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Los Caprichos

Los Caprichos
the complete set of eighty etchings with burnished aquatint, drypoint and engraving
on laid paper, without watermark
a fine, uniform set from the First Edition, published by the artist, Madrid, 1799, in an edition of approximately three hundred copies
fine to very good impressions, printing very sharply, with strong contrasts and bright highlights
plate 45 with the vertical scratch on the chin of the central figure
with wide margins
a few plates with minor repairs in the margins
generally in very good condition, in a modern album
Plates 215 x 150 mm.
Sheets 297 x 205 mm.(and similar)
368 x 295 x 50 mm. (overall)
Private English Collection.
Delteil 38-117; Harris 36-115

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Stefano Franceschi
Stefano Franceschi Specialist

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Lot Essay

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, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 2014, 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 Los 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 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.

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