Francisco de Goya y Lucientes (1746-1828)
Francisco de Goya y Lucientes (1746-1828)

Los Caprichos (D. 38-117; H. 36-115)

Francisco de Goya y Lucientes (1746-1828)
Los Caprichos (D. 38-117; H. 36-115)
the complete set of eighty etchings with burnished aquatint, drypoint and engraving, 1797-98, on laid paper, a magnificent proof set before the first edition of 1799, printed in warm sepia with rich contrasts and retaining the burnished highlights, five plates before corrections, in the contemporary mottled tree calf binding, with black edging, gilt, lettered GOIA in red panel on spine, the marbled end papers in the earliest design, generally in good condition
(album)The corrections are as follows:
Plate 1: Before the comma after Lucientes
Plate 3: Before biene was changed to viene
Plate 4: Before royonna was changed to rollona
Plate 8: Before the addition of the exclamation mark
Plate 21: Before the addition of the tilda (it is here added in ink)
S. 11 7/8 x 7 15/16 in. (302 x 202 mm.) (overall)
Sotheby's, London, 26 April 1979, lot 387; David Tunick, New York, 1982

Lot Essay

A detailed condition report is available on request.

Los Caprichos is central to our conception of Goya. First published in 1799 they exposed the vice and corruption that earned Goya's homeland the appellation Black Spain. It is unknown whether he had an overlying scheme in mind as he etched the series, but the thematic and formal variety suggests he did not. In the eighty etchings that comprise the set, Goya mocks the peasantry's superstitious belief in witchcraft, the arrogance of the nobility, and the widespread corruption of the Catholic Church. It offers a kaleidoscopic view of evil, encompassing prostitutes, imagined witches and goblins.

In order to avoid alienating powerful individuals at Court and to protect himself from the wrath of the Inquisition, the artist masked his satire by means of images that could inspire multiple interpretations. In plate 68, for example, two nude witches, one old and withered, the other young and voluptuous, ride a broomstick. The image clearly refers to the belief in witchcraft, but, on a less obvious level, it also addresses the issue of prostitution within Spanish society. This subtle layering of meanings is one of the hallmarks of Goya's genius. Never before had any artist presented such a complex group of images, which effortlessly slip from the mundane to the supernatural.

The project as a whole involved an extraordinary amount of labor. Most of the images are masterpieces of printmaking in their own right. Within a period of less than three years Goya conceived, drew, etched and printed the eighty plates. Each image involved at least one drawing and possibly several proofs. Even assuming he had help, simply printing the First Edition was a mammoth undertaking - one which must have required enormous effort from an artist already busy with private and public commissions.

Technically it marks a turning point in the history of printmaking. Goya was the first major artist to work in the relatively new technique of aquatint, and he used it to its full effect - layering veils of tone one upon the other, sometimes coarse and granular, at other times velvety like a mezzotint or so fine it resembles a light watercolor wash. The only drawback, which soon became apparent, is that much depth and subtlety was lost as the plates began to wear. Even within the First Edition these changes are noticeable, and it is only in the earliest examples such as the present copy, specially bound for Goya, that we can we truly appreciate his achievement.

Goya clearly expected Los Caprichos to be a success, and a first run of three hundred copies were printed. However, not for the last time in his career as a printmaker, his hopes were dashed. Only a few copies were sold - the actual number is thought to be 27. As soon as it became apparent that the venture was not going to be a success he withdraw the prints from circulation and made a gift of the plates to the Spanish monarch. Some believe he did so because, despite his attempts to veil the critical nature of the series, he was worried it would come to the attention of the Inquisition. It might also have been something of a good deal, since in return for the plates and a number of the unsold copies he was able to secure a fairly lucrative pension.

Despite the rather inauspicious start, Los Caprichos ultimately became Goya's most popular and influential series; Domenico Tiepolo owned a set, as did Eugène Delacroix, who borrowed freely from Goya's images. No fewer than twelve editions were printed between 1799 and 1937, and it was primarily because of Los Caprichos that Goya became known outside Spain.

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