewers for centuries. Goya’s drawings and prints are currently the subject of an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and the Prado Museum in Madrid recently acquired the earliest documented work by the artist, a painting titled Aníbal vencedor que por primera vez mira a Italia desde los Alpes. To mark the 193rd anniversary of the artist’s death in 1828, ARTnews asked curators to discuss their favorite works by Goya. Their selections follow below.
Francisco Goya, Friar Pedro Shoots El Maragato as His Horse Runs Off (ca. 1806)
In the summer of 1806, on the run after escaping from prison, the dreaded bandit El Maragato overtook a family in their home. He also captured Pedro de Zaldivia, a lay Franciscan brother who stopped by the house while begging for alms. When the humble monk ended up subduing his captor, the story swept through Spain in daily newspapers, songs, and popular prints.
This small, lively painting belongs to a series of six, which is often likened to a modern-day comic strip. This is the climactic scene, and Goya depicts the bandit’s degrading and humorous downfall with broad, quick brushwork that dispenses with unnecessary detail to pinpoint the essential drama of the moment. Goya’s seemingly boundless imagination frequently drew him to scenes of daily life, superstitions, and traditional pastimes that are darkly comic in tone and feel quite modern. He clearly delighted in these departures from his official commissions.
—Rebecca Long, associate curator of painting and sculpture of Europe at the Art Institute of Chicago
Francisco Goya, Seated Giant (ca. 1814–18)
From Goya’s vast body of prints, drawings, and paintings, his Seated Giant is my absolute favorite work. It captivates me in ways that few works ever have. It is a challenge to explain why, but it has to do with its ambiguity and lack of defined subject, allowing instead for potential meaning to emerge in the absence of certainty. Executed entirely in aquatint, it is technically one of Goya’s most ambitious prints and it is entirely experimental. The aquatint conveys subtle effects of light and dark—an apt technique for depicting a crepuscular atmosphere and conveying the sense of unease that pervades the composition. The giant turns toward us as if he has been disturbed from slumber or deep thought. I see him as embodying sorrow in the aftermath of the War of Independence (1808–1814); the bleak landscape symbolizes brutal conflict and the lower white strip suggesting obliteration at the periphery of the world.
—Mark McDonald, curator in the department of drawings and prints at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Francisco Goya, The Count of Fernán Núñez (1803)
Goya witnessed an entire era of Spanish history and society at a time of considerable change. He was unceasingly curious about the world around him and represented everything that caught his imagination, from a still life of fish to the consequences of war, from a bullfight to a witches sabbath, from saints to a summer harvest. His portraits, for me, remain his most poignant and multifaceted works. They are seemingly the simplest, and yet he captures his sitters through an astonishing combination of elegance and merciless scrutiny. His psychological inquiry is overwhelming. He portrayed the king and queen of Spain, but also his own son and grandson. He portrayed aristocrats, military figures, actresses, and intellectuals. The Count of Fernán Núñez was among the most important grandees of Spain. Goya depicts him in a statuary pose, set in the desolate Spanish landscape—an extraordinary exercise in geometrical forms and subdued colors.
—Xavier F. Salomon, deputy director and chief curator at the Frick Collection, New York
Francisco Goya, Don Andrés del Peral (before 1798)
Despite being famous now for his “Black Paintings,” during his lifetime Goya was first and foremost known as the greatest portrait painter of his day. Portraits make up about one third of his painted output and were the subject of a highly acclaimed exhibition at the National Gallery in 2015.
This penetrating portrait shows Andrés del Peral who, like Goya’s own father, was a professional gilder. From 1778, Peral was employed by the Spanish Royal Household to gild carriages and furniture, growing close to Goya in the following decade when they worked as court gilder and painter, respectively. It is the only portrait by Goya for which a contemporary account survives. On the occasion of its public display at the Royal Academy of San Fernando in Madrid in 1798, the portrait was praised for “its draughtsmanship, its taste in coloring, its directness, its effective use of chiaroscuro.” For me, though, it’s the intimacy and sense of humanity that Goya so brilliantly conveys that make this portrait stand out. Peral holds our gaze, the left side of his face drooping slightly (perhaps due to a stroke). Goya’s mastery of paint is evident in the loose, confident brushstrokes that evoke the silvery sheen of Peral’s coat and striped waistcoat beneath. The portrait is both arresting and infinitely subtle, epitomizing why Goya remains endlessly fascinating.
—Letizia Treves, curator of later Italian, Spanish, and French 17th-century paintings at the National Gallery, London