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Book of the Month

August 2006

Los Caprichos

Detail from capricho 80 showing a goblin (or is it a friar?) yawning.

Francisco de Goya y Lucientes

Madrid: 1799

Sp Coll S.M. 1946

This month we take a close look at Francisco de Goya y Lucientes' Los Caprichos: a series of eighty engravings and aquatints of a satirical nature. Goya, frequently acknowledged as the "last of the great masters and the first of the moderns" is more commonly known for his moving and often disturbing oil on canvas; however, he can also be considered as one of the most important and talented etchers ever to have tried the medium. While it is due to his magnificent rococo inspired portraits that he can claim the epithet "Last of the great masters", it is his post-1790 paintings and, more importantly, his etching and aquatints that earn Goya the ascription "First of the moderns".

Capricho 1: Self Portrait of Goya/  The artist in profile sporting a top hot.
Capricho 1: Self portrait of Goya

Born in rural Aragón in 1746 and educated in Zaragoza, Goya was exposed to the artistic world from an early age. His father was a gilder, working on important projects including the construction of Nuestra Señora del Pilar, one of the largest churches in Europe at the time. This would have allowed the young Goya to experience contact with the artistic and professional world first hand from a young age. Indeed, it seems likely that it was his father's connections to the family of the artist José Luzán Martínez that first enabled Goya to try his hand in the studio. After studying for a few years under Luzán in Zaragoza, Goya moved to Madrid to work under Francisco Bayeu. His ambition was quite evident: paying his own fare for a trip to Rome to experience the frescoes of the renaissance masters. Upon returning to Madrid, Goya enhanced his position at court and ingratiated himself with the wealthy and the powerful through numerous commissioned works. A series of impressive tapestry cartoons and portraits of influential members of the court resulted, on the accession of Carlos IV and Maria Luisa in 1789, in his being appointed Court Painter.
Goya's art is remarkable in that his whole style and approach to painting changed in his mature years. This change coincided with a mystery illness the artist contracted in 1792. Nobody can be quite certain what the illness was although suggestions include syphilis, polio, menières's disease and lead poisoning; however, the end result was the complete loss of Goya's sense of hearing. It took Goya many years to fully return to painting and etching and during the recuperation period, divested of his commissioned workload, he experimented greatly in style. Upon returning to painting and etching at the end of the 1790s, Goya had thrown off the influence of the rococo; his art gained a significantly darker, original tone. Not only had his style changed but his choice of subject matter too. He became markedly more interested in the grim everyday reality of Spain and the Spanish people. His characters, often twisted, grizzled and contorted depictions of the poor, the ignorant or the insane arguably reflected the mounting social tensions between old, "black" Spain of tradition and superstition and the modernising influence of an increasingly rationalising Europe.

Many critics have suggested that the radical change in artistic direction surely signified some disquiet and angst within the artist, frustrated with his sudden isolation and battling inner demons. It has been suggested that the frustration and melancholy prompted by his condition was further compounded by a failed romantic venture with the widowed Duchess of Alba.

Detail from Capricho 64: "Buen Viagge" (Bon voyage)  Frightening winged monsters fly through the night sky.
Detail from Capricho 64: "Buen Viagge" (Bon voyage)

Capricho 32: "Por que fue sensible" (Because she was susceptible) A beautiful young girl sits sorrowfully in the darkness of a prison cell.
Capricho 32: "Por que fue sensible" (Because she was susceptible).  Goya's depiction of a young girl incarcerated is the only plate in Los Caprichos to have no etched lines and is formed solely through aquatinting.  Consequently the depth and intensity of the darkness mirrors the emotions of the subject.

Los Caprichos, or The Caprices, date from this period. They are a bizarre, absorbing and sometimes disturbing series of eighty etchings and aquatints depicting a wide variety of subjects including the clergy, prostitutes and witches. The images are a blend of two techniques: etching and aquatint. In particular Goya's use of the aquatint process, lending the images stark contrast between dark and light, provides a distinctly mysterious and dark quality to the work.

The title, Los Caprichos, suggests invention and fantasy. Variants of the word "Caprice" have been used by many artists from classical antiquity right through to the humanist renaissance in Fifteenth Century Italy. Goya's use of the term is a nod to the followers of this tradition: Botticelli and Dürer and the later Tiepolo and Piranesi. It denotes the promotion of the artist's imagination over reality; invention over mere representation. However, arguably Goya uses this trope in a very new way. Where previous caprices had been fantastic and escapist, Goya's Los Caprichos were different, as David Rosand points out: "Goya turned the inventive powers of the artist back upon his audience with indicting moral force. Pressing the limits of poetic license, he effectively annulled the contract between artist and society that had sustained the development of the capriccio.".

Whereas today many people are perfectly happy to believe or accept that art can exist for art's sake, arguably, Goya believed that art should ultimately make a difference. He uses his position as illustrado to lampoon, satirize and pillory various institutions, practices and commonly held beliefs.

Capricho 26: "Ya tienen asiento" (Now they're sitting pretty) Two silly girls fool around with their chairs on their heads. Capricho 5: "Tal para qual" (Two of a kind)  A wealthy gentleman and prostitute flirt in the foreground while two old crones look on from the background.

Capricho 26 (left): "Ya tienen asiento" (Now they're sitting pretty). This plate allies the traditional trope of the topsy-turvy world where normal relations are inverted (chair on girl rather than the other way round) with a pun on the word "asiento" (Asiento means both "chair" and "sense") to comment on the ridiculous behaviour of the two girls.  Capricho 5 (right): "Tal para qual" (Two of a kind). This is an image traditionally thought to be representing Queen Maria Luisa and her lover Godoy but is now thought to merely represent a prostitute and her client.

Quite whom, or what Goya targeted in the Caprichos has been a topic of debate ever since they were published. Early commentators often read his etchings as direct allegorical satires of prominent people within the Spanish establishment. A frequent assumption was that various etchings depicted Queen Maria Luisa and her lover Manuel Godoy; a pictorial critique of the cuckolding, manipulative Queen and her power hungry favourite. Another commonly held belief asserted that the various beautiful dark haired majas depicted in the work were depictions of Goya's former companion, the Duchess of Alba.

However, the identification of particular plates with individuals contradicts Goya's claim made in an advertisement of 1799: "In none of the compositions which form part of this collection has the author proposed to ridicule the particular defects of any one individual.". Admittedly these are comments any sensible artist would make to protect themselves regardless of true intention. Indeed, a degree of misdirection and ambiguity would have been essential in Spain in contrast to, for example England, if one intended to target important people; the absence of legislation permitting freedom of expression fostered a climate where artists could be sued for defamation quite freely. Nonetheless, the majority of modern critics now accept that, while one or two plates do seem to lampoon individuals explicitly, the majority of the plates, as Goya states in 1799, criticise, " the innumerable foibles and follies to be found in any civilized society . the common prejudices and deceitful practices which custom, ignorance and self interest have made usual". Orthodox critical opinion now conjectures that apparent similarities between characters portrayed and real people reflect the artist's practice of casting known individuals as templates for certain "types" of humanity and human folly.

The Caprichos begin with a self-portrait of the artist and then proceed, in no fixed subject order, to target religion, morality, love, ignorance, marriage and superstition. One of the most studied plates is plate 43 "El sueño de la razon produce monstruos" (The sleep of reason produces monsters). The plate depicts the artist lying asleep with his head on the desk while various visions and dreams of owls, bats, asses and giant cats swirl around him and above his head. The inscription accompanying the etching reads, "The artist dreaming. His only purpose is to banish harmful, vulgar beliefs and to perpetuate in this work of caprices the solid testimony of truth".

Capricho 43:
Capricho 43: "El sueño de la razon produce monstruos" (The sleep of reason produces monsters)

This plate maintains an undoubted significance to all students of the Caprichos. F. D. Klingender, speculating what Goya was intending with this plate suggests: "Passion guided by reason inspired the finest deeds of the Spanish people .. But abandoned by reason, faith, selfless devotion, loyalty, heroism, the search for truth, and the passionate love of freedom are turned into evil negations: superstition, bigotry, selfishness, base-flattery, cowardice, heresy-hunting and servility". This reading of the plate, and indeed the Caprichos suggests an enlightenment agenda exercised by Goya; banishing the harmful ideas of the past and ushering in a more rational, free age.
However, other critics might argue that this would be oversimplifying quite what Goya is actually saying; the artist does seem to be searching for rational truth but he does not necessarily directly associate this with the notion of progress and freedom. He is targeting falsely held ideas and assumptions; fallacious ways of doing and thinking that are held in common by all humankind; for example: women are good and faithful while men are decent and honourable. Goya is targeting the "pantomime" nature of society, where certain commonly held notions and practices serve to provide a veneer of respectability and prestige to the corruption underneath. As Robert Hughes notes: "Goya's peculiar slant, which lends a special power to his work, is that he will not accept . the familiar scheme of goodies and baddies, exploiters and unknowing victims. To him all of Madrid society . is linked in a series of agreements or, to put it more bluntly, deals. I grab from you; you grab from me; each of us loses and each gets something." This reading of the Caprichos suggests a far more general critique of humanity, where people continually delude themselves and others through a series of formalised and socialised dissimulations.

Capricho 2:
Capricho 2: "El sí pronuncian y la mano alargan al primero que llega" (They say yes and give their hand to the first one who comes)

A prime example of these processes in action are the series of plates dealing with marriage. For example plate 2 "El sí pronuncian y la mano alargan al primero que llega" (They say yes and give their hand to the first one who comes) depicts a beautiful young girl being married off to a breathtakingly ugly older man. Rather than having sympathy for the girl, Goya, by quoting a line from a poem by Jovellanos in his caption, is suggesting that the girl is marrying the old, ugly man for his money alone. They are engaged in a "pantomime" in which both are completely complicit. The lustful older man gets his trophy bride while the young woman achieves financial security.

Detail from Capricho 2, showing a close up of the bride's head with a hideous mask attached to the back
Detail from Capricho 2.  The mask on the back of the bride's head represents her "two faced" intentions towards her husband to be.

Again and again Goya targets assumptions that people make about relationships: between men and woman; elder and younger; clergy and congregation. While he attempts to expose the mercenary nature of marriage, he also addresses the cult of prostitution. In his "Ni así la distingue" (Even like this he can't make her out), Goya shows what appear to be a well dressed man leaning in and viewing a beautiful young maja through a monocle.

According to Robert Hughes, once again Goya is highlighting the mutual deception being undertaken by the two protagonists. The prostitute must not immediately reveal that she is a prostitute since this would deflate the romantic illusion and possibly scare off her customer; the gentleman is also quite willing to suppress the truth since he is perfectly happy to maintain the pretence that a beautiful young woman is charmed by his company.

Capricho 7: "Ni asi la distingue" (Even like this he can't make her out)

Capricho 20: "Ya van desplumados" (There they go, plucked) Chickens bearing human heads are chased away by prostitutes having been plucked.
Capricho 20: "Ya van desplumados" (There they go, plucked)

The interactions between men and prostitutes undoubtedly interested Goya. He frequently utilises the visual pun of a "plucked" bird when featuring the theme. The word "desplumar" not only meant to "pluck" but was also a colloquial term for to "fleece"or rob. A good example is Plate 20 "Ya van desplumados" (There they go plucked): two young prostitutes chase away featherless chickens with human heads. The chickens (or clients!) are being chased away after being "plucked".

However Goya show's the flip side of the relationship in plate 21 "¡Qual la descañonan!" (How they pluck her!) where a young prostitute is depicted in custody, having been arrested. The implication of the image and text is that the young woman is about to be "fleeced" by the very people who are supposed to uphold the law.

Capricho 21:
Capricho 21: "¡Qual la descañonan!" (How they pluck her!)

Capricho 52: "¡Lo que puede un sastre!" (Look what a tailor can do!)

Goya again holds up a mirror to society in plate 52. This time his target is the clergy in "¡Lo que puede un sastre!" (Look what a tailor can do!). This etching shows a woman kneeling in prayer in front of what appears to be a large hooded friar. However on second inspection, foliage can be seen emerging from where the friar's hands should be and it becomes clear that this is just a tree dressed up as a priest. The message is quite clearly a critique of the clergy: just because he is dressed up as a priest does not necessarily make him good or virtuous.

In his series of plates involving asses and donkeys, from plate 37-42, Goya uses the historically rich practice of engendering animals with human characteristics to poke fun at education, the nobility and doctors. In each case the satire is very straightforward with the ass representing the target in question. In plate 37 "¿Si sabrá más el discípulo? (Might the pupil know more?) Goya shows a donkey pupil being taught to read by a donkey teacher. The idea seems clear enough: while we continue to teach our children to believe in the same falsehoods that we believe in, the pantomime will persist.

Capricho 37:
Capricho 37: "¿Si sabrá más el discípulo? (Might the pupil know more?)

Capricho 40: "¿De qué mal morirá?" (What will he die from?). Here the artist targets doctors who he obviously considers dangerously ignorant.  With this caption, Goya suggests that the treatment form the ignorant doctor may be just as dangerous as the illness from which the patient is suffering!

Capricho 42: "Tu que no puedes" (You who cannot) Two donkeys ride on the back of labourers bent double under the strain.
Capricho 42: "Tu que no puedes" (You who cannot). Goya unites the trope of the topsy-turvey world and the practice of symbolising humans as donkeys to target the nobility metaphorically riding on the backs of the hard working poor.

Perhaps the most disturbing images in the Caprichos are the series devoted to witchcraft. Spain at the end of the Eighteenth Century was convulsed in social change. The modern, rational and scientific beliefs that tend to hold sway over the majority of Europeans today were only beginning to challenge the traditional beliefs and superstitions. Many people still believed witches were real and active agents of the devil while the Inquisition was still in place trying to fight the battle against the alleged evil practices.

In plate 65 "¿Dónde va mama?" (Where is mama going?) Goya shows a corpulent naked witch being carried by a group of other diabolical creatures while her cat desperately clutches onto her swaying parasol. While this could perhaps be a veiled representation of a famous person of the day, long forgotten, it seems quite possible that this is actually Goya poking fun at the idea of witches. The vision of the absurd witch and frightened cat would certainly undermine people's preconceived fears of these diabolical figures.


Capricho 65:
Capricho 65: "¿Dónde va mama?" (Where is mama going?)

Capricho 51:
Capricho 51: "Se repulen" (They spruce themselves up)

Janis A. Tomlinson however, after studying the chronology in which Goya produced the Caprichos, forms a different argument. She suggests that many of the witchcraft series were produced far earlier than the social satires found at the start of the volume. She argues that this might indicate that Goya had no direct satirical intention with many of his witchcraft images and that he merely uses them to play around with and challenge traditional ideas of form. She suggests that some of the last witchcraft images to be produced, for example, plate 51, "Se repulen" (They spruce themselves up) progress from the earlier ones and began to incorporate satirical, allegorical elements. By picturing three goblins preening and posturing, Goya is blurring the line between fantasy and reality. "These goblins are involved in vain activities previously thought endemic to man alone . These shared vices enable us, in looking at Los Caprichos, to suspend our disbelief and equate goblins, monks, prostitutes and nobles as participants in a world that tests the limits of reason: no clear boundaries distinguish reality from fantasy".

Capricho 79: "Nadie nos ha visto" (No one has seen us)  Four priests drunkenly cavort in a darkened cellar, hidden from view.
Capricho 79: "Nadie nos ha visto" (No one has seen us). Four clerics carouse, hidden from public view.  The grotesque expression and gaping mouth of the drunken priest on the left exemplifies the disgust Goya feels towards the corrupt clergy.

When first published in 1799, Los Caprichos did not receive a particularly favourable reception. Indeed, of the two hundred and forty copies printed, only twenty seven were sold making the project somewhat of a financial disaster. The reason for the complete failure has never been established; however, later correspondence suggests that the rapid withdrawal from sale of the series may have been due to the critical nature of the subject matter provoking the ire of the Inquisition. The plates from the series and all unsold copies were eventually donated to the Royal Calcografia in 1803 in return for a pension for the artist's son.

Capricho 80: "Ya es hora" (Time to be off) A group of figures stretch and yawn.  Their ambiguous dress and features make it difficult to tell whether they are clerics or goblins: a parallel Goya obviously wanted to draw.
Capricho 80: "Ya es hora" (Time to be off).  Goya skilfully blurs the lines between fantasy and reality while critiquing the clergy.  Are these goblins or are they clerics?

Our copy of the Caprichos comes from the library of Sir William Stirling-Maxwell, bequeathed to Glasgow University by his son in 1956. According to a manuscript letter inserted at the front of the volume, Stirling-Maxwell acquired the volume in 1845 for the sum of ten or twelve dollars. He had a particularly strong interest in Spanish art, even writing a three volume work on the topic in 1848, Annals of the artists of Spain. In his Annals, he celebrates Goya's "strong taste for the grotesque . inventor of horrible monsters, cloudy shapes suggestive of deeper horrors, or malicious frisking devilkins".

Picture of an extract from Sir William Stirling-Maxwell's hand written note of provenance found at the start of S.M. 1946.
An extract from Sir William Stirling-Maxwell's hand written note of provenance found at the start of S.M. 1946.

Rather curiously, in the same work he fails to acknowledge the importance of the satirical nature of the series claiming that the satire, "would be hardly worth while, if it were possible, to decipher". Considering that Stirling-Maxwell owned one of the most impressive collections of Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century emblem books in the world, a medium which allies text and image in an allegorical fusion (much like the Caprichos), this seems a strange thing to say. Perhaps this view was merely in keeping with contemporary critical opinion: that the Caprichos displayed only direct allusion to specific individuals rather than the broad social satire acknowledged today. Regardless, maybe Stirling-Maxwell held the same opinion attributed to Baudelaire by Klingender: "that even someone who knows nothing of the historical background of the Caprichos, a simple lover of the arts . cannot fail to be deeply moved by Goya's designs".

Bareau, Juliet Wilson Goya's prints: the Tomás Harris collection in the British Museum London: 1981, Level 11 Main Lib Fine Arts EH 1304 BAR

Hughes, Robert Goya London: 2003, Level 11 Main Lib Fine Arts CH1304 HUG

Klingender, Francis Donald Goya in the democratic tradition London: 1968, Level 11 Main Lib Fine Arts CH1304 KLI

Rosand, David. Introduction to Janis A. Tomlinson's Graphic evolutions (see below)

Steadman, David W. The graphic art of Francisco Goya, from the Norton Simon Foundation, the Norton Simon, Inc. Museum of Art and the Pomona College Collections Claremont [Calif.]: 1975, Level 11 Main Lib Fine Arts EH1304 1975-S

Stirling-Maxwell, William Sir Annals of the artists of Spain London: 1848, Library Research Annexe K4-f.23-25

Tomlinson, Janis A. Graphic evolutions: the print series of Francisco Goya New York: c1989, Level 11 Main Lib Fine Arts EH1304 TOM

Tomlinson, Janis A. Francisco Goya y Lucientes London: 1994, Level 11 Main Lib Fine Arts CH1304 TOM2

Williams, Gwynn A. Goya and the impossible revolution London: 1976, Level 11 Main Lib Fine Arts EH1304 WIL



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Robert MacLean August 2006