Art History Analysis of Saturn Devouring His Son by Francisco Goya (A Grade Paper)

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Marc Boas
Professor N. Corazzo
Saturn Devouring His Son
On February 27th, 1918 Francisco de Goya y Lucientes, born on March 30th, 1746 (aged
73), became the owner of a property in suburban Madrid called ​Quinta del Sordo, ​which
translates to “Farmhouse of the Deaf.” The property gained this name after a previous deaf
owner, yet the name was weirdly appropriate, as an undiagnosed illness left Goya deaf around
1793. This illness marked not only the downfall of his official career as a court painter, but a
change in both his personality as well as the tone and style of
the works he would create thereafter. Between 1819 and
1823, in the seclusiveness of his private property, Goya
painted fourteen large oil paintings, directly onto the plaster
walls of his home. Goya never mentioned these paintings, nor
did he intend for anyone else to see them. It wasn’t until 50
years later that these paintings, soon dubbed ​Pinturas Negras
or ‘Black Paintings,’ were discovered and, after a delicate
and inevitably destructive process, were transferred onto
canvas and then displayed at the ​Exposition Universelle ​of
1878, in Paris. One of these fourteen paintings is​ Saturno
devorando a su hijo ​or “Saturn devouring his son,” (A title
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given to the painting by others, not Goya himself) which is the painting this essay will explore.
To understand this painting, a much closer look will have to be given at Goya’s personal history,
as well as the myth that is the subject of this painting. Only then can today’s audience begin to
interpret a painting that Francisco de Goya never meant for anyone to see or understand.
In order to get into the context more closely related to the painting, some details must be
shared about Goya’s life that led him to painting this work. At the same time it must be
recognized that Goya’s history is intricate enough that entire books have been written about it,
thus this paper does not pretend to give anything close to a complete understanding of Goya’s
life. Goya was born in Fuendetodos, a province of Aragon, Spain. His education as an artist
started at a young age, as he started studying under painter José Luzán in Zaragoza at age
fourteen. At age eighteen, with already a few prizes under his name, Goya travelled to Madrid,
where in 1763 and again in 1766 he tried, unsuccessfully, to get recognized by the Royal
Academy of Fine Arts of Saint Ferdinand. In 1771, Goya returned to to Zaragoza and painted
elements of the cupolas of the “Basilica of the Pillar.” He befriended Francisco Bayeu, whose
sister Josefa he married on July 25th 1773. They had their first child, Antonio Juan Ramon
Carlos, on August 19th 1774. At this time he started getting royal commissions, such as tapestry
cartoon designs and etchings. His style most closely fits that of the rococo style, though he was
also heavily influenced by Velazquez.
In 1783, the Count of Floridablanca, who was friends with Charles III of Spain,
commissioned Goya to paint his portrait. He became friends with Crown Prince Don Luis, and
spent two summers working on portraits of him and his family. in 1789, Goya was appointed
court painter to Charles IV, whom he had become close friends with, and the year after he
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became First Court Painter. He painted many portraits of the royal family, and these paintings
are known for their brutally honest perception of the royals. Many contemporary interpreters say
that Goya’s paintings echo an underlying message of corruption and decay. Once again skipping
over many details of his life, as mentioned earlier, around 1793 Goya was left deaf as the result
of an unknown disease. After he lost his hearing, Goya became more introspective and
withdrawn, and it marked a dark turning point in his art. While he was making religious
paintings for official commissions, at the same time he produced multiple etchings that were
later published as ​Los Caprichos.​ These 80 etchings started to show the reflective and more
pessimistic mental state that Goya was headed towards. Not only did his illness leave Goya deaf,
it is believed that he also suffered from paranoid dementia, miniature strokes, and brain damage.
In the following years, Goya would only suffer more, as his country was invaded by
Napoleon, putting his brother in charge and brutally murdering those who resisted his campaign.
The work Goya, who was witness to all this bloodshed, made in this time marks an even more
drastic change in the tone and subject of his work, as his art becomes darker, more dramatic, and
somewhat seemed to come from a nightmare fantasy realm.
In 1812, during the interim, resistors wrote the constitution of 1812 which, among many
other liberal ideas, asked for social and political reform. However, the Spanish monarchy was
restored in 1814, when King Charles VII came to power. The new king immediately got rid of
the constitution and arrested those who wrote it. Art historians believe that this is when Goya
fully retracted himself from society, being disillusioned with the hope for political and religious
reform, as the Catholic Bourbon Monarchy had returned to power. It was in a state (after
surviving two life threatening diseases) of loneliness, old age, fear of madness, and one in which
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he had gained a grim clarity of the realities around him, that he moved into the​ Quinta del Sordo.
Between 1819 and 1823, in the privacy that the walls of his home provided him with, Goya
started, as mentioned before, painting directly with oil paint onto the plaster walls of ​Quinta del
Sordo.​ One of these fourteen paintings, located in his dining hall, next to a painting in a similar
style of Judith and Holofernes, was “Saturn devouring his son.”
The paintings were transferred onto canvas some 70 years later. However, at this point
time had already taken its toll, and the paintings had deteriorated badly. The new owner of the
house, the Belgian Baron Emile d'Erlanger, had this done under the direction of Salvador
Martínez Cubells, the chief art restorer at the Museo del Prado, where, after being shown at the
Exposition Universelle ​and eventually donated to the spanish state by d’Erlanger, they remain on
permanent display. The transferring process inevitably damaged the paintings, but compared to
some of the other ‘black paintings,’ “Saturn” seems to have survived relatively well. The size of
its canvas is 143 by 81 cm (56 by 32 in).
Before we can fully understand the meaning of Goya’s “Saturn devouring his son,” it is
essential that the reader first understand the myth that Goya draws the painting’s subject from. In
Greek mythology, as recorded by Hesiod's Theogony, the titan Cronus, (also spelled Kronos, and
later known in Roman mythology as Saturnus) god of time, was the youngest son of the 12
children (known as Titans) of Uranus (Heaven) and Gaea/Gaia (Earth). Cronus envied the power
of his father, who was the ruler of the universe, and his mother had become quite mad at his
father as well, for reasons irrelevant to this context. Together they devised a plan to overthrow
Uranus: Gaia created a large stone sickle and gave it to her son, who used it to ambush his father
and castrate him. After Uranus was defeated, Cronus became the king of the Titans, and made
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his sister Rhea his wife. Together they had multiple children, who some readers may find to be
some of the most recognizable Greek gods, such as Hestia, Demeter, Hera, Hades, and Poseidon.
Cronus learned from Gaia and Uranus that he was destined to be overthrown by one of his own
sons, just as he had overthrown his father. (cyclic fate is recurring theme in Greek mythology)
To prevent this, Cronus swallowed all of his children whole, as soon as they were born, to
prevent the prophecy. When Zeus was born, however, Rhea hid him on the greek island Crete
and tricked Cronus into swallowing a stone instead. Zeus grew up, forced Cronus to disgorge his
brothers and sisters, waged war on Cronus, and was victorious. After his defeat by Zeus, Cronus
became, according to different versions of his story, either a prisoner in Tartarus (part of the
underworld) or king in Elysium (paradise for the blessed dead).
Goya took the moment from this myth in which Cronus/Saturn eats his own children and,
as will soon become clear, uses it as an allegory for his own views of the world around him at
that time. Goya made a few changes to the moment that have a significant impact on the
painting’s powerful image. Firstly, in the myth Cronus is said to swallow his children the
moment they are born. However, after giving a closer look at Goya’s painting, the viewer can
determine that the body that Cronus holds in his bloodied hands is that of an adult, most likely
male. This leads us to the second detail: in the myth Cronus swallowed his children whole,
leaving them alive but locked inside him. In the painting, Cronus isn’t swallowing his child, he is
‘devouring’ it. (he may have been influenced in this by an early painting of Saturn by the
Flemish artist Peter Paul Rubens). Already having bitten off his son’s head and most likely the
right arm, Saturn is caught in the act of preparing to take another bite out of the left arm. This
leaves the viewer with the horrifying realization that the grown up child was fully aware of what
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was happening to them. The bloody dismembered body, combined with Saturn’s crazed eyes and
slightly deformed body, make for some of the most strikingly grotesque features of the painting.
This notion seems to be a good start to begin discussing the technical and visual aspects
of the painting. The large painting consists for the most part of a dark background, and from its
shadows Saturn the Titan looms. Goya has used a very limited color pallet for this painting,
sticking to warmer and more earth-like tones of red and orange. The painting uses strong
diagonal directional lines, created by Saturn’s arms and legs, and leading the viewer’s eye
upward to Saturn’s head and to the bloodied nude figure in his hands. Though the painting
showcases some anatomical correctness, much of Saturn’s body seems deformed, as both his
legs as well as his right arm seem to disappear into the shadow (partly due to deterioration),
almost as if he is falling apart. This would align with an image of Saturn though, for he was said
to be a crippled old giant, further illustrated by his wild white hair and beard.
There are only a few moments of brightness in this painting, seemingly coming from a
single light source to the top left of the painting. Highlights are found in different places on
Saturn’s body, most strongly on his right arm and knuckles. The only other bright moments
come from the white flesh and saturated blood of the child, as it seeps through Saturn’s fingers.
Lastly, there are the Titan’s bright bulging eyes, staring at the viewer, almost as if he had just
been caught by an explorer with a flashlight that walked into the wrong cave. To many, Saturn’s
eyes are the most captivating part of the painting. The look draws the viewer’s attention, as he
makes them a witness of the horrifying act he is committing. Yet, at the same time, one might
observe that his eyes express the same kind of terror that might be experienced by the observer
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of this scene. A terror that he might feel in response to being discovered in this unspeakable
Now that all of this context has been provided in relation to Goya’s life, work, the
painting and its location, as well as the myth depicted, an interpretation can be given as two what
this painting meant to Goya. There are many different theories (way too many to discuss in this
essay) as to what this painting was supposed to mean to Goya. Some suggest it might not be
Saturn at all, but rather a more general monster: Satan. Some think the body being eaten is Goya
himself, supporters of this theory point to the fact that the Spanish ​Saturno ​means not only
Saturn, but also the element ‘lead.’ In addition to that, ​Saturnismo​ means lead poisoning, one of
the possible things that evidence suggests Goya may have suffered from. There are many more
interpretations that could be explored, but for the sake of length, I will focus on only one, by
many thought to be the most likely/meaningful interpretation, including myself. (I am not certain
that it is the most likely, but I surely think it gives the painting the most significance)
As described in Goya’s historical context, by the time he came to live in ​Quinta del
Sordo​ he had become disillusioned with his country and the hope for political and religious
reform. In his solitude and near madness, Goya saw the world around him with an honest clarity.
He brought this honesty to his ‘black paintings.’ Painting not just a bleak image of his reality, but
a satirical and witful one. Francisco de Goya had seen the resistance win, a new generation (like
the Greek gods) that promised progress, but, just like that, that resistance was demolished, eaten
by their father, returning the country to a state in which the corrupt Monarchy ruled. However,
unlike the greek gods, who were saved by Zeus after he forced Cronus to spit his brothers and
sisters back up (since Cronos had swallowed them whole), Goya had a more grim view for the
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future of the resistance, torn to pieces by its father, Spain. Goya’s painting was a reminder, for
himself, as it was never intended to be seen by anyone, that progress isn’t assured.
“I have neither given or received, nor have I tolerated others’ use of unauthorized aid.”
Marcus Boas
Personal endnote: There were multiple things that inspired me to write this paper about
“Saturn devouring his son” and I think the abundance of references that I encountered (such as
the “Amerika eating its children” print that I saw in NYC, the work from our very own senior
Jalisa, a background appearance in a TV-show I watch, called Altered Carbon, or even the
monster from the amazing film “Pan’s labyrinth”) speaks to the impact this painting has had on
today’s culture. I was already a fan of this painting, but this research essay has made me into an
absolute Goya lover, or so to say.
Lastly, I want to thank you personally for a whole two semesters of pure joy. I know it
was a special year for you as a professor, coming back after such a tough time, and I am
extremely grateful for being able to spend it with you. And I am equally grateful to what you
have shared with me in the classroom. If anything, you made me realize just how much of an art
nerd I am. Dankjewel!
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Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Cronus.” ​Encyclopædia Britannica,​ Encyclopædia
Britannica, Inc., 23 Apr. 2018,
Gassier, Pierre. ​Goya: Biographical and Critical Study.​ New York, Skira, 1955. Print.
“Goya, Saturn Devouring His Son.” Khan Academy, Khan Academy,
Hughes, Robert, and Francisco Goya. ​Goya.​ New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003. Print.
Muller, Prescillia E. ​Goya's ‘Black’ Paintings.​ New York, The Hispanic Society of America,
1984. Print.
“The Most Disturbing Painting.” ​YouTube,​ uploaded by Nerdwriter1, 1 March 2018,
“The Style of Francisco Goya.” ​YouTube,​ uploaded by Matt Chewiwie, 21 November 2006,