The Yard of a Madhouse (Yard with Lunatics)

Francisco Goya
Keywords: YardMadhouseYardLunatics

Work Overview

Yard with Lunatics
Artist Francisco Goya
Year c. 1794
Type oil-on-tinplate
Dimensions 32.7 cm × 43.8 cm (12.9 in × 17.2 in)
Style   Romanticism
Genre   genre painting
Location Meadows Museum, Dallas, Texas

Yard with Lunatics (Spanish: Corral de locos) is a small oil-on-tinplate painting completed by the Spanish artist Francisco Goya between 1793 and 1794. Goya said that the painting was informed by scenes of institutions he witnessed as a youth in Zaragoza.[1] Yard with Lunatics was painted around the time when Goya’s deafness and fear of mental illness were developing and he was increasingly complaining of his health. A contemporary diagnosis read, "the noises in his head and deafness aren’t improving, yet his vision is much better and he is back in control of his balance."

Though Goya had to that point been preoccupied with commissioned portraits of royalty and noblemen, this work is one of a dozen small-scale, dark images he produced independently. Uncommissioned, it was one of the first of Goya's mid-1790s cabinet paintings, in which his earlier search for ideal beauty gave way to an examination of the relationship between naturalism and fantasy that would preoccupy him for the rest of his career.[2] He was undergoing a nervous breakdown and entering prolonged physical illness,[3] and admitted that the series was created to reflect his own self-doubt, anxiety and fear that he himself was going mad.[4] Goya wrote that the works served "to occupy my imagination, tormented as it is by contemplation of my sufferings." The series, he said, consisted of pictures which "normally find no place in commissioned works."[5]

To art historian Arthur Danto, Yard with Lunatics marks a point in Goya's career where he moves from "a world in which there are no shadows to one in which there is no light".[5] The work is often compared to more mature but equally bleak Madhouse of 1812-19. It has been described as a "somber vision of human bodies without human reason",[6] as one of Goya's "deeply disturbing visions of sadism and suffering",[7] and a work that marks his progression from a commissioned portraitist to an artist that pursued only his bleak and pitiless view of humanity.

Some historians speculate that Goya's symptoms may indicate prolonged viral encephalitis; and the mixture of tinnitus, imbalance and progressive deafness may be symptoms of Ménière's disease. Others claim that he was suffering from mental illness. However, these attempts at posthumous diagnosis are purely, and only, speculative and hypothetical. Goya's diagnosis remains unknown. What is known, is that he lived in fear of insanity, and projected his fears and despair into his work.

Set in a Lunatic asylum, Yard with Lunatics was painted at a time when such institutions were, according to art critic Robert Hughes, no more than "holes in the social surface, small dumps into which the psychotic could be thrown without the smallest attempt to discover, classify, or treat the nature of their illness."[8] Goya's yard is overwhelmingly stark, showing shackled inmates enclosed by high walls and a heavy stone arch. Inmates fight and grin idiotically or huddle in despair, all bathed in an oppressive grey and green light, guarded by a single man. The work stands as a horrifying and imaginary vision of loneliness, fear and social alienation, a departure from the rather more superficial treatment of mental illness in the works of earlier artists such as Hogarth.

In a 1794 letter to his friend Bernardo de Yriarte, he wrote that the painting shows "a yard with lunatics, and two of them fighting completely naked while their warder beats them, and others in sacks; (it is a scene I witnessed at Zaragoza)".[9] It is usually read as an indictment of the widespread punitive treatment of the insane, who were confined with criminals, put in iron manacles, and routinely subjected to physical punishment,[10] in ground sealed by masonry blocks and iron gate. Here the patients are variously staring, sitting, posturing, wrestling, grimacing or disciplining themselves. The top of the canvas vanishes with sunlight, emphasizing the nightmarish scene below. Since one of the essential goals of the enlightenment was to reform the prisons and asylums, a subject found in the writings of Voltaire and others, the condemnation of brutality towards prisoners, whether criminal or insane, was a subject of many of Goya’s later paintings.

The painting had been absent from public view since a private sale in 1922; today it is housed in the Meadows Museum in Dallas, having been donated by Algur H. Meadows in 1967.

While he was recovering from the serious illness that left him totally deaf, Goya occupied himself with a series of 'cabinet' paintings which he sent to the Academy and which won approval as scenes of 'national pastimes'. A few days later, he followed these with a twelfth painting of a very different character, which he described in detail in a letter to the Director. The rediscovery of this picture in 1967 provided a touchstone for the identification of the rest of the set of cabinet pictures that Goya had sent to the Academy which are now considered to include subjects such as a Shipwreck and a Fire hardly to be described as national pastimes as well as Strolling Players, and possibly a group of Bullfight scenes.

The Madhouse and other small paintings now in the Academy, once thought to have been among the scenes of so-called national pastimes are now generally attributed to a considerably later date, for stylistic reasons. The Yard of a Madhouse is one of many scenes Goya recorded that he had actually witnessed, among them some of the war scenes in the Desastres (with the titles 'I saw this' and 'this too'). Many of his etchings and drawings testify to his concern for the plight of lunatics and prisoners throughout his life. See, for instance, the drawing of a madman behind bars made in Bordeaux.

In 1789, the French National Assembly proposed a radical document, “The Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen,” which delineated what would later become the basis of the French Constitution. In 1790, the Assembly released several decrees to ensure provisions within the declaration. The following decree provides a startling but insightful glimpse into the state of psychological treatment in Europe during the late eighteenth century:  

Within six weeks of the present decree, all persons detained in castles, religious houses, gaols, police houses or prisons of any other description…unless they have also been sentenced or charged or are awaiting trial for a serious crime, have been stripped of their civil rights, or have been locked up on account of madness, are to be set free.2

Despite its intellectual radicalism, the French Revolution considered the mentally ill on the same plane as common criminals.

Completed by Spanish artist Francisco Goya in 1794, Yard with Lunatics consummately portrays the situation in the above decree. Following an episode of personal mental and physical breakdown, Goya created a set of works he called caprichos, images displaying Spanish cultural spectacles (e.g. bullfights), which he sent to the Royal Academy of Arts of San Fernando.4 The Royal Academicians referred to this series as “various scenes of national diversions.” In a rather dark twist, however, Goya followed by sending the Royal Academy Yard with Lunatics as a conclusion to the caprichos. Goya’s letters to Bernardo Iriarte, Vice-protector of the Royal Academy during that time, capture how The Yard with Lunatics is dually representational of Goya’s inner torment and the outward treatment of the mad during the late eighteenth century.3

In a letter to Iriarte, Goya indicates, “I have managed to make observations for which there is no opportunity in commissioned works which give no scope for fantasy and invention.”3  Yard with Lunatics captures a fantastical, yet grotesquely realistic image of desolation. The painting is dark and muted within the courtyard; the bright sunlight at the top does not enter the courtyard. One man in the center seems to be looking upward in desperation.  In a second letter to Iriarte, Goya says the painting “ represents a yard with lunatics and two of them fighting completely naked while their warder beats them, and others in sacks; (it is a scene which I saw in Saragossa).”3 Goya’s inclusion of Yard with Lunatics within the series of “national diversions,” shows, like the French decree, how widely accepted the punitive treatment of the mad and their experience of desolation had become.