In Goya’s Dark Room • Empty Mirror

I wish we could stand behind the man who is painting over the old paintings, whose clothes are covered with ochre, in his atelier where many candles are lit. Though he doesn’t like being watched, if we sighed and watched him over his shoulder and be enchanted by his brushstrokes, he wouldn’t even notice. This is the grace given by total hearing loss lasting for forty years. I wish we could look at him from a dark corner and, in the looseness of his face where the blood stream has stopped flowing, seek the trace of the ones who walked into his life. Can we pull out the darkest days of his life in pleasure from his faraway looks or can we guess why he only chooses grey, black, white, and yellow for a long time? We are transparent and light as the angels in his frescoes. In his dark room, we witness the revelation of the secrets smartly kept by the last brush strokes in his paintings.

Asi Estoy

You know, we say tough cheese to the bad members of the academy after reading about genius painters’ being kicked out from the gates of the Fine Arts Academy a few times; Francisco Goya was one of those geniuses. He entered the gates, from which he was kicked out two times, with a simple portrait of Jesus after years of being away.

Autorretrato ante el caballete by Francisco GoyaAutorretrato ante el caballete (self-portrait) by Francisco Goya
(Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando)

When he started receiving orders with the help of his friend at the atelier — the man named Bayeu would be his brother-in-law soon and he would open the way for him to be a painter at the royal palace — he already understood where money actually came from. Living in Seventh Heaven is only possible for the nobles. He realistically mirrored aristocratic families and made his work unique by hiding, in plain sight, small details about them in the paintings. This caused him to be a portrait painter when he so was young. He passionately admired Velazquez; he wouldn’t take offence at imitating his colors and drawings from time to time and he could say it aloud, he explained how inspiration feeds art to his students who wanted to learn something from him over and over again. When he was promoted to painter of the royal palace after Velazquez’s death, people thought that happened because of his marriage with Bayeu’s sister, but he didn’t care much for gossip, being confident that he deserved his position.

Charles III was on the throne back then. Being unaware that he would see two more sovereigns except for Charles III, he was painting the portraits of the people of the royal palace.

He liked reputation and appreciation. He could tell this only to his close friend Zapater in his letters: “They love me and they admire me! Nobles are going crazy for me!” Sometimes he behaved senselessly before a marquis and he especially loved pleasing duchesses to express his admiration, but mostly not to cause a stoppage in his yearly 15,000 Real. For Goya, leaning on the royal palace was the main source of opportunities that gave him endless freedom when he returned to his own world at night. If that source was cut off, he knew that he would be the same as a miserable painter, he couldn’t do acid printings and he couldn’t return to his own dark world after entering the splendorous gates. Spain was having a hard time. While the distorted shadow of the Inquisition was moving upon its people, shouts for freedom were rising from France. But for him, the most important thing was drawing sketches as much as he liked of the streets. Paints, cloth, frame, acid, printing machine, and employees — all this required money in the long run.

However, he had a wild, rough nature, his emotional states changing rapidly from moment to moment. He was not so tall and with his nimble body which was not so thin, he was durable and stubborn in his work lasting for hours. Zapater called him “someone who cannot be controlled. He doesn’t like accepting the rules, he insists on his own truths, sometimes I’m afraid that he would lavish his life for the sake of a word.”

Let’s face the fact that Goya, who was so stubborn that he could cross out his own sketch and write “asi estoy!” — “that’s how I am!” on it, could turn a blind eye for the gold flowing steadily each year. While the witches and suffering souls gather around us in the dark room of Prado, if we can realize how miserable this fact is and if we can turn up the pictures a little bit, we may explore the secrets of Goya’s dark room.

Taverns of Madrid

Prostitutes, beggars, laundrymen, carters… The uproar of soldiers, burnt faces, and orphans. But mostly, the devils hidden behind strained leathers. In the days he didn’t work at the royal palace, he drew for hours in parks, at the corners of the streets where sewage flowed, without talking to anyone, without interfering. Defining Francisco Goya as chronicler wouldn’t be wrong, because he was the one who held a piece of charcoal pencil and the whip that hid the above moment in his hands, his lines were his words. He had a great talent for prediction and a strong intuition; if he saw a part of a landscape, he could envision and finish drawing the rest of it all on his own. Only a feeling or a look, a prayer, were enough for him. He headed to the taverns lined side by side in the dark. People of the day were always at the taverns, more painted, laced, or over-excited, drunk. In the taverns of Madrid, where madness was unbounded and the voices of enthusiasm got loud until seven in the morning, he drew without eating or drinking. He was like the fairy of the forest, very small; if he didn’t make a noise, no one could see him.

At night, Sangria and Malaga wine flooded, he was so happy that he spent hours drawing the dresses’ layers of romantic flamenco dancers and their suave movements! Although he caught up with the time, he only laughed at the swagger countess who tried to slim her waist among her ornaments.

They loved him. Unlike the nobles, they counted on him, they embraced him, and they didn’t say anything about his drawings of ugliness and insobriety as so. The nobles went crazy for him, but people loved him and counted on him too. His bringing the prostitutes to his atelier and drawing them became a legend. Everyone knew that women who licked big beauty spots on their lips and caged their hair within hair nets were interested in Goya. But he saw them off until the door with a solemn attitude after painting them. No one knows whether he went to bed with them or their legs touched each other on the cold stone ground of the atelier.

Witness of Time

When the seeds of independence war were scattered from France to Spain (1808-1814), Goya watched the people dividing into two: the ones loyal to the sovereign and Afrancesados and the ones who supported the French whom they estimated to bring a more liberal regime. Although his support was with freedom, Goya didn’t take a side and accepted being the painter of the French King – who was the brother of Napoleon – on the throne by focusing on his career. He even helped in choosing 50 works from Prado Palace to be sent to France and he painted the portraits of French officers and even Fernando VII. Then, when Santander city ordered the statue of Fernando, Goya expressed his insincerity towards him by putting an expression of regret on the face of the statue.

It had been discussed for many years whether Goya had a love affair with the Duchess of Alba who came to the royal palace during that period. His painting of the Duchess of Alba in her daily life poses except for the standard portrait principles evolved into various gossip both by the people of the royal palace and the families close to the royal palace, but this had never been proven. The beauty of the Duchess of Alba was legendary with her long curly hair and black lace dress. Furthermore, the duchess’s husband died a year ago.

Although the glances were tempting, all rumors could be the result of those factors.

How possible could it be to believe that Goya, who mostly did work for religious institutions in his life, had an indiscreet affair? Although he had to stick to the demands strictly at first, how could someone describe Goya as immoral, who was fearless enough to bravely discuss his opinions? The fame of the painter who received a great order from Zaragoza, the Basilica of Our Lady of the Pillar strengthened when he gained approval from Canon. After studying the frescoes for a series on a chapel, Goya was finally accepted into the academy in 1789, but he was not satisfied with what he did. Because a simple Jesus portrayal was studied with a popular presentation, in a teen-bristic style, it attracted attention with the dramatic use of light and shadow. However, he was unanimously a member of the academy.

After completing The Last Communion of St. Joseph Calasanz in the chapel of Escuelas Pias School, Goya returned half of the price with a sudden decision and he wrote a letter to the chancellor of the monastery explaining that he was “tired now, he wanted to do something to be dedicated to the citizens.”

That coincided with the solstice of him and the solstice of the history of Spain.

Wars, Wars, Wars and Even Deaths

Maja… Majas… Its harmony is hidden in its pronunciation. Maybe the model of The Nude Maja was not the Duchess of Alba — it is even noted in the history Business Relationships that Maja was the mistress of Godoy who was one of the reformists of the royal palace; she was most likely the famous actress Pepita Tudo. Goya painted her naked with desire and lust on her face.

Maja desnuda by Francisco Goya (Museo del Prado)Maja desnuda by Francisco Goya
(Museo del Prado)

Who were the Majas? They were the women who took part in Madrid’s art world since the beginning of the 19th century, who spoke pure and polite Castilian Spanish, who chose their dresses in different styles, who tied gauze shawls on their low-necked blouses (the men were also called majo in Spanish). Although they came from lower class in general, they made sure they always looked good, stylish, and energetic. After a while, real aristocrats started imitating Majas who tried hard to show themselves as aristocrats. Therefore, a brand new fashion trend emerged, the magic of Majas echoed in the taverns. Goya finished painting The Nude Maja during the period when the church forbade nude art. The painting was widely acclaimed and as Theodor Hetzer, an art historian, would say afterwards, Goya “forced people to concentrate on the realistic body structure of naked women. Nobody could decline that the painting had power and energy and this characteristic was found in Goya’s other paintings too. Along with The Nude Maja, Goya’s sharpest characteristic appeared: the ability to look at the human body in a new light!”

Goya was called by the Inquisition to be questioned. We never learned how he could deal with the council consisting of the church’s bigoted members and how he made them accept the existence of The Nude Maja, but the great painter started working on The Clothed Maja afterwards. Nobody knew whether the church insisted on it, but Maja was clothed this time. However, she had a more tempting look on her face than The Nude Maja and the thin cloth on her could barely cover her body. Goya secretly laughed at this.

A deaf, elderly, weak man from Madrid who didn’t know a single French word wandered the streets that led to Puerta Del Sol. His mind flew in the Inquisition with the foresight caused by some witnessing. He painted the fact that the Inquisition, in which ideas and methods from the Middle Ages were still valid, hung the naked bodies of people they gathered on the reels in their dungeons in order to get ungrounded confessions from them, to gain its power again. He painted What Cruelty! in which he gathered everything about naïve laundrywomen, blacksmith apprentices, prostitutes who were “confessing” that they either collaborated with the devil or they were Jewish by screaming, crying, and lamenting, with blood flowing from their limbs. He wrote “looking is agonizing” under a sketch, but he looked, he had to see, he had to record everything. He had to watch unblinkingly the lifting up of the helpless man whose hands were tied from his back, him being violently thrown onto the ground, the breaking of his arms from his shoulders; he had to freeze his heart and draw.

The desire for freedom would cause the most horrible destructions during the Spanish War against the French. He made long journeys to see slaughtered people in rural regions. He went to Cadiz and Zaragoza. Meanwhile, he mournfully saw the lands turned to ruin because of war and civil strife and French soldiers, Spanish revolutionists and hundreds of civilians lying on the ground, rotting. When he returned to Madrid, the Spanish resistance was trying to rally again. Although Goya was overwhelmed with the burden of those accursed times, he said to himself: “So glad God took my ears, what would I do if my eyes were gone!”

When the army of Napoleon surged and occupied nearly all parts of Spain, Goya started working on Disasters of War; a series including 85 works was made with the acid washing method. He contemplated on how people made other people suffer, how brutal and disruptive they could be to each other, and the sensibility of his ears without sound, with his eyes. The paintings of headless bodies tied to trees, of mouths paralyzed by screams, of people whose upper bodies were pierced by shrubs were the most dramatic paintings of Goya.

Some More Black, Some More Blood

When Napoleon’s troops were finally expelled from the country, though nobody knew whether he was skeptical about the income’s aftermath, Goya cleverly applied for financial support to the new liberal government “to literalize the conflicts ongoing throughout the war years, the scenes from the struggles for freedom and heroisms against Europe’s tyranny with brush.” His request was accepted right away. Goya painted The Second of May 1808 and The Third of May 1808 with the help of this support.

El dos de mayo de 1808 by Francisco Goya  en Madrid Francisco Goya - Museo del Prado, MadridEl dos de mayo de 1808 by Francisco Goya en Madrid Francisco Goya
(Museo del Prado, Madrid)

As a result of a group of Spanish civilians’ attack against the French in Puerta Del Sol with whatever they found — stones, sticks, knives, iron handles, bull stamps, nails — on the 2nd of May, he painted the bloodstained area with wrathful and violent brushstrokes. He painted more blood; he painted the expression of dread and shout on the face of the yellow-shirted man who raised his arms between forty men and forty women executed by the firing squad on the very next day. Because Goya witnessed the executions in person, the blood swelled in paintings and he decorated the gloomy scenes located on the background with silhouettes in order to strengthen the effect. In Goya’s paintings, the places were always uncertain, because the wave of execution terrorizing the city didn’t have a specific place. While more than 400 Spanish people were slaughtered in one night or the dead bodies were dragged on the ground as if they were hunts killed shortly before, Goya didn’t know that the painting was an important milestone in the 19th century.

Apart from hearing loss caused by a non-healing infection in his ears, Goya felt great pain and got worse. He always had a shrill scream in his mind and coping with that was so hard. Day by day, he was engulfed by even more darkness. His sight, his irrepressible desire for recording became introverted this time.

When he turned 72, he wanted to escape the crowd of Madrid. He gradually started losing his sanity because of unbearable tinkles, deafness, and witnessing history. He chose a duplex house outside Madrid. He produced 14 paintings on the walls of his house, not to be exhibited. That was the confrontation with himself, the manifestation of darkness and mournful madness.

Undoubtedly, the most striking was Saturn Devouring His Son. Goya didn’t name the artwork he painted directly on the walls; when all of them were removed from the walls and brought to Prado, Antoni Brugada undertook the mission of giving names to each of them. Saturn Devouring His Son, which was painted on the ground floor of Quinta Del Sordo, reflected the Titan Cronus (Saturn in Roman mythology), father of Zeus, in Greek mythology, eating his sons because he madly feared the prophecies predicting that one of his sons would take his throne. Although it’s not for sure that Goya made the allegory of Spain that chewed its children until the last bite by throwing them into a bloody war, the blood-red rising from the black made people think of the blood spilled by the tyrants for years to come.

GOYA - El aquelarre (Museo Lázaro Galdiano, Madrid, 1797-98)El aquelarre by Francisco Goya
(Museo Lázaro Galdiano, Madrid, 1797-98)

Women Laughing… Two women laughing at a naïve and foolish man who was masturbating… Two prostitutes maybe… Although they mocked him, Goya hid in the painting that the woman on the right were masturbating too. Genders were so vague though! Where were they? What was their problem? Did they have a relationship with the two women drinking soup in another painting? Witches’ Sabbath, A Pilgrimage to San Isidro, people who absorbed the pain of the weird face on pilgrimage on all parts of their faces, Judith and Holofernes… All of them were the uncanny paintings that would be discussed after being brought to Prado by being removed from the walls of his house. Some people would talk about Goya’s effort of painting the evil in the heart of Spain and others would only say that he had a passion for absolute mysticism.

Embracing the Nightmare in Goya’s Pinturas Negras

We stood behind the deaf man who was painting over the old paintings, whose clothes were covered with ochre, in his workplace where many candles were lit. We looked at him from a dark corner and, in the looseness of his face where the blood stream stopped flowing, sought the trace of the ones who walked into his and we found it. We pulled out the darkest days of his life in pleasure from his faraway looks and we guessed why he only chose grey, black, white, and yellow for a long time. We were transparent and light as the angels in his frescoes. In his dark room, we witnessed him kneeling to paint the ground.

We knew that he blamed himself. Those dark paintings were a kind of confession. The sins of Goya who had to carry the scenes that mangled his heart, the scenes that clasped the audience by the throat by capturing… During the Inquisition wars, and slaughters, on the fine line of his pointlessness apart from drawing only what he saw, lots of scenes which he could stop and interfere passed by his eyes. “Why didn’t I hold that woman’s hand, took the baby and gave it back to the prostitute, untied the ropes of the revolutionist tied on the tree, why didn’t I go and shield myself the people lined up by the firing squad, why didn’t I say stop once? Orders, ordered wall decorations, 15,000 Real… I always shushed to the king, queen, fool marquises, dukes, the extremisms of intruders, to the ones who kissed the ring of archpriest.”

His face was covered with ochre when he fell on the ground. We wanted to raise him by reaching, we wanted to tell him the feelings that he had to sacrifice for the emergence of the paintings that he brought into existence, we wanted to sip the wine he liked the most. When we were kneeling, a huge hand grasped us from our waists. Our bones crackled between the fingers of Cronus, he raised us with his arm reached out from above! We saw that Goya dreadfully looked at us for a moment, then everything darkened at once. We were falling as we went towards the darkness from where our necks broke.

About Nazli Karabiyikoglu

Nazli Karabiyikoglu is a Turkish author, now full-time resident in Georgia, who recently escaped from the political, cultural, and gender oppression in Turkey. She helped create the #MeToo movement within the Turkish publishing industry, from which she was then excommunicated. With an M.A. in Turkish Language and Literature from Bogazici University, Karabıyıkoglu has five published books in Turkish and has recently completed translations of two new books for international publication. Having won six literary awards in her country, she has been nominated for Pushcart Prize in 2019 and won The UnCollected Press/Raw Art Review Full Length Book of Short Stories with her book Subdermal Sky. Visit

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