Goya: The Witches and Old Women Album

An exhibition at the Courtauld Institute of Art, London.

Linda maestra!, by Goya
Linda maestra!, by Goya

Leathery old hags, bat-like with sinuous limbs and ghoulish eyes, dominate the late private work of Francisco Goya from around 1819-23. Goya’s Witches and Old Women Album, an exhibition currently on display at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London, re-assembles ‘Album D’, which was comprised of 23 drawings in their original sequence. The album provides an insight into the personal imaginings of Goya in the later stages of his life, dating from the time when he also produced the Black Paintings, painted as murals onto the walls of his house. This exhibition raises fresh interest in the representation of the witch in art over the last 500 years.

In the Middle Ages people believed their communities were peppered by real witches. Stereotypes began to form of women huddled around a cooking pot or flying upon a broomstick. The highly misogynist image of the witch stemmed from the Malius Malificarum, 'The Hammer of the Witches', a manuscript used as a guide to identifying a witch, which promoted a public opinion that witches were not only real but highly dangerous and practicing within the community. The church exploited this fear further which led to, from the 16th-18th centuries, Protestant fundamentalists carrying out witch-hunts. It was not until the Enlightenment period that the witch became a figure of satire. 

Goya lived under the enlightened monarch Charles III, and by age 40 he was the court painter under Charles IV, until Napoleon invaded Spain in 1808. This brutal French regime saw mass executions of all Spanish citizens who opposed the incursion. During this time Goya’s work became stylistically darker. After the war, by 1799, his interest in the grotesque had developed and was apparent in his shockingly naturalistic royal family portrait. 

Ferdinand VII did not share Goya’s views on Enlightenment and during his reign Goya separated himself from the aristocracy and took solace in his country home, Quinta Del Sord (‘Deaf Man’s House’), so named because he was left deaf after falling severely ill in 1793. It was at this house that he produced The Black Paintings alongside a series of drawings which prominently featured witches. 

Goya produced around 600 drawings which were divided between eight albums. After his death the albums were disbound and the drawings separated and dispersed. Some have been lost entirely but those that survive from Album D have been assembled and exhibited together here for the very first time. The drawings were intensely personal, and had previously only been seen by his close circle of friends. 

This exhibition is curated as if one were in a dream, in which each drawing acts as a prelude to the next. They work together to provide an insight into Goya’s subconscious. The whole album reflects a perverted vision of human behaviour and unbridled chaos: ‘Wicked Woman’ depicts a hag about to devour an infant; others are naked on broomsticks or bundling children into a large sack for stealing. These women are more like demons, shocking and terrifying the viewer like something from a nightmare.

Removed from his connections with the aristocracy Goya was able to exercise his fantastical thoughts using the witch as a caricature to form a complex allegory of human nature. Goya’s Enlightenment sympathies shine through in his depiction of the clergy: 'They Ascend Joyfully' depicts an old couple, the woman holding a tambourine elevated above a friar. The tambourine's membrane is broken – an allusion to penetration. Here, Goya is satirising and attacking the Catholic church, a theme which is constant within the collection and reminiscent of Los Caprichos, his series of satirical engravings and aquatints.

Although shocking, the images in this exhibition are highly satirical, intended as a commentary on society. Goya draws attention to contemporary prejudices surrounding sex, age and sickness; he turns the witch into a macabre icon that draws together uncomfortable human instincts. The women are either haggard child-eating witches or overtly sexual, and the men are crazed – for example in 'Madness' where a figure is trapped behind bars longing for his release.  

Goya exemplifies the dark art of unsettling images and the witch has always been a fascinating subject matter. Originally used as a symbol of supernatural evil exploited in order to evoke fear within society, the satirical images in this exhibition validate Goya’s insistence that the fears surrounding witches still exist. 

Goya's The Witches and Old Women Album is on display at the Courtauld Institute of Art, London until May 25th, 2015. 

Helen Carr is a researcher, writer and historian.