Brilliant Strokes of Madness

The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters. One of Los Caprichos by Goya, the concept still feels contemporary.

“The fact is that genius and madness are intertwined functions of the brain. A work of art is the result of two mental processes and his illness: acquiring the visual impression and elaboration of the latter to transform it into a work of art.” Felisati and Sperati


Francisco Jose de Goya y Lucientes and Vincent van Gogh were born on the same day over a century apart. Both men are renowned for the expressiveness of their work and the hint of madness that at times seemed to fuel it.


Francisco Jose de Goya y Lucientes (b. March 30 1746, d. April 16 1828) lived through chaotic times. His biting satirical etchings and bold, often harsh, painting style has led many to proclaim him ‘the first of the moderns.’ The first half of his life was spent under the peaceful and relatively enlightened rule of Charles III of Spain, but this was to be followed by years of reaction and fighting.


Many of Goya’s most famous works, especially those produced in the later part of his life, were shaped by cynicism and disillusionment caused by the political upheaval and wars of his time. Their dark images still haunt us today.

La Cometa. One of Goya’s tapestry cartoons.


At age 13 Goya was apprenticed to a local artist, and in 1763 and 1766 he competed for scholarships in Madrid while working in the studio of a court painter. He spent years painting cartoons (designs) for tapestries to be produced at the Royal Factory. Through those years he mostly painted contemporary Spanish scenes. Over time his style grew more naturalistic. After studying Velazquez his brush technique grew looser, a trend which would continue through his life. In 1786 he was accepted as a painter to the King, and in 1789 as a court painter to the new king Charles IV.


The nude Maja. Painted c. 1800.

During a visit to Andalusia in 1792 Goya fell morbidly ill. His ailment included temporary paralysis and left him permanently deaf. From this period on his uncommissioned works begin to reflect more fantasy and invention than before, while his commissioned works continued to follow the conventional formulas.


The cause of his illness remains unknown. The most common speculations are syphilis (rather the brutal heavy metal treatments for it), and long term poisoning from his pigments.

Charles IV and his Family.


The answer might well be both. Artists preferred to use pigments with mineral origins, since those tend to last longer. Cinnabar which was used for red paint, has mercury in it, and lead was used as a base in many pigments. It’s still considered the best white. Those ingredients do bad things to the body and especially the nervous system. (Fainting fits, nausea, hallucinations, deafness, depression, dementia…many of which do seem in line with Goya’s symptoms.)

Love and Death. Los Caprichios.


Los Caprichos, a series of 80 etchings, were published in 1799. These works criticized social, political, and religious issues. Though their language was veiled, within a few days they were withdrawn from sale. (Goya would later claim to have been denounced to the Inquisition because of those etchings.) Despite the stir these works created Goya was promoted to first court painter a few months later. By 1802 he had fallen from favor; maybe for his satirical etchings, for his unflattering portrayal of royalty in his paintings, or the introduction of a more pleasing style to court.

The Same. One of the Disasters of War aquatint series. Not published until 35 years after his death, they show that the war had a profound effect on his mental state.


During the Napoleonic invasions and the Spanish War of Independence Goya worked as a court painter for the French. His actions during this period seem disappointingly equivocal, but based on etchings of the Disasters of War he made after 1810 he can hardly have been left unaffected by the showcase of horrors war presented.

Untitled, one of the so called Black paintings that he painted on the walls of his dining and living rooms. (Often called Saturn devouring his son.)


When the Spanish monarchy was restored Goya was pardoned. In 1819 Goya was again struck by a serious illness. That year he moved outside of Madrid (away from the Inquisition) and decorated the walls of his new home with the nightmarish Black Paintings.


In 1824 Goya left Spain and went into a voluntary exile in France, where he died in 1828.


van Gogh

Vincent van Gogh (b. March 30 1853, d. 29 July 1890) was a post-impressionist painter who has become vastly more popular posthumously than he was while alive. In some ways the story of his life, personal entanglements (and estrangements) and madness seem to fuel his art, sometimes they seem to overshadow it.

Self Portrait with Straw Hat. 1887/88


Art as religion seem to have been the two passions in his family tree. He learned to draw as a child, had a position with an art dealing firm as a young man, and after that didn’t work out thought about becoming a pastor and did missionary work. Returning to art, in the last ten years of his life he produced over 2000 paintings, drawings and sketches. His long suffering brother, Theo, was an art dealer. Most of what we know about van Gogh comes from the hundreds of letters the two exchanged.


Van Gogh lost his job with the art dealers because he resented treating art like a commodity and wasn’t able to hide that opinion from his customers. He then looked to religion for his vocation but social and family turmoil challenged that.

The Potato Eaters. The classic example of his early color scheme and brush style.


In 1882 he was introduced to oil and watercolors. For a man now known for a vibrant palette, his original color choices were extremely dull. Sorry, muted earth-tones. (Dull.) His early works featured delicate, well blended brush strokes very different from those we picture with his name.


His work didn’t sell and he abused his brother for not pushing them hard enough. His brother in turn pointed out that they were nothing like the bright, Impressionistic pieces then in style.

Portrait of Pierre Tanguy showing the influence of Japanese art on van Gogh’s style and colors.


Van Gogh studied painting styles and color theory and experimented with a brighter palette. He discovered the Japanese woodcuts that would influence his lines and boldness of color. The woodcuts may also have affected his sense of perspective and general avoidance of shadows for modeling dimension.


He hoped to gather a group of artists around him like the salons and schools he saw in Paris, but his mental state and relationships were never stable, nor were plenty of the people he put his faith in. The most famous falling out was with artist Paul Gauguin, which seems to have precipitated the famous cutting off part of his ear episode.

Paul Gauguin’s Armchair.


After this he committed himself to an asylum, where actually he painted some of his most famous pieces. I think nearly everyone knows Starry Night whether or not they know van Gogh painted it.


After leaving the asylum he continued to paint every day, but his paintings still didn’t sell and his life seemed to be continually falling apart. He tried to commit suicide by shooting himself and died two days later. His brother Theo was devastated and only outlived him by six months.

Starry Night.


Together they left a legacy of a tortured man and brilliant canvases which influenced the Modernist movement and continue to touch people today.

Vase with 12 Sunflowers.


(If you’re interested in further reading on the matter of van Gogh’s death, Joe Nickell wrote an article that was published in the September/October 2012 issue of the skeptical Inquirer looking at the recent allegations of murder in detail. It essentially boils down to wishful thinking, taking testimony out of context, and a refusal to believe that someone with such artistic ability most likely did kill himself.)


Filed under Art

2 responses to “Brilliant Strokes of Madness

  1. The treatment for syphilis is probably comparable to some brutal modern chemotherapy regimes. Sure, they can effect a cure, but it’s sometimes at a miserable cost.

    I should stop sucking these brushes, right?

    • I think depending on the cancer chemo has a much higher success rate. But it is still pretty much ingesting poison hoping it’ll poison the disease more than the person.

      Probably, yeah. Though I’m figuring you probably don’t mix your own pigments, and most are required by law to have warning labels for the really icky ingredients. I use mostly acrylics these days, which while I probably shouldn’t suck the brushes probably won’t make my tongue fall off either…

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