By Noel Halifax
Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 2445

Goya: the Witches and Old Women Album—facing the horror of reaction restored

This article is over 9 years, 3 months old
Issue 2445
A detail from Nightmare, circa. 1816-20
A detail from Nightmare, circa. 1816-20 (Pic: The Morgan Library & Museum)

As the Spanish royal court’s painter, Francisco Goya was at the heart of its sickening conservative trappings and its rituals. 

He painted grand romantic portraits of the king and his courtiers in the tradition of the late romantic movement, which Europe’s crowned heads so beloved. 

Goya made his living this way from the 1780s until 1824. He worked through the French invasion in the 1800s and the Spanish monarchy’s restoration after Napoleon Bonaparte’s nephew’s short reign. 

But he seemed to have led a untroubled life in such turbulent times. His art reflects the new times  after the overthrow of reaction. It moved from studio portraits to scenes of the Peninsular War and experimental images of national and peasant wars. 

But the new times stalled when reaction was restored in 1814 with the help of the British.

Goya survived and continued his courtly work under the restored monarchy. He seemed the perfect survivor, trimming his art to suit the client.

However, when he died an even more remarkable series of work known as the “black paintings” was discovered. No one, perhaps only a few close friends, were aware of it. 


Private rooms were found in his house, which were painted all black with scenes of monsters, nightmares, war and destruction, 

Eight albums of similar drawings were also found, which were later sold and dispersed. This exhibition brings together one of these eight books, the Witches and Old Women album of 23 drawings. 

They are remarkable and astonishing drawings, which show Goya as an amazing draftsman of the imagination but also an impassioned critic of the old order. 

While his pictures of the war are full of anguish, they retain hope for a new world. There isn’t just bitterness, but a dark wit with musings on life in an imploding society. 

The drawings dance and whirl and sum up the emotion of Goya’s plight—to live in a society where an aborted revolution has collapsed in on itself. 

What can one do then, but wryly comment on the dark side’s triumph with black humour and wit. These paintings haunt, taunt, intrigue on the irony and horror of it all—and leer at the coming face of death.

Goya—the witches and old women album. Courtauld Gallery, London WC2R 0RN. Until 25 May. Adults £8.50, unwaged £4, 18s and under free.


Sign up for our daily email update ‘Breakfast in Red’

Make a donation to Socialist Worker

Help fund the resistance