The Madhouse
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soesterling's picture


Social crusader? Or just another artist trying to paint away his demons? In this case, Goya gives us little of both.

The Madhouse is one of two paintings by Goya set in the bowels of an asylum. His earlier painting, Yard with Lunatics was created sometime between 1793 and 1794, about a year after he had taken ill with the mysterious (possibly STI related) disease that left him isolated and incapacitated for months and essentially deaf for the rest of his life. Obviously the dude had some stuff on his mind (like lots of new voices and sounds), madness understandably being one of them.

It is estimated that he painted The Madhouse between 1812 and 1819. Poor Goya still hadn’t, and never would, escape the melancholy fear of madness that his earlier illness brought about. In this scene, as in his earlier depiction in the yard, we see a variety of figures meant to represent everyday characters left to wallow in insanity.  There is a soldier (or at least someone who thinks he’s a soldier) and even a nice clergyman blessing the viewer. We can understand that no matter who you are, you too can be deemed crazy and thrown in the snake pit. This was one of Goya’s biggest fears. The dude was obsessed with the grotesque side of human nature because he was scared s@*#less that he would wind up like the people he painted. And trust me, he had good reason to fear asylums.

In 1790, just a few years before Goya painted Yard with Lunatics the French National Assembly proposed The Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen which, despite the freedom it’s title may imply, essentially deemed anyone thought to be mad a criminal.  Thusly, people with mental illnesses were locked away, often chained to walls in communal rooms where they were left to their own devices or beaten into submission.  Goya’s familiarity with such scenes was drawn from childhood visits to the local asylum (fun for the whole family!) and later inspections of the madhouse in Saragossa.  The asylum in Saragossa was thought to be extremely humane because it didn’t forcibly constrain its occupants on a 24 hour-a-day basis.  What gentle patient care. It can be assumed that Goya therefore painted these images in order to draw attention to the horrific treatment of mental patients…and in hopes that he wouldn’t end up like them.




mhoutzager's picture


Locking mental patients in a dungeon was common practice in the 1800's.

Mental patients were also considered fair game for observation and entertainment purposes. Political correctness had not yet been invented.

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Here is what Wikipedia says about The Madhouse

The Madhouse (Casa de locos) or Asylum (Manicomio) is an oil-on-panel painting by Francisco de Goya. He produced it between 1812 and 1819. It shows a mental asylum, with its inhabitants in many different poses.

Marked by Piranesian and claustrophobic architecture, the painting's only light source is a barred window high up on the wall, clearly meant to repress the figures below. These figures are distinct characters, all engaged in grotesque and pitiable behaviour - one wears what seems to be a wild-feathered headdress, another is fighting in a tricorne hat, another makes a gesture of blessing to the viewer, whilst many of the others are naked.

The subject of psychiatric institutions was a hot topic in the salons of the Spanish Enlightenment and so this painting could be meant as a denunciation of then-current practice in that area. Even if it is not, Goya was always attracted to representing madness, deformity or perversion. Some of the figures can also be interpreted allegorically, as a gallery of parodies of powerful figures in society, such as the clergy or the army (the man in the tricorne). It develops the topic of 'the world of dreams' ('mundo al revés') and is related to Goya's engravings series Los disparates.

Goya had already touched on the issue in his 1793 painting Yard with Lunatics, but The Madhouse shows greater variety, with less mad, less picturesque, more individualised and more characterised figures, shown more humanity and clearly marked as poor victims of marginalisation and rejection.

Check out the full Wikipedia article about The Madhouse.