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The Panic

December 11, 2013

Modern art would be unthinkable without Spain’s Francisco Goya, who delved into his subconscious and exposed his deepest fears for all the world to see. He revealed an aspect about the foibles of existence that few before him dared explore.


I’ve said before that I prefer art that asks more questions than it answers. It’s unlikely this painting was intended for a client. It isn’t dated (most likely painted around 1809-12) and the title The Panic was ascribed long after the artist’s death. Goya left no notes or letters enlightening us as to the meaning of this painting. Some even doubt it’s his work. All we have is what we see—a giant rises from a ravine and stretches after a long nap. His senses are not yet engaged; his eyes have yet to open and his face is turned, denying us the ability to read the expression on his face. 


This terrifying sight has caused panic; people and animals are stampeding in multiple directions to escape a monster that at any moment might turn and confront them. Who is this giant? What does he represent? Could he be Napoleon, who strode across Europe like a colossus sowing death and destruction in his wake? Could it represent Spain’s incompetent monarch Ferdinand VII, often called the worst king ever to sit on the Spanish throne? Goya’s closest companions during his famous illness were the monsters of his subconscious who threatened to leave him mad. Is this giant the personification of his darkest thoughts, residue from the insanity brought on by the illness that left him deaf and mentally shaken?


Goya might have been old, deaf and sickly at the time but this painting does not reveal a diminishment of skill. In fact, there is a heightened depth of technique here, a varied application of paint brought about by an extraordinary variety of palette knives and brushes. Goya was known to have explored painting with split river reeds at this stage of his life.


There is one clue to unraveling the meaning of this painting, but like everything associated with this masterpiece it’s ambiguous. Aside from the giant, every living thing is hell-bent on escape…except one creature. If you look closely you will find among the pandemonium one beast that is not afraid—a donkey. Does it know something we don’t, or is it too stupid to be afraid? 









That is one smart ass. Sorry it had to be done.
By: David Walston on December 11, 2013
I'd be running if I saw a naked giant too. Good thing he put those clouds around the giant's rear end to obscure it a bit.
By: PT Dilloway on December 11, 2013
To me it seems we are witnessing deeply personal and all powerful rage...
By: The Broad on December 11, 2013
Seems he had some strange demons running rampant in his head.
By: Scott Cody Park on December 11, 2013
First off, your page is truncated on the right side. Additionally, some links to images are broken. Donkey's are often used to protect livestock from coyotes and wolves. Instinctively that may include giants too! ;-)
By: Daniel LaFrance on December 11, 2013
seems a lot of rage in it.
By: TexWisGirl on December 11, 2013
Seeing that I adore donkeys.....I know why the giant doesn't frighten him. He is in charge, in control and is calm. Donkeys are not like horses, they don't spook easily, they analyze their situations. They are not long suffering but rather they just give it their all. So it does not surprise me in the slightest that Goya would have recognized the grace of the donkey and painted it that way. Oma Linda
By: Oma Linda on December 11, 2013
I've never seen that painting before--it's VERY unsettling!!
By: fishducky on December 11, 2013
Fascinating work -- it makes me want to sit the artist down for a cup of tea and a calming chat.
By: mimi on December 11, 2013
It's always so interesting when you do posts about a particular piece. I am not sure I would of noticed the singular donkey that seems calm. Perhaps he is a fatalist and he is thinking whatever happens...happens. OR maybe being a pack animal he is praying for death.
By: Cheryl P. on December 11, 2013
Perhaps this small donkey does not understand the horrors of war- but then again perhaps he is stubbornly resisting the urge to panic as he waits for his rider to pick himself off the ground so the donkey can take him to a safer place. Thanks Stephen for our art history lesson!
By: Kathe W. on December 11, 2013
The donkey is definitely smarter than everyone else. I have never met a dumb donkey. Love, Janie
By: Janie Junebug on December 11, 2013
I love Goya.
By: Michael Offutt on December 11, 2013
The giant is maybe his illness personified... The donkey, perhaps what small part of him that is left to be rational, to fight the onslaught of chaos. Then again, it could just be a really obnoxious donkey... Cat
By: Cat on December 11, 2013
Well, thank goodness Goya gave us only a rear shot. If the giant turned around, I bet even the donkey would haul ass (pun intended).
By: Al Penwasser on December 11, 2013
Definitely it has the quality of a nightmare. I only fully appreciated Goya when I saw a whole group of his paintings in the Prado last year. Maybe a donkey is too stupid to care. Perhaps it's the stupid donkeys who are OK in the fact of horror. There's some truth in that.
By: Jenny Woolf on December 11, 2013
I just hope that giant isn't feeling gassy!
By: Catalyst/Bruce on December 11, 2013
I love big strong muscular men myself. Perhaps Goya was painting his fantasy?
By: Bouncin Barb on December 11, 2013
To me it seems as if the giant is representing a really bad storm, a tornado or hurricane perhaps. Interesting picture, and definitely one that raises more questions than it has answers.
By: Pixel Peeper on December 11, 2013
After David Walston, how could I ever come up with a smart comment? So, just ... interesting art lesson.
By: tom sightings on December 11, 2013
Your comments on art are certainly informative and lead to questions about what is going on.
By: red on December 11, 2013
I am not a good interpreter of art. Perhaps they fear a cloud of noxious gas.
By: Val on December 11, 2013
What an amzing piece, thank you for sharing .
By: John on December 12, 2013
Could the donkey be frozen with fear? Just a thought.
By: Bryan Jones on December 12, 2013
PT Dilloway's comment is funny! Yes, I always find it prudent to run when there's a naked giant around. ;)
By: Lexa Cain on December 12, 2013
How come is okay to see a woman's bare arse in a painting, but a man's has to covered in clouds? Not that I have any interest in seeing his arse.. just sayin'.
By: LL Cool Joe on December 14, 2013
Fascinating! And your discussion of the paining reminded me of this comic. I read it last week & thought "Stephen needs to see this!"
By: The Bug on December 17, 2013

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