Wednesday, 22 April 2009

Francisco José de Goya

The Dog, 1823
Oil on Plaster, on Canvas 131 x 79 cm

Museo Nacional Del Prado
18 April 2009

I finally managed to make my pilgrimage to The Prado Museum in Madrid to see Goya’s Black Paintings for the first time. These were amongst the last of his works and were painted directly onto the walls of the house he ‘retired’ to in 1819. After years of neglect, all 14 paintings were removed from the walls and transferred to canvas in 1874 and in 1881 donated to The Prado. Originally in two rooms on separate floors of the house[1], they are now all shown together in the same room. They are all identically framed in black and gold, and the location is very sympathetic both to the mood of the work and allowing them to be seen as a group.

Although there are relationships between the various works I will limit my reviews to those with the most melancholic overtones. The Dog is probably the one that this mood is most intense, it is also the one that the paint surface has suffered most in the transfer process. This deterioration only seems to add to the plight of the animal, which has been interpreted as sinking in quicksand.

It is also possible that the painting is actually unfinished, and whilst it is understandable to try and weave a narrative for the dog, we can only interpret the paint we see. I think the power of this, the simplest of The Black Paintings, lies in its ambiguity coupled with the tension introduced by Goya’s dramatic composition.

The picture is a long narrow rectangle divided in two, an above and a below. The upper area that fills most of the picture is pale golden ochre; the lower area is a brown soft edged strip across the bottom rising from left to right. Behind this slope there is the head of a dog in black and grey that seems to be looking at something higher up to the right of the canvas, but there is nothing there. Consequently the dog appears to be at the bottom of a well or at the foot of a vertiginous cliff, pressed down by the weight of the void or mass above.

The relationship of the figure to the space strikes me as emblematic of the human condition; the problems of existence in the face of hopeless doom. The fact that we cannot see the body and legs of the dog serves to emphasis its plight, something I see as synonymous with the state of inertia associated with extremes of despondency and melancholia. This affinity with despair is reinforced by the dog’s fearful gaze on something unrepresentable, knowing it is trapped in its loneliness, awaiting its fate in terror.

[1] It should be noted that in 2003, Juan Jose Junquera, a professor of art history at Complutense University in Madrid, made an unwelcome discovery whilst researching a book about the Black Paintings. The documents unearthed suggested that the building didn’t have two floors in Goya’s lifetime and consequently he couldn’t have painted them. The implication is that they are fakes passed off as Goya’s by his grandson Mariano.

©blackdog 2009


  1. Thanks to you for discovering a new side of Goya's art- his 'black paintings'! I like to follow completely your impressive and detailed description and interpretation! The painting looks modern considering its composition, kind of painting, and theme- it is very moving, too- the lonely, abandoned black dog sunk into the depth, isolated, perhaps captured in a well or wherever, looking for help, longing for a golden something...- the dog could be a symbol of human life in dark and bad times, also in modern times. I must think of the often quoted bible saying in Rom. 8:22 "For we know that the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now." A really great painting evoking many thoughts and feelings- it is a dirty looking "pale golden ochre"- but there is some golden splendour we human beans are longing always for and we may hope to find/ to have found some pieces of that in which way and form it might be! The more I look at the painting, the more I' m fascinated and overwhelmed by its modernity!
    Some remembrances of the sculpture "The Golden Wall" (Documenta Kassel, now in Cologne)?

  2. Jannis Kounellis, »Tragedia Civile« (Bürgerliche Tragödie), 1975, Blattgold, Hutständer, Mantel, Hut und Öllampe
    Yesterday I read that Joan Miró had only one wish at the end of his life: to look at this painting in the Prado, and he kept looking at it for some time- I imagine he must have found in this painting depictured the whole life! A moving thought!

  3. Thank you for the nice comment Philine, and I too had read the Miro quote. I don't think there is a modern or contemporary painter who has not been influenced by these paintings. It was a privilege to see them and an experience I will not forget! This particular one is a direct influence on one of my own paintings from a few years ago called Goal!