The Colossus (1808-12) by Goya
Meaning and Interpretation of Spanish Mythological Painting

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The Colossus
By Francisco de Goya.
Regarded as one of the
Greatest Modern Paintings
of the nineteenth century.

The Colossus (1808-12) (El Coloso)


Explanation of Other Spanish Paintings


Name: The Colossus (1808-12)
Artist: Goya (1746-1828)
Medium: Oil painting on canvas
Genre: Mythological painting
Movement: Romanticism
Location: Prado Museum, Madrid

For an explanation of other pictures from the nineteenth century, see: Analysis of Modern Paintings (1800-2000).

For analysis of artworks
by nineteenth century
Romantic artists like
Francisco de Goya, see:
How to Appreciate Paintings.

Analysis of The Colossus by Goya

The leading representative of Spanish painting from the late-18th and early-19th century, Francisco de Goya excelled at etching and engraving as well as painting and tapestry art (cartoons), becoming the leading artist at the Bourbon royal court of Charles IV. Despite his royal patronage, Goya was never a committed monarchist. Indeed, it is often said that El Greco was the artist of the Church, Velazquez the artist of the Court, and Goya the artist of the People. Moreover, his avant-garde tendencies make him one of the first modern artists in Europe, and he inspired numerous other modernists, notably Manet (1832-83) and Picasso (1881-1973). Goya derived his livelihood from portrait art, becoming one of the best portrait artists of the Spanish school. This eventually led to his appointment in 1799 as Primer Pintor de Camara, the highest position available to a court painter. He also produced some outstanding altarpiece art and a number of popular religious paintings, as part of his official duties. However, about 1793, he suffered a personality-changing illness, which left him completely deaf, and prone to the darkest moods, even paranoia. All this began to be reflected in a form of dark Romanticism, as illustrated by a set of 80 aquatints called "Caprices" (1797-99), a set of 82 engravings entitled "Disasters of War" (1810-19), and 14 mural paintings known as the "Black Paintings" (1819-23). Executed in parallel to his official works for the Crown, these artworks were never meant for public display. Instead, they constituted his private thoughts on the absurdities and horrors of the day. This brooding Romanticism was exacerbated by the Peninsular War, when French armies under Joseph I (Napoleon Bonaparte's brother) occupied Spain, triggering an ongoing series of atrocities.

The Colossus (known in Spanish as El Coloso or El Gigante), one of Goya's great masterpieces of history painting, is a perfect example of his romantic imagination. Against a lowering sky stands an absolutely colossal man. Dark and bearded, muscular and well proportioned, his fists raised in a threatening manner, he is naked with his back to us. He appears to be striding away from us towards the front left of the picture. A range of hills is level with his upper thighs, giving us an idea of how massive he is, as do the low clouds, around his thighs and buttocks. Interestingly, he appears to have his eyes closed. If so, he may symbolize the idea of blind violence.



Detail from the valley of The Colossus by Goya

Between us and the giant is a broad valley which is the scene of a mass exodus of stampeding wagons, carts, oxen, mules and horses. This mass of people and livestock are fleeing in panic, towards us (to the left), and away from the huge figure on the horizon. In the extreme left-hand corner, a man on a galloping horse is disappearing off the edge of the painting while a dog races to keep up with its master; behind it, another rider is falling off his horse. Further back a white-haired mule stobbornly stands still, waiting to be told what to do. (Some experts believe this animal symbolizes incomprehension of the horrors of war.) Meanwhile, a herd of bulls is stampeding out of the valley to the right, creating further tension in the foreground.

The dramatic impact of The Colossus lies in its fundamental uncertainty. We have absolutely no idea if the giant has harmed anyone or anything. It is not necessary for him to have done so to create this terrified exodus. Here is this hostile being of unimaginable size, who at any moment could swing around and crush people, wagons and animals with his massive limbs. This titanic human is a terror from the depths of the unconscious.

The painting technique used by Goya in Colossus is similar to that used in his "Black Paintings" - the murals on the walls of his house, Quinta del Sordo - although art historians have refuted the idea that it was part of that particular series. But the painting is definitely stylistically similar to the "Black Paintings": the colour black predominates, plus, the touches of colour are minimal and are applied with a spatula.

The main source of inspiration for The Colossus is the "Pyrenean Prophecy", a poem by Juan Bautista Arriaza (1770-1837), published in Patriotic Poems (1810), with which many Spaniards, including Goya, would have been familiar. The poem depicts the Spanish people as a giant arising from the Pyrenees in order to combat the Napoleonic invasion of 1808. In addition, X-ray analysis of the giant has suggested that the figure is similar to the Farnese Hercules painted by Zurbaran (1598-1664) in The Labours of Hercules series (1634, Buen Retiro Palace, Madrid).

In 1812, never having been exhibited, the picture became the property of Goya's son, Javier Goya (c.1784-1854). It was later owned by Pedro Fernandez Duran, who donated his art collection to Madrid's Prado Museum, where it has been displayed since 1931.


In June 2008, Manuela Mena, the Chief Curator of 18th-Century painting at the Prado Museum, Madrid, made the astonishing announcement - based on controversial research - that The Colossus was the work of the painter Asensio Julia, a friend and collaborator of Francisco Goya.

In March 2009, Goya experts Nigel Glendinning and Jesusa Vega published an article in the academic journal Goya under the title: "A failed attempt to delist The Colossus by the Prado Museum?" In it they questioned the methodology and arguments of Mena's report.

In July 2009, Spanish university researchers and numerous Goya specialists signed a declaration in support of Nigel Glendinning and attributed The Colossus to Goya. In the same year several other scholars, restorers and former directors of the Prado Museum indicated that they disagreed with Mena's hypothesis.

In 2012, Goya expert Jesusa Vega wrote an article entitled: "The Colossus is by Francisco de Goya", in which she rejects the basic principle that initially undermined Goya's authorship of the painting. In addition, she demonstrated that other studies carried out by the Prado have all shown that the picture was painted by Goya himself; these studies included analyses of colour pigments and binders, as well as analysis of the painterly techniques used and the composition of the painting, along with comparisons with "Black Paintings".

Explanation of Other Spanish Paintings

The Third of May 1808 (1814) (El tres de mayo de 1808) by Goya
Prado Museum, Madrid.

Saturn Devouring his Son (1819-23) (Saturno devorando a su hijo) by Goya
Prado Museum, Madrid.

Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907) by Picasso
Museum of Modern Art (MOMA), New York.

Guernica (1937) by Picasso.
Reina Sofia, Madrid.

Weeping Woman (1937) by Picasso
Tate Collection, London.

Las Meninas (1656) ('the ladies-in-waiting') by Velazquez
Museo del Prado, Madrid.


• For the meaning of other 19th century Spanish paintings, see: Homepage.

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