Although Francisco de Goya, born in 1746, grew up and reached maturity in a period of relative peace and stability, the crucial decades of his life as an artist coincide with the greatest social and political upheaval the western world had experienced for centuries, including the Declaration of Independence of the United States of America, the French Revolution, the rise and fall of Napoleon, the Peninsular War and the Restoration thereafter. His life and work bridged two ages, as the art historian Theodor Hetzer put it so graphically by describing Goya’s early and late works: ‘One makes you think of Tiepolo, the other of Manet.’ (cited in: Hofmann, p. 18)
During the first half of Goya’s life, Spain was under the stern but dutiful rule of Carlos III, an absolute yet enlightened monarch, comparable in his ambitions and style of government to his Northern European contemporaries Frederick II of Prussia, Maria Theresa of Austria and Catherine II of Russia. A benevolent despot, Carlos III was determined to modernize his country by fostering educational and economic reforms and supporting the sciences and the arts. He promoted a host of infrastructural projects such as the building of canals and the settlement of previously unpopulated regions, and allowed a certain amount of religious tolerance and freedom of speech and press. Under his rule, the power of the Church and the Holy Inquisition diminished and the Jesuits were expelled. His death and the coronation of his son in 1788 did not change things overnight, but Carlos IV was a weak king and under his rule – or rather that of Queen Maria Luisa and the mercurial minister Manuel Godoy - Spain could ultimately not withstand the repercussions of the French Revolution.
Goya, with increasing success as a court painter in Madrid, moved in progressive circles and his friends and patrons included the most prominent intellectuals and politicians of the Spanish Enlightenment. From this elevated viewpoint, Spain must have seemed a rather schizophrenic place, under strain but not yet torn between an idealistic and cosmopolitan elite on one side and a people mired in ancient traditions of privilege and servitude, faith and superstition, corruption and violence on the other.
Although there is an ominous element already present in his earlier works, it was not until he was well over forty years old that Goya clearly expressed the urge to depict a more personal – and darker – view of the world. Perhaps due to his illness in 1792, which left him deaf, Goya ‘turned in on himself’ (Pérez Sánchez, Complete Etchings, p. 32) and began to explore his own fantasies. In a letter of 1794 he wrote to his friend, the poet Bernardo de Iriarte, that in some recent works he had ‘succeeded in making observations that commissioned works customarily do not allow, in which capricho and invención have no scope.’ (cited in: Pérez Sánchez, Enlightenment, p. xxi)
On 6 February 1799, Goya placed an advertisement on the front page of the Diario de Madrid, to announce the publication of Los Caprichos: ‘A collection of prints of fantasy subjects, invented and etched by Don Francisco Goya. The author, persuaded that the correction of human vices and errors (although seemingly the province of eloquence and poetry) can also be the goal of painting; has chosen as subjects appropriate for his work, from among the innumerable eccentricities and errors common to all civil society, and from the concerns and vulgar deceptions allowed by custom, ignorance or personal gain, those that he believed most apt to furnish material for ridicule and at the same time, stimulate the fantasy of the artist.’ (translated by J. A. Tomlinson in: Order and Disorder, p. 347)
With Los Caprichos, Goya for the first time made his visions of the more sinister side of Spanish society - and the human soul in general - accessible to wider audience, beyond his small group of friends and patrons. It was an enormous undertaking, prepared over several years and based on hundreds of drawings: eighty etchings with aquatint, printed in an edition of three hundred. At the time, it was the largest series of prints ever conceived by a single artist. For sale at a small liquor and perfume store on the street where Goya lived, only some thirty sets of this first and only lifetime edition were sold. In 1803, the artist gave the plates and the remaining impressions to the King, presumably to escape the wrath of the Inquisition.
A crushing failure at the time, in hindsight Los Caprichos is the pivotal work of Goya’s entire oeuvre. In one grandiose, dark symphony he unleashes his unsparing satirical sense and his wild imagination, plate after plate, tied loosely together by related motifs and laconic, often mysterious titles. The only plate without an engraved title is perhaps the most famous of all: the artist, overcome by sleep, with his head rested on a table, is surrounded by creatures of the night: owls, bats, a cat and a lynx. On the front of the table the following words appear vaguely out of the aquatint surface: El sueño de la razon produce monstruos. The phrase is ultimately untranslatable, as sueño can mean both ‘sleep’ and ‘dream’. This ambiguity – does Reason dream up monsters or do monsters arise as Reason sleeps? – is characteristic of the entire series. Having first conceived it as the title page, Goya changed his mind and placed it as plate 43 right in the middle of the series, dividing the series roughly into two parts. The first part is largely devoted to satires of courtship and prostitution, mocking the vanities and pretensions of the young and old. It is in the nightmarish second part that the monsters arise, witches and demons fly, and goblins awake. Beyond the mere evocation and critique of superstition and witchcraft, the precise meaning of these later plates is even more cryptic. Concealed through visual puns, word play and allusions to proverbs, they often ridicule the idle and ruling classes, the clerics and the nobility.
Wickedly satirical and subversive as the Caprichos are in their imagery and content, they also represent a technical revolution. Having previously created a number of competent yet ultimately conventional etchings after Velazquez, Goya in this series suddenly and completely mastered the aquatint method. In particular through his use of blank paper for glowing highlights among dense shades of grey and black, he created images of dramatic and disturbing beauty.
What makes Los Caprichos however one of the greatest unified series of images ever produced, is not just his baffling draughtsmanship or his technical mastery, nor his sharp satirical wit, but the intensity of his imagination and the depth of his humanity.
Comparing Goya with the satirists of his time, Fred Licht wrote: ‘Even his most patent exaggerations are never glib condemnations. […] Glancing through Goya’s Caprichos, we find it extremely difficult to know on whose side we are or whether indeed there are always sides in the human drama. […] We are made to feel the tremendous burden of being on guard against ourselves as well as against possible contamination by mankind’s general folly’ (F. Licht, Enlightenment, p. lxxxi)