While lying in a coma for five weeks, his disjointed, crushed bones held together by metal screws, Robert Hughes was haunted by Goya. After reading his biography of the artist, I am ready to believe his claim in its most literal sense. The Australian scholar of history and art admired the painter ever since he bought one of his etchings as a high school student; still, his plan to write a biography could not get off the ground before his car accident. Hughes attributes the problem to his own inexperience with the kind of horrors Goya witnessed and poignantly summarized in a subscript of an etching named “The disasters of war”—“yo lo vi” (“I saw it”). After a month of intense suffering (and daily visitations by Goya, who dragged the bedridden scholar through madhouses and plague hospitals with a sneering attitude), Hughes could say that he had first-hand experience of pain and disaster as well. The catalytic event set a lifetime of fascination and research in motion, leading to a book that combines intricate skill with pure enthusiasm in a way that is similar to Goya’s own blending of strict form and chaotic feelings.

Hughes weaves together the narratives of Goya’s life, the imaginary and historical events in particular paintings, and the general situation in Spain at the time. He presents the three strands in plain and almost conversational language, yet never oversimplifies his subject. He begins by tracing the artist’s career: Goya was born on March 30, 1746 in the village of Fuentetodos and grew up in Zaragoza. After studying art in Italy, he settled in Madrid, where he painted cartoons for the Royal Tapestry factory and eventually became a court painter to a line of Bourbon kings: “Carlos III, the `enlightened’ liberal; his son Carlos IV, the stolid, blue-eyed cuckold; and his son in turn, that tyrannous weasel Fernando VII.” He lived through the turmoil of the Napoleonic wars and saw the fall (and eventual restoration) of the Bourbons. Becoming more detached from the world, Goya eventually moved to a farmhouse outside of Madrid, the walls of which he covered with some of his most disturbing paintings, and died in self-imposed exile in France in 1828.

Goya’s art often balances between contradicting states. I remember the tour guide at the Prado museum describing some of his earlier paintings as the “optimistic period” (i.e. the “happy Goya,” before he became deaf, saw the war, and started painting Greek gods dismembering and eating their children). While accurate enough, the claim seemed incomplete. I couldn’t get past the fact that the apparently happy mannequin in a pastoral scene looked like he had a broken neck, while the balloon in another one had a swampy green-gray tint and reminded me of Stalin’s dirigible from the film “Burnt by the Sun” by Nikita Mikhalkov. Hughes points out contradictions in Goya’s works in a sensitive and convincing way and often finds traces of darkness associated with the later Goya in his earlier works. For example, in one seemingly lighthearted painting, Don Manuel Osorio Manrique de Zuniga (a four-year-old in a bright red suit) holds a magpie by a string. Two cats hover behind the bird and watch it “with fixated, murderous concentration”—a detail that suggests lurking danger. Likewise, Hughes argues that a still life portraying a long-necked turkey sprawled out on the table foreshadows the future “Disasters of War”: “it is dead. It is stiff…there is no doubt that it promotes as much sympathy as any other corpse in art.”

Hughes’s descriptions of Goya’s works are so vivid that his writing would be enjoyable in its own right even if Goya were a fictional character. He often describes the artist’s style with metaphors related to writing, referring to the “rhyme” of colors or structural details that contribute to the structure of Goya’s paintings. The metaphor can be extended to say that if Goya’s painting is poetic, Hughes’s writing is painterly; his highly visual prose brings the works to life before we even look at the reproduction. The “Interior of a Prison” with its metal-laden prisoners sinks in an atmosphere of “leaden immobility—leaden in color, but also in the immense and meaningless weight of time creeping by.” Anonymous characters (such as ones from the “Caprichos”) gain personalities: the masked bride is led to the altar by a “repulsive husband, short, buck-toothed, vacuously grinning (his features and expression irresistibly recall, to a modern TV watcher, a character from The Simpsons).” The legendary Duchess of Alba, dressed in traditional maja dress with her “mop of thick, dark curls…would have been formidably hip, if the word had existed in the eighteenth century.”

The drama of the royal family reads like a scandalous historical novel—Carlos IV, “a political embarrassment” obsessed with religion and hunting (though he “did not care what he shot”) looks like an “affable turtle poking from its shell.” While his wife, Maria Luisa, acquired the reputation of a “royal nymphomaniac,” Hughes suggests she was merely human: “she did take some lovers over the years as who, married to that stolid hunter, might not?” She was proud of her shapely arms, wore “ill-fitting dentures,” and outraged the public by her affair with Manuel Godoy. Her son was incensed enough to order obscene pictures of the queen and Godoy from a local cartoonist. We keep following Maria Luisa (the only member of the “parodically dysfunctional family” that Hughes seems to truly respect) through the fall of the Bourbons and, finally, to the “crypt of St. Peter’s…the only body of a woman ever to find internment in that exclusive and quintessentially male club of dead popes.”

Throughout the book, Hughes’s Goya juggles two roles—he is both the last classical artist and the first modern one. He follows the rules of geometric composition, but twists their traditional interpretation by imitating the dynamic process of nature instead of its static qualities. Goya himself writes: “I see only forms that are lit up and forms that are not, planes that advance and planes that recede, relief and depth. My eye never sees outlines or particular features or details.” Such spontaneity, according to Hughes, can be seen in particular in Goya’s drawings and in the three series of etchings—the “Caprichos,” the “Disasters of War,” and the “Follies.” The “Caprichos” obsessively categorize human flaws in all of their humor and grotesqueness. The “Follies” set loose a swarm of vices from a darker angle, while the writhing, distorted figures of the “Disasters of War” are especially modern in their portrayal of destruction. Unlike the earlier depictions of battle (such as Jacques Callot’s Miseries of War featuring “tiny soldiers of Louis XIV…doing dreadful things to tiny Huguenots”), Goya’s war, whether seen in etchings or paintings, is more ominous: “[he] was the first painter in history to set forth the sober truth about human conflict: that it kills, and kills again…most of all, he drives home the undeniable message that there is nothing noble about war…war is hell.”

An essential aspect of Hughes’s writing is the vivid portrait of Spain that he creates along with the description of the artist and his work. This is where the historian in Hughes takes charge; after all, his earlier books focused on the history of Australia (The Fatal Shore) or America as seen through its art (The Culture of Complaint). In the first few chapters, he creates a vibrant portrait of Madrid under Charles III. While his reign represented Spanish Enlightenment, the ilustrados (progressive thinkers) were a small minority; “everything that had convulsed and remade European thought in the eighteenth century stopped at the Pyrenees and was heard below them only as dulled echoes, faint chirpings, ill-understood threats to the popular order of things.” The descriptions of Spain also add a multilayered context to specific paintings. We look at Goya’s “Fight at the New Inn” while reading primary accounts of bedbugs and scratchy mattresses and meet his witches while discovering that they were the latest “fashion” among the Enlightened circles at the time.

Goya’s fame has created many legends that Hughes carefully weeds out and dispels. For example, instead of a “peasant touched by genius,” Goya emerges as a sophisticated and politically savvy ilustrado. Likewise, contrary to popular belief, he was “no more mad than Shakespeare when he wrote the `mad scenes’ for Lady Macbeth and Ophelia”; rather than being insane himself, the artist had an acute sense of “co-suffering” that made him attuned to madness in the world. The famous rumor of Goya and the Duchess of Alba faces the same fate; while “Alba was a flirt…[and] rather an airhead…she was not a fool, and it would have been distinctly foolish to carry on an affair, even with a deaf and aging houseguest.” It also turns out that she was not the model for the Naked Maja and Clothed Maja, which probably depict Godoy’s mistress Pepita Tudo. (The controversy continues as Hughes points out something that has been ignored for years—while the body in the painting belongs to Pepita, the head does not. He suggests that it was painted on at a later time to avoid scandal; indeed, when examined closely the head seems to miss its natural angle on the neck just enough to make people like Hughes suspicious.)

Hughes finishes by talking about “The Milkmaid,” which, as it turns out, was probably not painted by Goya at all. Paradoxically, this note of mystery relates to the overall impression of Goya with which Hughes leaves the reader; with all of the vibrant accounts of the artist’s work, we actually don’t find out that much about him as a person. While we become acquainted with the basics of his life and career, the juicy gossip circles around the royal family, at times, the real and imaginary subjects of the paintings seem more alive than the artist. In the end, however, this approach gives the book its power. By making previous myths about the artist seem shallow and incomplete, Hughes de-romanticizes Goya and draws attention away from his personal quirks. He makes Goya appear less flashy, but more meaningful; the focus is on his art, the power of which does not depend on making a myth out of the artist. One of Goya’s last prints portrays a charmingly joyful old man on a swing. Hughes relates it to the artist’s own vitality and constant quest for novelty that did not diminish throughout his 82 years of life. Depicting Goya accurately calls for the same spurt of energy, which is exactly what Hughes has brought to his subject. As a man, Goya remains indefinable and constantly changing; it is only fair for his biographer to resist demystifying him and simplifying the ambiguity on which he thrived.