Looking at Art – The Bewitched Man

Welcome to Looking at Art. Here’s what we do: I just spend some time looking at the piece, writing down thoughts & questions I have. Thinking about how it makes me feel and trying to make connections. Then I will do some research and report back to you with any relevant details to the piece. Finally, I put all that together and contemplate how the piece’s meaning has changed for me & what my big takeaways are. Today’s piece is:

The Bewitched Man (1798)
Francisco Goya
Oil on canvas
42.5 cm × 30.8 cm

What I know about Goya is this: He was Spanish. He painted in the 17th/18th centuries. He has a painting of Saturn eating his children that is probably his most known work, at least to me. It’s speculated that he went mad due to the presence of lead in his paints.

The Bewitched Man immediately strikes me as being part of a narrative. It depicts a man in black clothing, his hand held to his mouth as if in horror. He pours possibly oil onto a flaming plate. The plate is held by a grotesque figure leaning in from out of frame. The figure bears a ram’s skull head, sagging breasts, cloven-hooved feet, and what might be tiny leathery wings. Behind the man are a trio of donkeys dancing in a circle. In the bottom right is a fragment of an engraving that reads “Lam[…] Desc[…].” Something along the lines of Lamp Desecrated or Lamb?

My mind goes to the story of Faust, where the title character makes a bargain with the Devil. Everything about the painting has that same aura to it. It’s very occultic, with lots of black and shadows which I know Goya started putting more of in his work later on…I think. The man appears to be in shock that this is happening to him. I wonder if he’s meant to cover his mouth in shock or keep from saying something or making a noise? I don’t find the painting scary but more spooky; it feels autumnal and Halloween-ish in tone. I also think of Camille Saint-Saëns’ Opus 40, “Danse Macabre,” when I look at the painting. Now to do some research.

Well, I was right about this being connected to a narrative. The Bewitched Man depicts a scene from a play by Antonio de Zamora titled El hechizado por fuerza (The man bewitched by force). The painting depicts the protagonist, Don Claudio, who believes he is bewitched and, as a condition, must keep a lamp lit or he dies. This was one of Goya’s six paintings of witches & devils for the Duke and Duchess of Osuna. So this information alone provides me with several questions: What was this play about? & Why did the Duke and Duchess of Osuna want six paintings of grotesque horrors?

El hechizado por fuerza is a comedic play released in 1698, one hundred years before Goya would paint this scene. The character of Don Claudio is a fool, and the play satirizes him as a way of mocking the upper classes. He is a man “with more virtues than vices,” which was (and still is) common amongst the wealthy & powerful. In the play, he refuses to marry, which inhibits his sister’s ability to wed her fiance. Don Claudio is also haughty & arrogant towards his servants, which causes them to despise the man. Eventually, all the people he’s pissed off get together and conspire to make the man believe he is cursed by devils and must marry or be dragged to Hell. 

The Duke and Duchess of Osuna were Goya’s most prominent patrons. The Duchess began purchasing Goya’s work long before he was a painter of note, and that caused him to grow in fame throughout Spain. Witchcraft was one of her passions & interests, so it made sense to commission the painter to make her a series of pictures depicting interesting scenes of the dark arts. El hechizado por fuerza was still strong a hundred years after its release, so would the patrons have recognized the scene when Goya showed them?

The painting came about at the tail end of Goya’s Middle Period, which apparently kicked off with “the first totally profane life-size female nude in Western art” being La Maja Desnuda. He certainly made a name for himself. During this period, Goya became deaf due to an undiagnosed illness which made me withdrawn & introspective. The tone of his work changed as a result and reflected his observations about the practices in society he came to see as grotesque and wrong. Goya was also attempting to be funny through his satire, mocking elements of the upper classes, the same way Don Claudio was the butt of the joke in the play. Near the end of this period, Goya had a nervous breakdown and experienced long bouts of physical illness, likely interconnected with each other. To escape the pain of day-to-day life, the painter focused on fantastical themes & ideas, a means of escape. This is the period where some scholars indicate the lead in Goya’s paints may have contributed to his deteriorating mental & physical health. From then on, his work would become darker and more distorted, with Saturn Devouring His Son being released in 1823, five years before Goya’s death.

Knowing the background definitely changed my view of the painting. Seeing that it is a reference to another work reminds me that referential art isn’t a new thing. Today so much entertainment is predicated on connections to other works that it can be overwhelming. In my fiction writing, I will have the horrible mentality that it is anathema to draw direct inspiration or simply rip off another work when that’s the fundamental basis of art. You take fragments of things that speak to you and play with them, reshape them, add your own twist, and produce a new piece of art. I can certainly see the coming of Goya’s Black Period in The Bewitched Man, yet it is still not entirely there. I also wonder if the Duchess of Osuna’s interest in the occult caused Goya to become interested in the fantastic, or was it something they already shared a bond over. 


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