Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes
Oil on tin-plated iron
16 7/8 x 12 3/8 in. (42.9 x 31.4 cm)
Meadows Museum, SMU, Dallas. Algur H. Meadows Collection, MM.67.01
Listen to Meadows Museum docent Linda Ferguson discuss this work (3:33 minutes)
Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes (1746–1828)
Yard with Madmen, 1794
by Linda Ferguson, Meadows Museum docent
This is a small (13 x 17 inches) but dramatic painting. Through the murk, the light illuminates the muscled back of the naked man in the center. As he fights another naked man, a guard whips him to separate them. Behind them, a man wearing only a shirt crawls on all fours. In the foreground, the man on the left stands with folded arms, the man on the right sits clutching his knees. Both stare vacantly at the viewer.
This mysterious and disturbing scene is not what most artists probably would choose to paint. But Goya was not most artists. He lived from 1746 to 1828, a tumultuous era which spanned the Enlightenment, the French Revolution, the Napoleonic Wars, and the early Romantic period.
He painted Yard with Madmen in early 1794. His letters show that for much of 1793 he had suffered a terrible illness. Though he recovered from most symptoms, he lost his hearing permanently. While recuperating he painted 12 small ‘cabinet paintings’ on identically sized pieces of tin.
He had set out to explore caprices (caprichos), imaginary subjects from his own fantasy and imagination. Six were bullfight scenes, but the others were dark explorations: a stagecoach robbery, a shipwreck, a fire at night, a sinister group of strolling players, a prison, and…a yard with madmen. He sent the first eleven to the Royal Art Academy for assessment. On January 7, 1794, he wrote his Academy contact saying that he had begun the last painting:
“ …a courtyard of lunatics (corral con locos), two of whom are fighting nude with their overseer beating them, and the others wearing sacks. It is a scene which I witnessed in Zaragoza.”
For his final cabinet painting, he re-visited his own specific memory. Also, by 1793 turmoil in nearby France reached a fever pitch. In 1793, Louis XVI (first cousin to Spain’s king) and later Marie Antoinette were guillotined! By autumn the Reign of Terror had begun.
Now, look at the painting again. Note the light and peace above and darkness and turmoil below. The inmates can see the Light but are shut off from it. Note some figures behave like animals without reason, while others seem in stasis. Is the prominent gesticulating man trying to communicate something? If so, what? Think of the cacophonous sounds Goya might have heard when he had visited, but no longer can. And where is Goya? When he was there he may have been walking on the walls with the Sunday strollers and observing los locos furiosos below Here, his viewpoint is from down in the yard with the madmen. And so is ours. So many questions from one small painting.