The image depicted is one that I will be analyzing for an upcoming essay. I have chosen Spanish painter Francisco Goya’s “Saturn Devouring His Son” (1819-1823). The subject depicted in a Romanticized style is the Roman god, Saturn, anguished by the prophecy that one of his children will be overthrown by one of his children; in response, he ate each them after their birth, except for one, Jupiter. This particular artwork was oil painted as a mural on the walls of Goya’s farmhouse located in the outskirts of Madrid; however, it was later transferred onto a four inch eight centimeter by two inch eight centimeter canvas for the purposes that the initial intent was not of public display. “Saturn Devouring His Son” is a part of 14 of his “Black Paintings” movement in which reflects his reclusive, paranoiac, and depressive behavior during the political turbulence of the Napoleonic War.
After the French Revolution, dictator Napoleon Bonaparte inflicted the Peninsular War (1807-1814). Wishing to enact his plan of the Continental System, a blockade towards British trade in Europe, Portugal was the only country to maintain its British affiliations. To obstruct this, Napoleon formulates an invasion of Portugal by dethroning Spanish King Charles IV and his son, King Ferdinand VII. Napoleon’s brother, Joseph, was then inducted to the throne. The end results were a massive Guerrilla warfare among Spanish civilians and the French Army lasting for many years up until Ferdinand VII was reinstated in 1814. Goya, still being entitled as the royal artist, was ordered to paint the French monarch for the time being. Once King Ferdinand VII restored the Inquisition, a document imposing permanence of the monarch, Goya and many other liberals that were influenced or associated by Enlightenment thinking were in constant threat of imprisonment. To demonstrate his allegiance, Goya commemorates two paintings “The Second of May 1808” and “The Third of May 1808” which have similar techniques as “Saturn Devouring His Son”. Still in threat, Goya exiled himself from his farmhouse in Madrid to France for the remainder of his life.
Nonetheless, the reason why I selected “Saturn Devouring His Son” is that it is different from most of the paintings at the time. Depending on the region, for instance, Europe (Italy, Britain, and France) was focused on the preservation of ruins, particularly the ruins of the Roman Empire. Others would focus on the naturalist viewpoint of surrounding land. However, Goya’s painting depicts a movement in art and literature that relies on strong emotions of spontaneity, imagination, and freedom of solitary – it was a rebellion against social conventions. Not only that, I find the context of this picture intriguing when I had first known about it. To think of the feeling of being reclusive and allowing one’s imagination transform into fears and nightmares is quite haunting to know that no one was there to help, but instead allowing these fear be immortalized and depicted on a surface to be reminded on a consistency. The image itself drew in the sense of wondering what Goya was thinking, what were his thoughts. The imagery of the picture can only give a slight impression of his insight and most importantly why and how this myth is in correlation to himself.
Click here for a brief video analysis of “Saturn Devouring His Son”
The narrative elements of the illustration can be inferred that the brutality of Saturn coming to the decision of eating his child was burdensome. The picture itself shows wide-eyed Saturn in a brownish color crouching or kneeling where light hits his face, the corpse, and some parts of his body at an angle in dark brown background with shadowed undertones. The illustration itself gives a bold statement of how much of an extent he is willing to take account into the action. However, in a symbolic sense, by him devouring (the action itself) could represent many things: the brutality of clashing empires (French and Spanish), the nature of combat and violence, the savagery of man’s actions as to be justified for the moral good of the empire, or more broadly, mental disfigurement. By Saturn clenching the corpse, suggest anger or determination to suppress his will refusing to continue eating. The shadows are as straightforward to imply evil and damnation, or it can represent an internal conflict since he is after all hiding in them. Furthermore, his eyes are somewhat wide because of astonishment by indication of the light spotlighting him at the exact moment of eating his son and just to add, by him crouching refers to a savage and animalistic nature. It can be implied that the burden of believing that fate brought Saturn to enact on a horrendous action could explain why Saturn seems to be burdened by his own realization of doing that action.
As mentioned earlier, Goya in this particular time frame was depicting the literal and mental horrors of war thus explains the purpose of the “Black Paintings”. He was a painter that painted lavish and sophisticated scenarios of the Spanish aristocracy then to a satirist and ending up a deaf painter in exile and excluded from society with a son out of eleven children due to the brutality of the Napoleonic War. However, the vagueness of the picture itself is the myth of Saturn. The myth could give a bit more clarity of to its meaning as a full picture and perhaps why this picture in particular is his best work.
The composition of the painting is a centered portrait with a drab color scheme whereas the iconography is the naked Saturn with a gory corpse and the paranoid Goya that was mentioned beforehand. On the topic of empires, it seems that the gore and pride of each country is not worth as many lives to be sacrificed which can be illiterate to the artwork. Saturn is shown as barbaric and resentful of his indulgence of the pride to remain his authority (much like the countries that were fighting in the war). The critique is not so much the barbarism of war, but the pursuance and the willingness to linger onward even though it is not morally right is what Goya is implementing. His argument would be the ignorance to admit that the extents to what these countries are putting themselves into are foolish and irrational.
Sometimes what you see is not what I see…
– Yvette Corina Vargas
Smarthistoryvideos. “Goya, Saturn Devouring One Of His Sons.” YouTube. YouTube, 18 Dec. 2010. Web. 02 Dec. 2016. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3Lawz8TcPig>.