Humiliation, cruelty, horror: Goya knew it all too well

The degradation of a tortured prisoner depicted in this 1815 etching still hasn’t left us

You can just make out a protruding nose and a single, harrowed eye amid the dark gloom of the man’s bowed head and bedraggled beard. His body, in a gauche, unnatural position, cuts diagonally across the page. A triangle of pubic hair is visible through an undergarment, torn off halfway down his thighs. His sallow legs are stippled with acid pock marks. His feet in leg irons are tensed, the toes and arches curled in quiet incredulity.

Some humans — liberals, conservatives, mothers, brothers, priests, soldiers; they come in all stripes — nurse a deep and abiding desire to humiliate others. I think they are a small minority. But it’s in the nature of this minority to seek power — whether in the form of angry online mobs, authoritarian institutions or vengeful armies.

Francisco Goya (1746-1828) was scathing about them. He didn’t care whether they were Spanish or French, soldiers, laborers or monks. He had lived through the Inquisition and the Peninsular War. He had seen the damage such people could do, the cruelty they concocted, the horrors they inflicted.

He made this etching around 1815 — contemporaneous with his great series “The Disasters of War” — and gave it the unusually direct caption: “The custody of a prisoner does not call for torture.”

That’s a good principle. There’s a lot of wisdom behind it. It’s amazing to me that, in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, it was swiftly set aside by the CIA and its overseers. They seemed to think that, in a time of emergency, not using waterboarding techniques or other forms of physical and psychological torment for the sake of a moral principle could be fatally naive. They failed, I think, to see that they were the naive ones — that their treatment of Muslim prisoners would trigger enough moral disgust to fuel generations of anti-Americanism around the world.

Just as alarming is that the principle stated in Goya’s caption continues to be ignored by those who use prolonged solitary confinement and similar measures to torment people in America’s dysfunctional prison system.

Goya spent a large part of his life reflecting on torture. He repeatedly etched and drew men killed by the state, women unjustly imprisoned and individuals hauled before the Inquisition and humiliated. He gave his images such captions as “Garroted Man,” “Many Have Ended Up Like This,” “There was no Remedy” and “One Can’t Look.”

For Goya, torture was not just an abstract, philosophical matter. The year it is believed he made this work, he was called before the Spanish Inquisition — for a second time — and made to justify his paintings of a young woman, or maja, whom he had depicted clothed in one version and naked in the other. Commissioned by Spain’s powerful Prime Minister Manuel Godoy, the paintings had been intended for his private enjoyment. But they came to light when Godoy’s property was confiscated after his fall from grace in 1808.

Goya’s defense — that he was simply working in the long and noble tradition of the female nude — succeeded. By this time the Inquisition was enfeebled, its worst abuses a thing of the past. It had been abolished in 1808 by Joseph Bonaparte but reinstated for several more years in 1814 by Ferdinand VII.

Goya hadn’t necessarily seen the depravity he depicted. He probably invented much of it. He wanted to align himself with Spanish Enlightenment (or ilustrado) thinkers who were critical of the Inquisition. Among them were Juan Agustín Ceán Bermúdez, an art collector and writer; Agustín Argüelles, a liberal politician active in debates that led to the abolition of torture in 1811; and Gaspar Melchor de Jovellanos, an intellectual and reformist politician.

It was Jovellanos, wrote Robert Hughes in his biography of the artist, who did most to shape Goya’s “vision of a Spain where the clerics are torpid and self-seeking, the nobility asinine, [and] the Inquisition a tyranny of superstition.”

Goya made a portrait of Jovellanos seated at his desk that is linked (similar pose, same clothes) to his most famous etching, from his series “Los Caprichos.” It shows a man asleep at a desk, surrounded by bats, cats and owls. Its immortal caption, tailor-made for our own times: “The sleep of reason brings forth monsters.

The custody of a prisoner does not call for torture, ca. 1815
Francisco Goya (b. 1746). At the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Great Works, In Focus

A series featuring art critic Sebastian Smee’s favorite works in permanent collections around the United States. “They are things that move me. Part of the fun is trying to figure out why.”

Photo editing and research by Kelsey Ables. Design and development by Joanne Lee, Leo Dominguez and Junne Alcantara.

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Sebastian Smee is a Pulitzer Prize-winning art critic at The Washington Post and the author of “The Art of Rivalry: Four Friendships, Betrayals and Breakthroughs in Modern Art." He has worked at the Boston Globe, and in London and Sydney for the Daily Telegraph (U.K.), the Guardian, the Spectator, and the Sydney Morning Herald.