Francisco Goya – The First Modern Artist? – 2/3 2

Goya modo volarby Bart Sedgebear

.First Prints: Los Caprichos

Goya began making prints in 1792 after his illness and the onset of total deafness, and it is in this medium that his art–and Spanish visual culture– reached its highest expression. His  first series of etchings, Los Caprichos (“The Follies”), dates from early 1789.  It consists of 80 plates in which the artist, working with complete freedom, expresses, in his own words, “the censure of human errors and vices.”  The series was offered for sale in the Gaceta de Madrid newspaper but, after the Santa Inquisición “inquired” into this scandalous new form of expression, Los Caprichos were quickly and quietly withdrawn from the marketplace.

It was not till 12 years later that they reappeared on the royal inventory.  Goya had ceded the 80 plates and all the existing prints to the crown in exchange for a stipend for his son, Javier.  By then, however, the cat was out of the bag.  Sets of prints of the Caprichos series had been circulated outside of Spain with powerful impact.  This, it was agreed, was a refreshingly direct new form of expression, impossible to repress and destined to change the course of history.

The first 36 prints of the series deal with love and prostitution, insufferable children, marriages of convenience, maternal cruelty and the greed and gluttony of friars.  It’s no wonder the Inquisición reared its hoary head.  Prints 37 to 42 portray stupidity through images of donkeys in different ass-backwards situations.  The rest of the series abounds with ironic representations of witches, ghouls, devils and perverse clergymen, a fair selection of late 18th-century Spanish reality. Some of the prints allude to contemporary figures at the court of Fernando IV.  One hundred thirteen of the preparatory drawings for the Caprichos are preserved in the Biblioteca Nacional in Madrid, along with a wealth of other priceless Goya documentation, sketches, proofs, editions and commentaries.  The plates are in the Calcografía Nacional, the institution created by Fernando III as a department of the Royal Academy of San Fernando as the national repository for etching plates.  It was located at the time next door to the royal printshops. The printshops disappeared long ago, but the Calcografía remains in the same palace, just a short walk up Calle Alcalá from the Puerta del Sol in Madrid.

Goya Part II – Military Grandeur: The Disasters of War

May 3 MadridGoya experienced firsthand in Madrid and Zaragoza the horror of Napoleon’s invasion and occupation of his country.  The truth is that Napoleon’s installation of his brother-in-law as José I, head of the Spanish state, elicited a mixed reception in Spain.  On the one hand he brought with him some of the attributes of French culture; on the other he represented the hated usurper.  Although Goya continued to function as court artist under the French regime, it was after the downfall of José I that he produced his most memorable work, such as the paintings, “The Charge of the Mamalukes” and “The Moncloa Firing Squad” and, especially, the series of 82 etchings called “The Disasters of War.”

Goya began to work on the series in 1810, with Madrid and much of the rest of the country in tatters.  Such was the shortage even of etching materials that Goya was obliged to work on used plates and with inferior varnishes and resins.  Even so, he produced some of history’s most memorable etched images and one of its most eloquent denunciations of the horror and senselessness of war.

Five Year’s Work; UnpublishedGoya hanged man

The artist took five years to complete the 82 plates which make up the series. His political acumen was such that his criticism was not limited to a generic denunciation of war, nor even to the French invaders, but also extended, in the last etchings of the series, to the excesses of the newly-installed and politically-abusive regime of Fernando VII.

Perhaps it was for this reason that the artist, recalling his earlier brush with the Inquisición, did not edit The Disasters of War in his lifetime. When Goya went into exile in Bordeaux in 1824, the plates of the series remained in Madrid in the house of his son, Javier, and did not surface again until the Royal Academy of Fine Arts of San Fernando bought them in 1856, 28 years after the death of the maestro.

A Flawed First Edition

Surprisingly enough, the plates were quite extensively retouched for the first edition, something that we look upon today as anathema. Framing lines were completed around the images, scratches were burnished out and some areas of aquatint, drypoint and direct acid bite were even added. Nor was the printing technique one that Goya himself would have approved, rather the soft characterless light inking characteristic of the time. This fact becomes evident when one compares the prints of the first edition with the artist’s proofs, which are preserved in the Calcografía Nacional in Madrid.Goya4

A total of seven editions were pulled of The Disasters of War, the last one exquisitely done in 1937, under the auspices of the Republican Government in the midst of the Spanish Civil War. In a macabre coincidence it was the same year that the Heinkel bombers of the German Condor Legion took the noble military art one step further by bombing civilians in the Basque town of Guernica.

Curiously, only 80 of the 82 plates were included in the early editions of The Disasters. The two missing plates did not surface till 1870 when they were acquired by the Royal Academy of San Fernando. Even so, these two plates were not edited till 1957. A third lost plate, entitled, Infame provecho  (“Infamous Profit”) exists only in a preliminary sketch and an artist’s proof, property today of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.

Back to Part 1

Go to Part 3

Images courtesy of the Museo del Prado, ICEX, Calcografía Nacional

Part 3 of 3, coming soon



  1. Thank you, Mike – for this terrific overview of Goya. (I own one of the Disasters…plate 43, Tambien Esto).

    I remember so well our time with you and Maureen and Spain (thrice).


  2. Pingback: Francisco Goya – The First Modern Artist? -1/3 « ¡Alegría! The Joy of Spanish Living

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s