Saturn Devouring His Son depicts the Roman god Saturn, also Titan Kronos in Greek mythology, savagely eating one of his children. It is one of Francisco de Goya's most brilliant, but disturbing paintings.
The gruesome painting shows the imposing figure of Saturn emerging from the darkness. His mad-like eyes are bulging from his face as he prepares to take a bite as his fingers dig into his child. The corpse is motionless and lifeless, his head and arm have been already been consumed. Only the flesh and blood of the mutilated corpse have colour in the darkened scene, which represents Saturn's fear of being usurped by one of his children. The disturbing portrait was likely influenced by Peter Paul Rubens' Saturn Devouring His Son, a Baroque-style painting created in 1636. The Black Paintings, or Pinturas Negras, are a series of fourteen works painted by Goya at his villa outside Madrid. They were created during the artist's later years, likely between 1819 and 1823.
The intense paintings often depict haunting images and distressing themes. They reflect Goya's fear of insanity and his dreary view of humanity during a time when conflict such as the Napoleonic Wars created significant social and political turmoil and change in Spain. Goya's pessimistic attitude towards humanity reflect his own the fear and experience during conflict as well as his fear of relapsing following two serious illnesses. Saturn Devouring His Son was painted in the artist's dining room at Quinta del Sordo (Deaf Man's Villa). The villa was named for its previous owner, who was deaf. Goya moved to the villa outside of Madrid in 1819 when the artist himself suffered from hearing loss. His hearing loss was caused by an unknown illness when he was 46, leaving him almost completely deaf.
The original Greek myth would actually describe about how each son would be swallowed whole, still being alive by the time they reached Saturn's stomach. The artist here clearly chooses to amend the original story in order to increase the level of shock experienced by the viewer. Here, the son is essentially being chewed to death and this allows a more graphic image to be delivered. It is perhaps this change that helps to make this painting so well known and memorable, even within his respected Black Paintings series. Rubens' version from 1639 would also increase the drama as compared to the original content. In his version, Saturn apepars to be literally sucking out the heart of his victim, which is something incredibly disturbing when witnessed amidst the realistic forms created by these two masters. The Baroque movement was fundamentally about drama and excitement, with Goya then appending his own dark shadow upon proceedings with his work from 1636.
If we examine the larger image below, which provides greater detail of the original painting, you will notice some fairly gruesome images. Saturn's hair is wildly untidy and grey, suggesting an elderly age. His expression appears to be one of madness, staring into the distance with his eyes as wide open as they could ever be. His fingers grip deeply into the torso of the child, with blood oozing out into his hands, such is the tightness of his grip - there is simply no escape. The attack takes place in a darkened environment, as if in the depths of a cave, where he will not be disturbed and no saviour for his victims will ever arrive. He is on one knee as he struggles with this body, and there is nothing graceful or even planned about these events, it is just a willful, animal-like attack that has already resulted in the head being consumed. As the legs and buttocks hang motionless, there is a feeling of lifelessness, but also of the vulnerability of this small creature who has fallen foul of this brutal beast, just as others have already done.
"...The painting is essential to our understanding of the human condition in modern times, just as Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel ceiling is essential to understanding the tenor of the 16th century..."
Fred Licht, Goya: The Origins of the Modern Temper in Art (1983)
The Black Paintings were frescos in the house and include fourteen works (plus, potentially and unconfirmed additional piece) with dark themes and images. Like Saturn Devouring His Son, Tow Old Men Eating Soup was also added to Goya's dining room. The painting also features a dark representation of the act of eating. In addition to the dining room, the murals were also added to sitting rooms. In 1874, the murals were removed and transferred onto canvas. They are now part of the Museo del Prado's collection in Madrid. Francisco Goya was one of Spain's most influential artists, especially during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. He serves as a bridge between the Old Masters and modern artist that emerged after 1800. Born in 1746 in the Aragon village of Fuendetodos, Goya began studying art when he was 14. As discussed, Rubens came to his attention and provided some influence, but Spanish painter Diego Velazquez was also important, both as a portrait painter but also as someone who served the Spanish court but was still able to generate an individual reputation.
In 1786, he painted for the Spanish Court and created portraits of royalty and aristocrats. After suffering significant hearing loss in 1793, Goya and his work became bleaker. His paintings and prints began to reflect social and political themes as well as his own personal fears and anxieties. Goya's experience during the Peninsular War and conflicts in Spain during the early nineteenth century were reflected in his Disasters of War, a precursor to the Black Paintings. The series represented anti-violence themes that were also at the heat of his paintings The Second of May 1808 and The Third of May 1808 in 1814. In 1824, Goya moved to France and settled in Bordeaux. He continued to paint and created his La Tauromaquia series of prints that depicted bullfighting scenes. A stroke left him partially paralysed and his failing eyesight made painting increasingly difficult. In 1828, Goya died in Bordeau at the age of 82, and his entire life and career are examined in greater detail within this biography.
The artist would produce the entire series that became titled his Black Paintings within his home of the time. They were, essentially, murals that decorated his walls. He did not intend for them to be seen by others and they were not for sale, making them amongst his most honest and personal paintings. They were then later transferred to canvas and have now become a part of the collection of the Prado Museum in Madrid, where their preservation can much better be secured. Many of the finest paintings in Spanish art history can be found in this venue, as well as notable items from other European artists. Las Meninas from Diego Velazquez is perhaps the most prominent piece of them all, but the collection is equally impressive in its breadth as much as the highlights that draw in so many millions of visitors each and every year. There are also several other galleries in walking distance with a more modern offering.
Initially, the artist's work within his home was much more positive but over time his mood would clearly darker, and his work likewise. Many find this series to be his finest period of work, but it is hard to attract those less knowledgeable about art history by using these depressing, emotional displays of inner turmoil. Emotion has been the secret of many famous artist's success, across a variety of different movements, going all the way back to the Renaissance. It's expression can produce extraordinary art, and whilst many prefer positive emotions on canvas, there is no reason why more negative feelings can also be highly effective in connecting the artist with the viewer. Goya did it beautifully, perhaps aided in this series by avoiding any concern for others, and intending the artworks purely for his own enjoyment. It was perhaps the rawest version of his mind on canvas that we might have hoped for, with Saturn Devouring His Son depicting a number of negative emotions such as fear, paranoia and perhaps even madness.
There have been some extraordinary artworks over the centuries that have drawn attention to some of the strongest negative emotions. In some cases, artists have even produced whole series that have looked at one after another, such as Expressionist painter, Edvard Munch. He famously gave us the iconic The Scream, but was actually someone who frequently visited these types of themes, with other pieces including the likes of Anxiety and Despair. It was perhaps the long winters where sunlight was scarce in his native Norway that brought out some of these emotions, though they did inspire some of his best work. Many years earlier we also saw Melancholia from Albrecht Durer which makes use of etching techniques to represent mental problems. In other cases it is actually the style of the painting itself which leaves the biggest impact, with some examples from early European art including Judith Beheading Holofernes by Caravaggio and also Bosch's right hand panel from The Garden of Earthly Delights which focused entirely on the experience of Hell. In all, these items are really important for reminding us all that art is not just about pleasing one's eyes with something positive, but also covering other aspects of the human mind and all of it's complexities.
It is highly unfortunate the most of the murals were damaged when being transferred onto canvas in order to remove them from their original location. Baron Émile d´Erlanger purchased Goya's former house in 1873 for the sole purpose of becoming the owner of this series of paintings. He immediately sought to have them transferred to canvas so that they could be stored and displayed elsewhere but unfortunately this process was carried out in a fairly crude manner and, as a result, many of the murals lost some of their paint during the process. Having never been intended to be removed, perhaps this was inevitable. Eventually the Baron decided to donate these items to the Spanish nation and they were installed in the Prado Museum in 1889, where their treatment has been far more professional and caring ever since. Many scientific techniques and advancements have occurred since then, too, meaning there has been an opportunity to atleast repair some of the damage caused during this transition.
Tom Gurney in an art history expert. He received a BSc (Hons) degree from Salford University, UK, and has also studied famous artists and art movements for over 20 years. Tom has also published a number of books related to art history and continues to contribute to a number of different art websites. You can read more on Tom Gurney here.