One of the many surprises at the recent extraordinary exhibition, Goya: Order & Disorder, at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston were his still-life paintings. They are remarkable for their departure from traditional still lifes of memento mori sentiments that usually include only a trace of the reminder of death. In Goya’s still lifes, the subject is death—recently killed animals or already butchered. Goya painted twelve still lifes, without commission, between 1808-1812, the years of Spain’s war with Napoleon and one of the bloodiest in its history. These paintings remained in his family until the mid-nineteenth century. At the same time and in private Goya worked on his etchings, The Disasters of War, in which he depicted the blunt and horrific inhumanities of war. Because of Goya’s precarious political position at court between the French and the Spanish monarchies, Goya’s etchings of war were not seen until 35 years after his death.
The still-life paintings were part an academic genre traditionally associated with hunting themes as categorized at the MFA exhibition. In Still Life with Golden Bream a pile of freshly caught fish stare, with almost alive looking wide-open eyes, directly at the stunned viewer. The background is dark and there are none of the usual accouterments to place the scene in the context of a particular place. A harsh light radiates off the white sheen of the fish scales. Blood red outlines their mouths and contributes to a sense of their not dead by dying state. One cannot help being caught by the helpless stare of the eyes. Still Life with Sheep’s Head and Ribs is a grisly, stark depiction of a skinned and butchered sheep. The head on the left rests on its chin in profile with its open eye staring at the viewer. Blood is still smeared on its cheek, its mouth left slightly open. The decapitated head lies next to chunks of split ribs with parts of its viscera and a partial leg. Like the Golden Bream, the slaughtered but staring sheep vacillates between almost alive and death. This brutal image is in every way unlike traditional still-life paintings, which became popular in the seventeenth century when they flourished in Dutch art and the eighteenth century in French art.
By considering the still-life paintings along side The Disasters of War etchings one can suggest that, possibly, they, too, were part of Goya’s reaction to the war and the inhumanity he witnessed. For Goya, a follower of the Enlightenment philosophy embraced during the reign of Charles III in Spain, the war brought about a devastating reconsideration of the meaning of reason. From The Disasters of War series, ‘Great Courage! Against the Dead!’ resembles Still Life with Sheep’s Head and Ribs with human male bodies that have been butchered, castrated, and decapitated and turned into lifeless meat with the parts tied to a tree like trophies of war. It was the male body that signified the classical ideal of reason and in academic painting it was the height of achievement for a painter to master its beauty and physical complexity.
— Gayle Rodda Kurtz, Managing Editor
Works by Goya: Still Life with Golden Bream, 1808-12. Oil on canvas, 17 5/8 x 24 5/8”. The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Still Life with Sheep’s Head and Ribs, 1808-12. Oil on canvas, 17 ¾ x 24 3/8”. Musée du Louvre, Paris. The Disasters of War series, ‘Great Courage! Against the Dead!’, 1810-15. Etching, 4 x 6”.
For the most recent scholarship on Goya, see the catalog, Goya: Order & Disorder, from the MFA exhibition.