'To me, this work tells the tale of humanity trapped in its earthly form'

The Dog, about 1820/23, by Francisco Goya (1746–1828), Prado Museum, Madrid. Bridgeman Images.

Dame Helen Mirren says:
‘The sky is a strange yellow, omnipresent and streaked with rain. Is the dog caught, trapped in the earth and looking at her own death, or just poking her head out after a deluge? I love dogs and I love paintings of dogs. Here, the look in her eyes is so utterly doglike–fearful and hopeful, but humble, too. To me, this work tells the tale of humanity trapped in its earthly form, contemplating the vastness of the universe and the mystery of life. It is also by my favourite painter, a humane, romantic, imaginative and conscience-driven artist.’

Dame Helen Mirren is an Oscar-winning actress who has been nominated for The Last Station this year.

Art critic John McEwen comments:
‘There are no rules in painting,’ declared Goya  publicly in 1792, when he was deputy director of the Royal Academy of San Fernando. Divina natura represented Truth, as opposed to the adulation of the Antique, the art of the Classical world taught in the European academies. Two decades later, Beethoven jotted in a notebook: ‘Give up opera and all the rest, write only in your own manner.’ Goya is to 19th century painting what Beethoven is to its music, a mighty force for imaginative freedom.

Both became deaf in middle age, which seems only to have deepened their inner lives. Goya is nowhere more timeless and mysterious than in this mural, later categorised as one of the Black Paintings with which he decorated the country retreat he bought outside Madrid in 1819, subsequently called The Deaf Man’s House. The Black Paintings are about terror and the void, The Dog least explicitly and most poignantly of all. The title, as with the other Black Paintings, was added after he died, when the murals were laid on canvas and removed.

The Dog has several titles, each reflecting a different interpretation. André Malraux merely wrote of it ‘we search for a meaning’. By the time Goya executed the Black Paintings, he had experienced the full gamut of war and foreign occupation. He had served both the Spanish and the briefly imposed Napoleonic court. Friendships had been betrayed, ideals compromised, atrocities witnessed. His isolation was as political as it was physical. In 1824, he went into permanent exile in France.’

This article was first published in Country Life, March 3, 2010