Saturn Devouring his Children by Francisco de Goya

Posted: May 23, 2012 in Art
Tags: , , , , , , ,

The other day, Jessica O’Neal posted about the Greek Titans and it reminded me of one of my favorite paintings of all time: Saturn Devouring his Children (also known as Saturn Devouring his Son, but I was taught the first title in school, so that’s what I’m stick with here!) by Francisco de Goya. For those of you who are unfamiliar, here is a nice picture of it. (Warning: It isn’t for the faint of heart.)

Saturn Devouring his Children by Francisco de Goya

Isn’t that…interesting? Gruesome would probably be a better word for it. Goya was a Spanish painter who lived from 1746 to 1828. Most of his paintings were beautiful pieces of work, but there was a time near the end of his life that the subject matter became much, much darker. This may have been due to declining health and a sense of paranoia that could have been a result of dementia or some sort of brain damage. A series of paintings that include the one above have come to be known as his “black” paintings for their dark nature – both in style/color and content.

Portrait of Francisco Goya by Vicente López y Portaña

These paintings were first done on the walls of his home between 1819 and 1823. They were later taken from the walls and transferred to canvas (I’m not totally sure how that works, but I won’t argue). They now hang in the Museo del Prado in Spain. Most of them have had to be restored, and in the process they may have been painted a wee bit darker than the original. Saturn is probably the one with the least amount of damage.

So, what is this painting about? Well, I highly recommend reading Jess’ post, as that gives a great rundown on the story of the Titans. In particular, this painting focuses on Cronus (which is just the Greek name for Saturn, and I’m a traditionalist, so I prefer the Greek names…) eating his children. Why did he do this you ask? Well, he heard a prophecy that said he would be overthrown by one of his kids. He swallowed his children in order to avoid the prophecy, but he was tricked into thinking he had gotten them all. In reality, Zeus was kept safe until the day he overthrew his father and forced him to regurgitate the other kids.

I love this painting, despite the disgusting nature of it. I was lucky enough to see it when I went to the Prado Museum and boy is it bigger than I thought it would be! It stands about 5 feet tall, which definitely lends itself to the painting. It makes it feel bigger and scarier than it already is. I was also physically affected by the painting – being that close to such a rendering of this myth actually made me a little queasy (and I don’t have a weak stomach). It was…pretty awesome! To be physically affected by anything – art, music, writing – means that the artist has done their job well.

The only qualm I have is that Cronus doesn’t actually eat his children. He swallows them whole and is then forced into throwing up each one. But the painting makes a statement nonetheless, and there are many theories as to what the meaning behind it was: the conflict between age and youth, that time conquers all (Cronus basically = father time), or even as an allegory for what was going on in Spain. Like most paintings, there are several interpretations and you should always go with the one that speaks most to you, which might not be the one that you were told is “right.”

(As an interesting side note, Goya had six sons and only one survived to adulthood. Maybe this myth particularly hit home for him, as Zeus was the sixth born of Cronus and Rhea.)

So, what do you think? Do you like or dislike the painting? Did it make you feel anything in particular when you first saw it? Are you familiar with anything else done by Goya?

If you recognize any other works by Goya, it’s probably this one – The Nude Maja

  1. That is an extremely dark painting. It definitely makes me wonder what was going on in the artist’s life as it doesn’t seem to fit the myth I remember…but who’s to say the Spanish version of the tale matched up with the Greek or Roman. I remember studying Goya in high school but if you asked me to point to one of his works in a line-up I doubt I’d be able to. Fascinating post Karen!

    • Karen Rought says:

      As far as I can tell, the Greek and Roman versions are pretty much the same. I’m not sure there is a Spanish “version” – although, I guess translation of the myth could have skewed the meaning a little bit. Either way, I think this was just his interpretation of the myth – and he was probably less concerned about staying true to it than he was about creating a painting that was visually eye-catching. Guess he definitely pulled that one off! Thanks for stopping by. 🙂

  2. Fabio Bueno says:

    The Saturn painting is disturbing. Masterfully done, but unsettling. The original 5-foot tall must be incredible.
    I wonder how they could transfer the paintings from the walls to canvases.
    Fascinating post, Karen.

    • Karen Rought says:

      Thanks, Fabio! “Unsettling” is the perfect word for it. And I really have no clue – I get a mental image of someone peeling the painting away from the wall then using Elmer’s glue to put it on a piece of canvas. Obviously that’s not how they do it, but I really can’t fathom how you can transfer a painting from a WALL to a bit of CANVAS. I’ll have to look into this some more.

  3. Yvonne says:

    Maybe they had wallpaper in the late 1700’s? Then they peeled that sucker off and glued that to the canvas! Crazy man….painting on his own walls.

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