The actual date that Goya painted "The Madhouse" is a point of contention among art historians, with most placing the painting's creation sometime between 1812 and 1819.
Goya often incorporated disturbing imagery and themes into his artwork, and "The Madhouse" is no exception: The painting depicts the innards of a mental institute, perhaps the Saragossa asylum Goya was known to have visited in his youth, and its residents.
Like many of Goya's notable paintings, "The Madhouse" captures a moment in time imbued with frenetic energy: The twisting forms of patients in various states of undress retreat into the darkness of a secure room, producing an unsettling effect on the viewer. Goya had previously dealt with the subject matter of asylums in his earlier artwork, "Yard with Lunatics," which depicted a similarly chaotic scene of the deplorable living conditions experienced by people suffering from mental illness.
A number of the figures in the painting wear crowns or hats – the madman who crowns himself king or pope is a recurring motif in art of the period and can also be seen in a series of paintings called "A Rake's Progress" by William Hogarth.
While Goya would experiment with unconventional arrangements in his later work, this painting features a more traditional composition: The window illuminates the centre of the painting with mauve light, drawing the viewer's eye to this area. The centre of the painting is further emphasised as the central figures are painted with the most contrast, while the figures on the periphery – perhaps patients or even onlookers – retreat into darkness, creating a vignette-like effect.
As with "Yard with Lunatics," the painting may also evoke feeling of sympathy in viewers, and the painting is seen by some as a criticism of the state of care for mental health patients at the time. Many of Goya's paintings are regarded as an indictment of the society he lived in, critiquing the brutality of war, treatment of prisoners and corruption, among other social issues.
Goya's preoccupation with insanity and the treatment of the mentally ill was perhaps a reflection of his declining mental and physical state; his faltering health seemingly influenced most of the work he produced in the latter portion of his career. While it's impossible to know if Goya was suffering from mental illness, we do know that he became ill, possibly due to syphilis or encephalitis, in 1792 and that this illness coincided with a profound shift in the style and subject matter of his artworks. For these reasons, Goya's work is often separated into two stages: pre-illness work, which was characterised by more light and frivolous subject matter, and those pieces created while he was ill – artwork filled with darker and more disturbing imagery.
Due to its subject matter and date of creation, "The Madhouse" may also be seen as a precursor or companion piece to Goya's "Black Paintings," a series of untitled paintings he created between 1819 and 1823. In these paintings – the most well known of which is "Saturn Devouring His Sons" – Goya revisited the subject matter of his earlier work, including insanity, with more intensity and disturbing effect.
"The Madhouse" is now part of the permanent collection at The Royal Academy of Fine Arts of San Fernando where visitors can see it on display along with multiple other works by Goya.