Tag Archives: Philosophy

Goya: Setting the Human in the World

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"The Marquesa de Solana." Francisco de Goya, 1795.

Look at the background in this painting. What do you see?

I keep doing posts about Renaissance art – an unintentional focus, since this blog is about creating ideas from any past art. Maybe I gravitate toward the Renaissance because we live in a new renaissance of science and technology (more on this on the About page), and the Renaissance’s ideas about human potential and achievement naturally mesh with our own. But here’s a reminder that we can take art from any period (in this case, Romanticism) and transform it for our own creation: a portrait by the great Spanish artist, Goya.

So what’s in the background? Nothing; it’s empty. This emptiness is strange, since the subject is a lady of very high status. We’d expect to see her painted within a ruined classical landscape, a richly furnished room, a country estate. Instead: nothing. We don’t even know whether she’s outside or indoors. If we’re looking to create ideas out of this painting, what can we do with such emptiness?

To paraphrase Prof. Richard Brettell (still from my DVD lectures on the Louvre), the lady gains nothing from the setting, since it’s empty. She might have seemed grand against the background, or wise, or haughty. But against the emptiness, she shrinks into herself, pulling her arm in as she withdraws from the viewer. Look at her face: she’s neither confident nor proud. (Compared to, say, the “Mona Lisa,” where the setting is unreal and scary but the human is bold.)

What creative power!  When we make art or play with ideas, we choose – do we want only the human, or the world outside? We might withhold the outer setting, like Goya, or we might include it – and then we get to decide how to fill it. The possibilities are as infinite as the stars.

The stars. One of my favorite “settings” is a person under the stars, like the time I went camping in the mountains and saw the trees stretch to the stars. It felt profoundly majestic to look at those stars, just as people had thousands of years ago, trying to understand our place in the universe for the first time. The same sky that inspired the first astronomers inspired me.

How about you? How do your surroundings affect your ideas?  If you’re an artist or a writer, how do you shape the human within the world?