In November of 1792, the great Spanish artist Francisco de Goya, then 46 years old, was afflicted with a severe illness that almost claimed his sanity if not his life. Symptoms included deafness, dizziness to the point of being unable to stand and vision loss. He spent six months, the first half of 1793, convalescing at the home of financier and collector Don Sebastián Martínez in Cádiz. Martínez secured the best medical attention available for his friend but Goya never did fully recover. He lost his hearing permanently. Martínez described his slow recovery in a letter to Goya’s close friend Martín Zapater, an Aragonese merchant Goya had known since they were schoolboys together at the Escuela Pia in Zaragoza:
The noises in his head and the deafness have not improved, but his vision is much better and he is no longer suffering from the disorders which made him lose his balance. He can now go up and down stairs and in a word is doing things he was not able to do before.
Some doctors today speculate that his symptoms may have been caused by Ménière’s disease, an inner ear disorder which can cause vertigo, tinnitus (a ringing in the ears), migraines, vomiting, abnormal eye movements and temporary of permanent deafness. Whatever the cause, the illness had a profound effect on Goya. It altered his understanding of his body, and therefore of the body in general, profoundly. He wrote to Zapater at the end of 1792 saying “Now I don’t fear witches, hobgoblins, ghosts, giants, rogues and liars or any kind of body except human ones.”
That would turn out to be a prophetic vision of his art after his recovery. Goya, who up until that point had focused on idealized beauty, relatively sunny compositions and portraits commissioned by the wealthy and aristocracy of Spain, began to explore darker subjects, starting with a series of 11 small oil-on-tinplate pieces that would become known as the Fantasy and Invention series. In a 1794 letter to his friend Bernardo de Yriarte he wrote: “Vexed by my illnesses, and to compensate in part for the great wastes of time they have cost me, I have dedicated myself to painting a group of cabinet pictures in which I have succeeded in making observations that ordinarily find no place in commissioned works.” He mentions one in particular, a courtyard in a madhouse “in which two nude men fight with their warden beating them and others with sacks (a subject which I witnessed in Zaragoza).” Yard with Madmen (1794), now at the Meadows Museum in Dallas, could not be starker in contrast to the Watteauesque tapestry cartoons of his early career, religious paintings and royal portraits painted just three years before his illness.
Although Goya continued to be court painter and make flattering portraits by commission, in his private art he wrestled with those witches, hobgoblins, ghosts, giants, rogues and liars that so compelled him since his own body had turned traitor. Most of these were not for public consumption, although he did paint several witch-themed canvases for the country home of the Duke and Duchess of Osuna. In 1799 he published Caprichos, a group of aquatint etchings depicting “numerable foibles and follies to be found in any civilized society,” whose most famous plate today is The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters, but he quickly withdrew it from sale out of concern that the Inquisition might come calling over his depictions of clerical folly.
Later in life, between 1819 and 1823, his explorations of haunted humanity came to their fullest fulgor in the Black Paintings, 14 murals he painted on the walls of his country house outside of Madrid called the Quinta del Sordo, meaning the House of the Deaf Man (named after a previous owner). Black because of the dark palette and because of the subject matter, their unflinching horror and modernity have deeply influenced and continue to influence artists ever since. Saturn Devouring His Son remains unparalleled in its depiction of cannibalistic madness, and The Great He-goat (Witches Sabbath), originally on the wall to the left of Saturn on the ground floor of the Quinta del Sordo, is probably the second best-known masterpiece of the collection. The Black Paintings were removed from the walls and transferred to canvas in 1873 and are now in the collection of the Prado.
In the same period when he was so uniquely decorating his walls at Quinta del Sordo, Goya also created an album of drawings known today as the Witches and Old Women album. It was one of eight albums Goya filled with his private visions, imaginings and dreams after his illness and you can see parallels between the small drawings and the figures in this vast Witches Sabbath mural. After his death in 1828, Goya’s son Javier rearranged the drawings into three large albums and after Javier’s death in 1854, his son Mariano sold the three albums. Eventually the drawings were removed and sold piecemeal winding up in collections all over the world.
In the dismantling of the albums, Goya’s careful numbering of each drawing was sometimes cut off, so even though we know, for example, that the 22 ink drawings of witches and old women were once all together in one of the original eight albums, their order was lost. Now for the first time since were sold at auction in Paris in 1877, the witches are all together again and on display at the Courtauld Gallery in London, and in their original order.
In what the noted Goya scholar Juliet Wilson-Bareau calls a “feat in forensics”, conservators and curators spent months examining the sheets to determine the pictures’ correct order. Although Goya (1746-1828) meticulously numbered each sketch, eight lost their numbers over the years. The team analysed the brown and grey ink marks on the back of the drawings and “realised that some stains might be more than just accidental workshop marks”, says Stephanie Buck, the Courtauld’s curator of drawings. These offset marks corresponded with the sketches on the front, which means that the Spanish master drew the pictures in a bound sketchbook and not on loose sheets of paper that were later bound. Buck says that the discovery of the offset marks was instrumental in determining the correct sequencing.
This is not only the first time the drawings from the Witches and Old Women album have all been together again in a public exhibition; it’s the first time any of the eight albums’ drawings have been shown together. Goya only ever shared them with close friends and associates. If you’d like to share the great artist’s unfettered examinations of human nature as he originally composed them, The Witches and Old Women Album exhibition runs through May 25th, 2015.