Goya, Francisco de: The Dog (c1820)

The Independent's Great Art series

It's a frightful picture of dream-like helplessness and despair. It's also a demonstration of the power of simplicity. Goya's The Dog is one of his so-called "Black Paintings", the sequence of murals, usually with nightmarish subjects, that the artist painted on the walls of the Quinta del Sordo, a country house outside Madrid he occupied in the early 1820's.

These murals were eventually detached, and ended up in the Prado Museum. The house itself was demolished. And the state of the "Black Paintings" remains doubtful. How much of Goya's handiwork and intentions survive, after suffering years of decay, and the shock of being dismantled, and successive restorations by other hands?

Still, these doubts do not diminish their force and mystery. Among them all, The Dog is an image of the very worst. Its paint surface is also clearly in a bad way. But that only seems to exacerbate the poor animal's misfortunes.

The picture's structure is minimal and non-specific. It is divided in two, an above and a below. The upper area is a pale golden yellow; the lower one is brown. The upper area fills most of the picture; the lower is a strip across the bottom with a slanting wavy edge. You could call the upper area sky, and the lower one earth.

You may also see another vague form in the upper area, of a slightly darker yellow, looming above the dog on the right side: it shows up more in some reproductions than others. It may possibly be part of the scene. It may be part of a previous painting that this scene was painted over. Whatever, discount it – simply because the picture is better if you discount it. There are enough uncertainties already.

Where are we? Who knows. Because the scene is so minimal and non-specific, it is highly ambiguous. What is the spatial relationship between earth and sky? You can see the earth as a foreground, a mound or ridge, with the sky beyond and behind it. Equally, you can see the earth as if in cross-section, a layer, with the sky simply above it.

But earth and sky are too definite names. The sky might be a sheer face of rock, or some kind of vapour or torrent. The earth need not be solid ground. It might be in convulsion. It might be made of a soft or fluid substance. Its wavy edge might be some kind of wave. And altogether, there is no sense of scale or orientation in this world. We are simply in the midst of it.

There are, however, two crucial pictorial facts that determine our experience of it. First, there is the shape of the whole picture, an exceptionally tall narrow upright oblong – indeed perversely tall, narrow and upright, considering that the scene is, after all, a kind of landscape. Secondly, there is the ratio of the areas within it: the upper area very deep, the lower area very shallow.

These extreme proportions have an inherent drama. Whatever finds itself in the lower area is right down at the bottom of the vertiginous scene, as if it was at the bottom of a well or a cliff. And there is a great void or a great mass of something above it. It? Time to bring in the dog.

If not for the dog, we would hardly see a landscape in these forms at all. But of course we only see the head of the dog, poking into the upper area, its body in some way obscured by the lower one. It raises a snout hopefully. It has a most pathetic, anxious look in its eye. It gazes up, in the direction of the rising wavy edge. And the uncertainties and proportions of the scene all fall upon it.

You can see the creature as submerged in the lower area, up to its neck in it, buried in the ground, or swallowed up by something more liquid, like quicksand. It is stuck there, sinking, and is unable to extricate itself.

It raises its head, trying to keep itself "above water". But the great empty gulf that towers above it only emphasises its helplessness. Not only stuck in the ground, but with nothing anywhere in reach that offers rescue, a foothold, leverage.

Alternatively, you can see the dog as cowering behind a ridge, trying to hide and protect itself. It raises its head in trepidation, looking up at the impending danger from above – which might be some kind of landfall, flood, storm, or torrent of volcanic ash. And now the depth of the upper area signifies the overwhelming volume of whatever this threat is.

Either way, it is a picture about bare survival in the face of hopeless doom. Whether the danger comes from below or from above, the picture tells us there is no escape. There is no way out of the drowning mire. There is no hiding place from the avalanche. This is the effect of its very elementary structure. The scene consists of nothing but an above and a below. Each is a source of dread, and the little dog is caught between them.

That's why the picture is better if you discount the vague looming form (which may or may not be part of it). This form would offer the dog some shelter from the above, some possible rescue from the below. Or again, if it seemed a menacing form, it would only be a partial, local source of danger, a distraction from the total, immersing world of danger of the above or the below. It would mitigate the dog's loneliness before its fate.

And the fact that we see only the dog's head, and nothing of its body and limbs, further reduces its chances of escape. It is deprived of any sense of movement or action. It is only a head, a consciousness, lost in a universe of terrors, afraid for its life.

The artist

Francisco de Goya (1746-1828) has something for everyone. If he'd died in his forties, he'd be remembered as a talented court painter. But the mysterious illness didn't kill him. It left him stone deaf and a genius. In his images of witchcraft, bull fights, nightmares, war, the Inquisition, sexual delight and sexual corruption, he became a master of fantasy and documentary. Almost every artist alive today, from the crustiest to the most cutting-edge, will have a good word for Goya.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Revealed: Why Mohammed Emwazi chose the 'safe option' of fighting for Isis, rather than following his friends to al-Shabaab in Somalia

    Why Mohammed Emwazi chose Isis

    His friends were betrayed and killed by al-Shabaab
    'The solution can never be to impassively watch on while desperate people drown'
An open letter to David Cameron: Building fortress Europe has had deadly results

    Open letter to David Cameron

    Building the walls of fortress Europe has had deadly results
    Tory candidates' tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they seem - you don't say!

    You don't say!

    Tory candidates' election tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they appear
    Mubi: Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash

    So what is Mubi?

    Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash all the time
    The impossible job: how to follow Kevin Spacey?

    The hardest job in theatre?

    How to follow Kevin Spacey
    Armenian genocide: To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie

    Armenian genocide and the 'good Turks'

    To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie
    Lou Reed: The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths

    'Lou needed care, but what he got was ECT'

    The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond
    Migrant boat disaster: This human tragedy has been brewing for four years and EU states can't say they were not warned

    This human tragedy has been brewing for years

    EU states can't say they were not warned
    Women's sportswear: From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help

    Women's sportswear

    From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help
    Hillary Clinton's outfits will be as important as her policies in her presidential bid

    Clinton's clothes

    Like it or not, her outfits will be as important as her policies
    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders