Classical Forms and Subjects in Caravaggio and Goya (idea)
|Since they were separated by great quantities of time, geography, and political context, it is unsurprising that Francisco Goya and the artist known to modern viewers as Caravaggio also had great dissimilarities as artists. One, an Italian painter working around the turn of the 16th century, was steeped in the traditions of Italian painting and lived in Rome under a firm, absolutist rule. The other, a Spaniard living in 18th century Madrid, was trained in the Baroque-Rococo style and reflected within his work the constant political turmoil of his era. Although both artists did have a common background as apprentice to another less well-known artist, visited Rome to study the great masters of art, shared an artist’s sense of isolation, and could certainly seen as a respective product of his time, similarities between the two are highly general and end right about there.|
It is no surprise, then, that each artist would have deeply unique motives and methods for the painting of classical subjects. Although both painters had in common an indirect relationship with the symbols of their subject matter, Caravaggio’s personal interest in the themes of his Bacchus is presumably so dissimilar from Goya’s reasons for painting Saturn Devouring His Children as to make the comparison somewhat humorous. The historical, political, and artistic currents that surround each work could hardly be more dissimilar, and it is this same sense of dissimilarity that pervades any and all comparison between each painting’s respective use of both form and subject matter. It provides insight into both artists, however, to consider the reasons that each turned to the same set of mythological figures for inspiration at a key point in his career and how these same subjects could accommodate such wildly differing artistic interpretations.
For many reasons, Caravaggio’s Bacchus can be considered an important early work for the young painter. It is, as Alfred Moir notes, his “first obviously classical work” (Caravaggio, p. 84), and also bridges the artist’s earlier series of paintings, mostly portraits of young boys, and his later religious paintings. It ties works such as the Boy Bitten By A Lizard, which was perhaps completed just before the Bacchus, to others like the Jupiter, Neptune, and Pluto, which can itself be seen as an extension of classical themes and forms explored first in this painting.
Caravaggio’s primary interest in the subject of his Bacchus was perhaps that it crystallized, in classical form, the themes already present in previous works such as Boy With a Basket of Fruit, The Lute-Player, and Boy Bitten By A Lizard: lust, intemperance of youth, sensuality, and an obvious visual pun between portraiture of young men juxtaposed against still-life of overripe fruit. All of these are present in the Bacchus, but the painting also superimposes several classical forms upon these subjects, including Bacchus’ toga, the lectus, or ancient couch, that he reclines upon, his muscular form, and the wreath of fruit that his hair is crowned with. Bacchus’ pose itself may draw from a frescoed Bacchus painted by Florentine artist Federico Zuccaro, and Caravaggio may or may not have been inspired by classical sculpture in depicting the drapery that composes Bacchus’ clothing.
That Caravaggio also personally identified with the figure of Bacchus is also undeniable, and the choice of the Grecian god is neither arbitrary nor distantly abstract. Although an earlier Caravaggio self-portrait, titled The Little Bacchus, lacks many of the classical details in the Bacchus, it cements Caravaggio’s association of the god of wine with himself. It is also perhaps a simultaneous homage to two earlier artists within Caravaggio’s tradition of painting, since its pose apes Raphael’s depiction of Michelangelo in his Parnassus. Furthermore, the latter artist, from who Caravaggio (born Michelangelo Merisi) drew his namesake, had also undertaken a drunken, sensual Bacchus as subject for sculpture at about the same age that Caravaggio completed his painting. The figure of Bacchus was certainly woven into Caravaggio’s personal myth, and Moir is quick to point out in his own summary of the work that the painting was “a kind of living symbolism” for the artist (ibid).
Although some critical apologists have since tried to excuse the Bacchus as allegorically Christian, presumably because of the subtle expression on the young man’s face and his offering of wine, this seems unlikely in the light of other details of the painting. The expression of the young Bacchus, first of all, seems more sly, ironic, and sensual than austere, and it doesn’t take a whole lot of added interpretation to divine that the wine which he offers is mere metaphor for what he really presents to the viewer: his own body. Furthermore, the fact that this Bacchus is possibly the same farmer-tanned model that was used for study in earlier works like The Lute Player, The Musicians, and Boy Bitten By a Lizard makes the allegorical argument difficult to accept.
Furthermore, there is other evidence that although Caravaggio may or may not have been tutored in how to bend his painting slightly towards a Christian symbolism, he was obviously much more interested in the sensuality of his figure. The basket of fruit just below Bacchus, for instance, is literally bursting from overripeness and itself contains details that reflect upon the impermanence of beauty, such as the wormhole in one of the apples and the several pieces of fruit which appear to be wilting. This is, above all, a painting about the fleeting beauty of youth, and although Caravaggio draws from many classical works for the subject and composition of his painting, his motives for painting the Bacchus are entirely personal.
Although Caravaggio’s connection to his painting is personal, it is hardly opaque. This, however, is decidedly not the case with Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Children, which eschews the physical, superficial (in the purest sense of that word) interests of the Bacchus and focuses instead on rendering a deeply enigmatic and interior psychological state. This is perhaps because the paintings were produced for two wholly different audiences; while the Bacchus was presumably crafted for viewing by others, the Saturn was never intended for reception outside of Goya’s own home. In fact, the latter was actually painted directly onto the wall of the artist’s dining room, and it was only through the work of Salvador Martinez Cubells that the painting was eventually transferred to canvas.
Most critics agree that attempts to somehow decipher the symbols of the painting are inevitably futile. The Saturn, along with the other “black paintings” of that period in Goya’s career, is quite obviously rendered with an impenetrable personal symbolism, and viewers can only speculate a meaning for the painting’s motifs.
This is, however, not to say that the circumstances surrounding the creation of the work are themselves opaque. We know, for instance, that by the time that Goya painted the Saturn, he was more than seventy years old, almost completely deaf, had survived several different, terrible political upheavals, and had moved to near isolation just outside of the Puente de Segovia. His wife, Donna Josefa Bayeu, had died nearly ten years previously, his son had been married for nearly fifteen, and the artist completed the Saturn, along with the six or seven other pinturas negras that decorated his dining room, presumably only for his own viewing.
We also know that Goya completed several sketches for the paintings of this period, and that he may or may not have been influenced by a Rubens painting of the same subject. The Saturn also, alone among the black paintings, takes its subject matter (though not its formal composition) from classical sources.
Why, however, a painter such as Goya, who was well-studied in traditions of realism, would paint a work so grotesque and abstract as the Saturn is a question that begs to be answered through generalization. Motives aside, most viewers would agree that Saturn’s manic facial expression, his wild hair, and the intensity of his eyes’ reflection, painted egg-white on an otherwise grey canvas, all contribute to a deep sense of terror in the composition, which is perhaps explained by any combination of the circumstances previously described. Also of note is the deranged shape both of Saturn himself in the painting and of his partially-eaten child, each of which is barely recognizable as a human form.
One possible set of explanations for the symbols of the painting is offered by Folke Nordstrom, author of Goya, Saturn and Melancholy. Nordstrom aligns the figure of Saturn with an intense cruelty, the pathos of weak old age, and a hermit-like isolation, all of which were reflected in Goya’s own life experiences at the time of the painting’s completion. He also connects the primary figure and black keytone of the painting both to each other ( “Saturn’s colour is black,” he remarks on page 198) and to a greater sense of melancholy. “In connection with his illness of 1819,” he notes, Goya “may naturally have been specially plagued by melancholy—a condition so often ascribed to the influence to Saturn” (Nordstrom, p. 197). It is important to note, however, that as knowledgeable as these estimates are, they are still just those: estimates.
The more that one considers the Bacchus and the Saturn, the less, he or she realizes, that these two paintings have in common. It is true enough that each takes its subject matter from Greek mythology and reflects the particular interests of its composer, but these interests are almost completely opposing and lead to wildly different handling of subject matter. One, the domain of an artist just beginning his career, is concerned with lust, virility, and the power, above all, of youth. The other, approached by an artist at the twilight of his artistic life, is interested in the feebleness, impotence, and cruelty of old age. Both paintings are thus handled completely differently, and twist the same traditions of myth into nearly hostile, opposite visions.
Moir, Alfred. Caravaggio. NY: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1982
Nordström, Folke. Goya, Saturn, And Melancholy. Stockholm, Sweden: Almqvist & Wiksell, 1962