When in 1807 French troops started to flood into Spain and the country quickly descended into a chaotic and bloodthirsty war, Goya’s highly ambiguous dictum El sueño de la razon produce monstruos must have felt like a prophesy. The phrase, published in Los Caprichos in 1799 (see lot 22), seemed to describe the aftermath of the French Revolution and the rise of Napoleon perfectly: the dream of reason had indeed produced monsters.
For proponents of the Enlightenment in Spain, France had always been the model and a source for inspiration and guidance. It was therefore not surprising that eventually Spain aligned itself with revolutionary France and in 1804 found itself in an alliance against England and Portugal. Under Carlos IV’s government, led by his ambitious and corrupt First Minister Manuel Godoy, the French Army was invited into the country to fight the Portuguese and English on the ground, effectively leading to an occupation of Spain. Greeted at first with enthusiasm as the harbingers of a new era, resistance quickly arose both against the French troops and against Carlos IV, Queen Maria Luisa and Godoy, who were seen as traitors.
In 1808, a public mutiny at the King’s residence of Aranjuez – probably a coup d’état initiated by the Royal Guards – disposed of Godoy, and Carlos IV was forced to abdicate in favor of his son Fernando VII. As Napoleon felt his influence waning, he without delay forced Ferdinand VII to cede the Spanish Crown to his brother, Joseph Bonaparte. ‘Moved by an ancient loyalty’ and ‘a vague and confused sense of freedom’, the Spanish people rose across the county to fight ‘at the same time for their independence, their religion, and their monarchy.’ (Gonzalo Anes, Enlightenment, p. xxxvi-xxxv) What ensued was a brutal war of a highly trained professional army against an uncoordinated, but infuriated and determined populace, which would last for six years.
Whether Goya was too disillusioned or just too pragmatic to openly take sides is impossible to tell. In the course of the Peninsular War, he painted a portrait of the French General Guye, received commissions and the Royal Order from Jospeh Bonaparte and, when all was over, portrayed the victorious Duke of Wellington. In 1808, right at the beginning of the conflict, the Spanish General Palafox invited the artist to travel to Saragossa to depict the ruined city and immortalize the people, who had so courageously defended it during the siege by the French. It may have been during this journey across the war-torn country that Goya first thought of creating a series of prints about the war.
Los Desastres de la Guerra, as we know the series today and as it is offered here in its first edition, consists of eighty etchings with aquatint, created presumably over the course of ten years and in three distinct phases. The earliest plates, some of which bear the date 1810, depict scenes from the actual war, the battles and skirmishes, the executions, rapes and mutilations, the wounded and the dead. The second group concentrates on the famine caused by the war in 1811-12, which left tens of thousands of Madrileños dead. The third and final part consists of a group of grotesques, satires and allegories reminiscent of Los Caprichos, expressing Goya’s disdain for Fernando VII’s reactionary and vengeful rule after he had regained power following Napoleon’s defeat in 1814. It seems likely that Goya had wanted to publish the first two groups of etchings in 1814, but was prevented to do so by Fernando’s post-war tyranny. In 1820, the revolt of Rafael del Riego and the restoration of the liberal Constitution promised liberty at last. It may have been then that Goya once again thought of publishing the series and complemented it with the caprichos enfaticos, as he called them. Yet three years later, Fernando’s absolute rule was re-established, General Riego executed and Goya soon emigrated to France. Los Desastres de la Guerra were never published in his lifetime.
In particular the first part of the series, some of which are probably based on scenes he witnessed on his way to and from Saragossa, is an ‘almost unbearably explicit’ account of human suffering and cruelty (Benjamin Weiss, in: Order & Disorder, p. 277). In contrast to traditional depictions of war, Goya chose a mid-distance viewpoint; not the great panoramas of the battlefield, which turn war into a spectacle; nor close-ups of the dying, which turn each death into a heroic tragedy. Goya’s horrific scenes are specific and general at once, each plate a short essay about the systematic barbarity of war, still as valid today as it was then. The soldiers who shoot at unarmed civilians or methodically execute rows of captives are seen from behind or disappear inside their uniforms. On some plates, only their gun barrels reach into the image. The perpetrators have no identity or humanity, they are part of an anonymous war machine. Strangely it is the victims who, stripped naked, castrated and impaled, retain their human dignity. Tenderly, with tiny stipples, Goya describes their nude bodies. In their fragmented beauty and their classic poses, they remind us of ancient sculptures. But Goya’s dead are no martyrs and the sky above them is empty. ‘Comparison […] with Ribera’s tortured saints underscores a crucial difference […] for the excruciating pain suffered by Goya’s victims is unmitigated by the comfort of their faith. (Janis Tomlinson, in: Order & Disorder, p. 287)
When the fight for freedom was over and won, and victory had brought nothing but Fernando’s vindictive restoration, Goya certainly seemed to have lost all faith. One of the caprichos enfaticos at the end of the series (plate 69) shows a skeleton scribbling one single word as it sinks into the grave: Nada (‘Nothing’).