The Colossus

Francisco Goya
Keywords: Colossus

Work Overview

The Colossus
Spanish: El Coloso
Artist Francisco de Goya
Year 1808-1812
Medium Oil on canvas
Dimensions 116 cm × 105 cm (46 in × 41 in)
Location Museo del Prado, Madrid

The Colossus (also known as The Giant), is known in Spanish as El Coloso and also El Gigante (The Giant), El Pánico (The Panic) and La Tormenta (The Storm).[3] It is a painting traditionally attributed to Francisco de Goya that shows a giant in the centre of the canvas walking towards the left hand side of the picture. Mountains obscure his legs up to his thighs and clouds surround his body; the giant appears to be adopting an aggressive posture as he is holding one of his fists up at shoulder height. A dark valley containing a crowd of people and herds of cattle fleeing in all directions occupies the lower third of the painting.

The painting became the property of Goya's son, Javier Goya, in 1812.[4] The painting was later owned by Pedro Fernández Durán, who bequeathed his collection to Madrid's Museo del Prado, where it has been kept since 1931.

The painting became part of the Museo del Prado's collection in 1931, when it was donated by the estate of Pedro Fernández Durán. The first documented attribution of the painting to Goya dates from 1946 when Francisco Javier Sánchez Cantón published the inventory of the estate of Josefa Bayeu, Goya's wife, on her death in 1812. The inventory describes a painting of "a giant" with the same measurements as The Colossus, which was identified with an X (Xavier Goya) and the number 18.[6]

The painting was passed into the ownership of Miguel Fernández Durán Fernández de Pinedo y Bizarrón, Marquis of Perales, as he left it to his great-grandson, Pedro Fernández Durán on his death in 1833.[clarification needed] The painting is listed in the notarised estate of Paula Bernaldo de Quirós (Marchioness of Perales and Tolosa and mother of Pedro Fernández Durán) on her death in 1877.[clarification needed] At this time the painting was described as "A prophetic allegory of the misfortunes that took place during the War of Independence, Goya original, measuring 1.15 by 1.[0]3 (global measurement units) ( having a value of one thousand five hundred pesetas".[6]

More recently, the questions raised regarding the authorship of The Colossus and its absence from the Prado's exhibition Goya in wartime have focussed attention on, among other matters, Goya's etching of the same theme, which was included in the same exhibition (exhibition catalogue number 28). In an article entitled "Artistic technique as a research method relating to Goya's 'The Colossus'" (in the journal Goya № 324) Jesusa Vega established the relationship between the etching known as The Giant (of which there is second copy in the Spanish National Library in Madrid) and The Colossus in these words: "the giant, moves from resistance / defence, proud and erect, to slumped melancholy, reflecting the mood of many Spaniards, a collective feeling shared by its creator".[5] If the painting is attributed as being painted between 1808—the start of the Peninsular War—and 1812—when the painting is recorded as being among the goods divided between Goya and his son Javier—then the print should be dated as originating after the end of the war due to the technique and materials used in the series of etchings The Disasters of War.

The large body of the giant occupies the centre of the composition. It appears to be adopting a fighting pose due to the position of its one visible arm and its clenched fist. The picture was painted during the Peninsular War so it could be a symbolic representation of that war. Nigel Glendinning states that the picture is based on a patriotic poem written by Juan Bautista Arriaza called Pyrenean Prophecy published in 1810.[7] The poem represents the Spanish people as a giant arising from the Pyrenees in order to oppose the Napoleonic invasion. Goya's painting The Eagle, which was found in the possession of Goya's son in 1836, is similar in size and allegorical character to The Colossus. Nigel Glendinning considers this proof that Goya conceived of paintings with a similar concept to The Colossus.[8]

The giant's posture has been the object of a number of interpretations. It is unknown if it is walking or firmly planted with legs spread apart. The giant's position is also ambiguous, it could be behind the mountains or buried up to above its knees, as is seen in other examples of Goya's Black Paintings such as Fight with Cudgels. The subject's legs are also obscured in Saturn Devouring His Son and the subject is even buried up to its neck—or possibly it is behind an embankment—in The Dog, which in Spanish is sometimes referred to as Perro Semihundido (Semi-submerged Dog). Some experts have suggested that the giant appears to have his eyes shut, which could represent the idea of blind violence.

In contrast to the erect figure of the giant are the tiny figures in the valley that are fleeing in all directions. The only exception is a donkey that is standing still, Juan J. Luna has suggested that this figure could represent an incomprehension of the horrors of war.[9]

The technique used in this painting is similar to that used in Goya's Black Paintings, which were originally painted on the walls of Goya's house, Quinta del Sordo. A later date for the painting of the picture has even been suggested, which would mean that The Colossus mentioned in the inventory of 1812 is a different painting. However, Nigel Glendinning has refuted this later dating with arguments solely based on stylistic features of the painting. Glendinning argues that all the stylistic features found in The Colossus are already present (although not to the same degree) in Goya's previous paintings from The Meadow of San Isidro in 1788, which contains small figures painted with quick strokes; to Los Caprichos (1799) numbers 3 (Here comes the bogeyman) and 52 (What a tailor can do) for the theme of an oversized figure that is frightening.[10] As well as some drawings found in Goya's sketchbooks such as A giant figure on a balcony, A hooded giant and Proclamation Dream of the Witches (Gassier and Wilson №s. 625, 633 and 638).

A series of parallel themes also exist in Disasters of War and the eponymous unnumbered print The Giant or Colossus, dating from between 1814 and 1818,[5] which shows a giant seated in a dark and desolate landscape with a crescent moon in the top corner. However, the giant's posture and the darkness of the night express a solitude that is different from the aggression shown in the painting and the print is not obviously related to war. It is not possible to ascertain if the giant's eyes are shut in the print, but it appears to be listening out for something. That is, the giant is doing something that perhaps Goya, who had been deaf since 1793, longed to be able to do. Or perhaps the giant's posture reflects the alert attentiveness of someone who is deaf or blind or both.

What is certain is that the oil painting is stylistically similar to the Black Paintings. The colour black predominates, the touches of colour are minimalistic and applied with a spatula and the theme appears to be related to certain German works belonging to the Storm and Stress (Sturm und Drang) movement of early Romanticism. Goya's emphasis on the emotional element of the panic that has caused the chaotic flight of the populace also reflects this early Romanticist aesthetic. As does the symbolism of the giant as the incarnation of ideas of identity in the collective consciousness or Volkgeist. Especially when this consciousness is linked with aggression that was seen as coming from outside forces. These ideas arose with idealist German romanticism and they were widespread in the Europe of the early 19th century. The eras patriotic poetry, such as Pyrenean Prophecy, was known by heart by many Spaniards, including Goya, who was also friends with well-known Enlightenment writers and pre-Romantic thinkers.

Other interpretations regarding the meaning of this painting have also been offered. Regarding the emblems, it has been suggested that the giant may represent an incompetent and arrogant Fernando VII of Spain where the mountains act to emphasise his arrogance. In addition, it has been suggested that the stationary donkey represents an ossified aristocracy that is beholden to an absolute monarchy. Studies of representations of giants in satirical cartoons of this period or of the mythical figure Hercules have suggested that the giant in the painting represents the Spanish monarchy opposing the Napoleonic regime. Investigations that have used X-ray analysis of the giant's posture have suggested that the figure is similar to the Farnese Hercules represented in etchings by Hendrick Goltzius or the Spanish Hercules painted by Francisco de Zurbarán in his The Labours of Hercules series, which is found among the great paintings of battles found in the Salón de Reinos in the Buen Retiro Palace in Madrid.

However, Glendinning has insisted that the idea of a giant is common in the patriotic poetry of the Peninsular War. The idea is prefigured in the Spanish Golden Age by the allegorical figures of the baroque theatre (The Siege of Numantia by Cervantes contains a passage in which Spain is represented in a dialogue with the River Duero) and many of these figures are apparitions blessed by God (such as Saint James or Saint George in important battles against the Moors) in order to motivate the soldiers involved in battle. There are similar giants in Manuel José Quintana's patriotic poem To Spain, After the March Revolution, in which the giant shadows cast by such Spanish heroes as Ferdinand III of Castile, Gonzalo Fernández de Córdoba (El Gran Capitán) and Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar (El Cid) urge on the resistance. In a poem by Cristóbal de Beña the shadow of James I of Aragon (Jaime I el Conquistador) is invoked for similar purposes. In the poem Zaragoza by Francisco Martínez de la Rosa, General Palafox commander of the Siege of Zaragoza (1808) is encouraged by his predecessor Rodrigo de Rebolledo. Finally, the victor in the Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa, the king Alfonso VIII of Castile is mentioned in the hymn celebrating the Battle of Bailén written by Juan Bautista Arriaza.

Despite all the aforementioned, there are still unknown elements in the painting. There is no convincing argument regarding the direction that the giant is moving in (if it is moving at all), and it is impossible to see the enemy that it is opposing. However, on the latter point some authors consider it highly likely that the mountainous terrain hides the enemy army on the other side of the valley that the civilians are fleeing along. It has therefore been proposed that the painting most probably shows a confrontation between an invading French army and the giant, representing the defending Spanish forces, as described in Ariaza's poem. The giant's willingness to fight with his bare hands and without weapons is also described by Arriaza in his poem Memories of the God of May,[12] which stresses the heroic nature of the Spanish nation. The giant's heroism contrasts with the fear of the rest of the population, who are fleeing and dispersing in many different directions, only pausing occasionally to help someone who has collapsed or due to the legendary stubbornness of a mule.

In terms of the axis of the composition, there are a number of signals that dynamically represent the directions in which the multitude is fleeing, which is mainly towards and beyond the painting's lower left hand corner. There is another opposing axis shown by the stampede of the bulls to the right. Amongst all this movement there are some figures that are attending to a fallen person or someone in difficulty, which provides a counterpoint to the movement and emphasizes the impression of chaos. The giant is separated from the foreground by the mountains, thereby providing a feeling of depth. It is turned away and facing to the left creating a perspective further removed from the viewer and forming a diagonal opposition to the direction of the fleeing crowd.

The effect of the light, which possibly indicates sunset, surrounds and highlights the clouds that encircle the giant's waist as described in Arriaza's poem:

Encircling its waist / clouds painted red by the western sun

— Juan Bautista Arriaza, Pyrenean Prophecy vv. 31-32.
This slanting light is fractured and interrupted by the mountain peaks increasing the sensation of disequilibrium and disorder. The effect is similar to Luis de Góngora's famous "dubious daylight" (Fable of Polyphemus and Galatea v. 72.). Instead of a centripetal composition where all the indications point towards a central nucleus, in this painting all the lines of movement shatter the unity of the image into multiple paths towards its margins. The painting can be considered to be an example of the many Romanticist paintings with an organic composition (in this case centrifugal), in relation to the movements and actions of the figures within the painting. This can be contrasted with the mechanical compositions found in Neoclassicism, where angular axises are formed by a painting's contents and imposed by the rational will of the painter.

The occupation of Spain by Napoleon's troops beginning in 1808 and the patriotic reaction which ensued inspired Goya to one of his most dramatically forceful works. His very famous paintings Dos de Mayo and Tres de Mayo, which testify to the violent uprisings which took place in Madrid on 2 May 1808 and the terrible repression on 3 May, remain in the whole of the history of art two of the most powerful statements against the horrors of war . They were painted “in order to preserve with the brush the most remarkable and heroic actions… of our glorious insurrection against the tyrant of Europe”, was how Goya put it. These two works were both produced in 1814, after the depature of king Joseph and the French troops. 
And yet, already in 1808, Goya was expressing his revolt against the attrocities which he had seen and testifying to it by means of his many works showing not only the brutality of the Napoleonic soldiers but also the vicious exactions committed in the name of resistance. It was at this time that he made a series of small paintings which he kept for himself in his atelier showing scenes of  brigandage, pillage, massacres, rapes and torture, eloquent denunciations of the bestiality of human nature. And then in 1810 he made a seris of 82 engravings, showing the disasters of war, which the painter called “The fatal consequences of the bloody war waged in Spain against Bonaparte, and other forceful fantasies”.

The Colossus, begun 1808, is part of this series of works. The meaning of the painting however remains unclear, and contradictory hypotheses have been put forward. For some, this terrifying giant towering over the horizon is the symbol of war which drives men and animals to flee, the incarnation of Napoleon himself. For others, it is not that but rather the guardian spirit of Spain against the invader, or rather the people becoming conscious of its own power.
Whatever the meaning may be, Goya here presents us with a vision of world falling apart. We see the inner conflict tormenting Goya. As a supporter of the enlightenment and revolutionary ideals, Goya, like many Spaniards saw Napoleon as the saviour who would deliver Spain from the decadent and corrupt Bourbon monarchy. The saviour became the oppressor. Torn between his liberal convictions and patriotism, Goya here reveals his torment in this sombre work.

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.

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".

Attributed to Goya until 2008, new art historical and technical studies led to a reconsideration of the painting’s attribution, particularly following the tentative reading of the marks in the lower left corner as the initials “A. J.”. They may refer to Asensio Juliá (1760-1832), a friend and occasional collaborator of Goya. The composition is inspired by Goya’s print of The Seated Giant. The grandiose and metaphorical conception of the print is here translated into a narrative scene of ambiguous meaning. The subject has been related to the Spanish War of Independence but it has also been given more mundane interpretations, such as a storm in the countryside. The uncertain, repetitive brushstroke, the strident colours of the small figures and the dull illumination of both the landscape and the colossus, bear little resemblance to Goya’s impeccable technique.