Exhibition Essay
Francisco Goya: LOS CAPRICHOS


by Robert Flynn Johnson

“The world is a masquerade. Looks, dress and voice,
everything is only pretension. Everyone wants to
appear to be what he is not. Everyone is deceiving,
and no one ever knows himself.”

Francisco Goya
Prado Manuscript text to plate 6 of Los Caprichos (1799)

To comprehend the achievement of great Spanish artist Francisco Goya (1746–1828), it is necessary to first understand Spain and its position in the world at the end of the eighteenth century. Spain’s glory days were long past; its influence through naval power was gone and with it much of a far-flung colonial empire from which material wealth once flowed. At home, Spain was a country in religious, social, political, and economic paralysis. The Catholic Church had inordinate power, with lingering vestiges of the Inquisition empowered to terrorize any perceived threat to Church Authority. In a country with a population of 10.5 million people, there were approximately 200,000 priests, nuns, and monks . . . one in fifty! The ecclesiastical body in Spain was twice the number as in Italy and three times as large as in France. Their power in numbers, and their economic influence through vast land holdings, was significant. Inevitably, this power was used to thwart social and economic progress.

The aristocratic structure was not much better. In his adult life, Goya experienced three Spanish kings (Carlos III, Carlos IV, and Fernando VII), each progressively worse than the last. Remarkably, Goya was able to utilize his artistic talent and social skills to further his career within the intrigue and politics of such courts. Nevertheless, he regarded the hierarchy, and virtually all the individuals with whom he came in contact there, as utterly corrupt.

Spain was a country with a rotted social structure. The fantasy of nobility ran deep through perpetuation of a class of minor impoverished nobles called hidalgos. “The poorer the land, the more nobles on it,” [1] ran the saying. In 1800, some four hundred thousand heads of families claimed some form of aristocratic lineage . . . one noble for every twenty-seven inhabitants of Spain. The absence of a structured work force brings to mind the saying, “If everyone went to college, who would clean the fish?” The stagnation of Church and aristocracy left the economic and social order of Spain in near chaos. Sarah Symmons succinctly captured the era when she wrote:

“Increasing population and attendant unemployment had changed late eighteenth-century Spain into an unstable and restless nation. In 1781, Charles III had been obliged to call out the Spanish army to deal with ‘gangs of criminals who commit murder and rape . . . and live by robbery and smuggling’, and in 1802, Charles IV com-manded the captain-generals of his army to devote themselves to arresting a ‘vast number of criminals, highwaymen, and smugglers’. Foreign visitors were aghast at the numbers of muggers and thieves who operated, sometimes in broad daylight, with insolent ferocity. This was the background to Goya’s increasing interest in subjects of criminal activity, crimes, and the variable (often oppressive) conduct of Spanish law enforcement and justice.” [2]

What if, in the midst of an otherwise vibrant, productive life, you found yourself totally deaf, with the prospect of inhabiting a world of silence stretching on until death, and you were an artist whose talent lay in the subtle depiction of the frailties of human nature? And what if the enforced isolation of a soundless life created a compensatory acuity and unlocked your creativity allowing you to produce an art of pitiless observation, dissecting the pretensions of the society in which you, nevertheless, thrived? For Francisco Goya, these were not suppositions, but hard realities.

Despite his acute powers of observation, Goya was a man trapped within walls of silence. In 1793, a mysterious illness (typhoid fever, Meniéres disease, or lead poisoning from his paints) left Goya stone deaf. This physical handicap would be a terrible blow to an average person; it would radically reduce their ability to interact with the world. But for Goya, it was the transforming experience of his life, imprinting itself upon all his future art. This manifested itself in two ways: it heightened his powers of observation of people and, concurrently, made Goya far more pessimistic and cynical in his view of the world immediately around him. If we were to turn the volume off on a television talk show, we would more fully observe the exaggerated expressions and gestures of the participants--so it was with Goya who would now have to perceive the social world more through the body language of his fellow man. What he saw was profoundly disturbing. In consideration of the corruption of the times, much of Goya’s art was based on accurate obser-vation, all the more penetrating, of course, for the endlessly imaginative, wicked, and often humorous ways in which the artist depicted human foibles.

Goya once stated, “I have three masters: Nature, Velázquez, and Rembrandt.” [3] Nature stimulated Goya’s acute powers of observation. Velázquez was Goya’s dominant role model in the art of painting (his exposure to significant numbers of the master’s works took place in the Royal collections.) But it was Rembrandt’s achievements as a printmaker that most affected Goya’s art. Goya had little access to paintings and drawings by the Dutch master, the greatest etcher of all time, but he was familiar with his large and diverse body of graphic work. In his prints, Rembrandt exhibited unparalleled creativity and technical virtuosity ranging from the simplest line etchings to dark, moody compositions achieved through extensive cross-hatching of the plate.

However, by the end of the eighteenth century, printmaking had advanced technically in several ways, in particular allowing the execution of shadow and dark tones without resorting to the earlier, time-consuming method of cross-hatching. One of these advanced methods is known as ‘mezzotint,’ a process in which the surface of the plate is completely and thoroughly scoured, so that if inked at this stage the plate would print in a single uniform tone. Creation of the image only comes about by bur- nishing back the plate to lighter values, the complete image finally emerging from the darkly printed initial background.

Such a painterly print method was ideal for tonal reproductions of oil paintings, and was popular for this purpose in England and Holland. Mezzotint’s only drawbacks were that it was time-consuming, and the plate surface wore down rapidly, limiting the number of fine impressions that could be made and sold. Possibly, because of its commercial limitations, Goya never worked in this medium.

However, the tonal innovation that did captivate Goya was aquatint, which made its earliest appearance in Holland in the late seventeenth century. This process uses acid, as in line etching, but instead of scratching lines through a solid masking ground to the bare plate, the plate is covered with a scattered ground of grains of pulverized resin; this porous ground allows the acid to bite away a fine mesh of tiny dots according to the artist’s applications of the powder and subsequent etching. The artist would first “stop out” the unetched areas of the picture, immersing the plate briefly for the lightest tones; then he would stop out successive areas in turn for increasingly darker tones, repeating the process as desired. Unlike the mezzotint, the aquatint is incapable of extremely fine modulations of tone, and each grainy tone, like a watercolor wash, is uniform and bounded by an abrupt contour.

Beginning in 1796, Goya turned increasingly to drawing as a form of artistic expression. Eventually he was to fill eight identifiable albums with over 550 strange and highly original drawings of a far more personal and introspective nature than any of the more public paintings. Out of these private albums come drawings whose subject matter deals with the fables, witchcraft, eroticism, social observation, and philosophical and aesthetic ideas that were to inspire the creation and publication of his magisterial publication, Los Caprichos in 1799.

Utilizing black and gray washes, the drawings are skillful manipulations of light and shadow. It was Goya’s embrace of aquatint as a print medium that enabled him to transfer the mystery and energy of his wash drawings to copper. As Robert Hughes has written:

“What Rembrandt did for line etching, Goya . . . did for aquatint, and he did it with one astonishing burst of creativity: a series of eighty prints that Goya entitled Los Caprichos. Without aquatint as their medium, they would not have been possible. Those deep, thick mysterious blacks against which figures appear with such solidity and certainty, and yet with such apparitional strangeness; that darkness in which most detail is lost, so that one’s eye moves into a record of states of mind rather than a description of a “real” world—such effects owe their intensity to the aquatint medium and might not have been so available to Goya without it.” [4]

Through the aquatint process, in tandem with line etching, Goya brought forth his most private, most inward artistic ideas to a public wholly unprepared for the unholy cruelty revealed by such candor. The literal meaning of capricho is a “whim,” a “fantasy or an expression of imagination,” but for Goya it meant much more.

Goya was not the first artist to create a print series on this theme—he might well have been inspired by knowledge of a series of ten baroque etchings, Capricci (ca. 1743), by G. B. Tiepolo an artist who worked in Spain from 1762 until his death in Madrid in 1770; Goya would have been well acquainted with his art. Unlike Tiepolo, Goya did not strive for decorative fantasy. In a sense (with the possible exception of the eccentric Italian etcher, Giambattista Piranesi [1720–1778]), Francisco Goya should be seen as the first modern artist--he chose to go beyond depictions of religion, mythology, and history, and even beyond observation of the visible world, turning instead toward the psychological demons that have always inhabited men’s souls. Until Goya, these demons had rarely been made artistically visible--Goya had the courage and the genius to depict them.

On Wednesday, February 6, 1799, there appeared in the Diario de Madrid the following advertisement:

“A series of prints of whimsical subjects, invented and etched by Don Francisco Goya. The artist, persuaded that the censure of human errors and vices—though it seems to belong properly to oratory and poetry—may also be the object of painting, has chosen as appropriate subjects for his work, among the multitude of extravagances and follies which are common throughout civilized society, and among vulgar prejudices and frauds rooted in custom, ignorance, or interest, those which he has believed to be aptest to provide an occasion for ridicule and at the same time to exercise his imagination.

Since the greater part of the objects represented in this work are imaginary, it will not be rash to hope that its defects will obtain, perhaps, ample indulgence among the intelligent.

Considering that the artist has not followed the example of others, nor has found it possible to copy nature, although the imitation of nature is as difficult as it is admirable when it is achieved, one must allow that he will still deserve some esteem who, departing from her entirely, has been obliged to exhibit to the eye forms and attitudes which hitherto have existed only in the human mind bedimmed and confused by want of enlightenment or excited by the violence of unbridled passions.

It were to presume an excessive ignorance of the fine arts if we warned the public that in none of the compositions constituting this series has the artist proposed to ridicule the particular defects of this or that individual; which in truth would be an excessive restriction on the limits of talent and a misunderstanding of the means used by the arts of imitation to produce perfect works.

Painting, like poetry, selects in the universe whatever she deems most appropriate to her ends. She assembles in a single fantastic personage circumstances and features which nature distributes among many individuals. From this combination, ingeniously composed, results that happy imitation by virtue of which the artist earns the title of inventor and not of servile copyist.

On sale at No. 1 Calle del Desengaño, the perfume and liquor store, at the price of 320 reales for each set of 80 prints.” [5]

It is not known why Goya would choose this moment in his career to offer works of art directly to the public in this manner. It is especially puzzling because the potential audience for the set of Los Caprichos (the educated and affluent, if not wealthy, classes) is precisely those whom the majority of the prints savagely caricature. Goya has depicted himself in the frontispiece to the series dressed in the latest fashion, wearing a beaver stove-pipe hat, exuding the confidence of a self-made man. Nevertheless, the tilt of his head and the arch of his eyebrow lend an expression of observant disdain--as if his nose had just caught some unpleasant odor. Even before turning to the first plate, Goya has signaled with his own visage a visual warning of what is to follow. Thematically, Los Caprichos reflects the social milieu of Goya’s actual life in Madrid, depicting the activities of wealthy, idle, and politically connected urban aristocrats and clergy.

The eighty plates are roughly divided into two parts. (There has been speculation that Goya may have thought of the plates as two independent series, but eventually combined them into one.) The plate that defines the entire series, curiously, only appears about mid-way, as plate 43, “The sleep of reason produces monsters.” The images prior to plate 43 (with the exceptions of plates 19, 20, 21, and 37–42) deal generally with caustic depictions of moral corruption among aristocrats, ecclesiastics, and, on occasion, the lower classes. The works following plate 43 (with the exception of plates 57, 58, 73, 76, 77, and 79) by and large deal with witchcraft, sorcery, and the supernatural. It is plate 43, however, that illustrates and illuminates the torment of Goya’s transformation from a facile court practitioner to a fearless explorer of inner truths. Sir Kenneth Clark brilliantly analyzed this image when he wrote:

“ [the print] . . . shows Goya asleep on his drawing board, his folded arms supporting his sleeping head. He is assailed by the emissaries of witchcraft, cats, bats, and owls; and on the front of his desk is the inscription ‘The sleep of reason brings forth monsters’. One can interpret this inscription in two ways: either that when we are asleep our dreaming mind produces the bogies and witches which fill half Goya’s plates; or, that human beings, when they abandon reason, fall into the horrible practices that are illustrated in the other half of the series. The second is the more attractive interpretation, because it gives the Caprichos a philosophic basis, and also because the scenes of actual life are, to our taste, the more interesting part of the Caprichos. . . . But I am inclined to think that Goya had the former interpretation in mind, because on the drawing for the etching, in place of the ‘Sleep of reason’, is an inscription which begins ‘Idioma Universal’. This must, I think, refer to the imagery in the supernatural scenes, and it is true that these monsters are of a kind which have haunted the human imagination throughout history.

. . . But as we grow older, and as the world grows older, they cease to alarm us. Goya’s dwarfs are cases for proper treatment; his witches a problem for the social-worker.” [6]

Regardless of which of these two interpretations one is inclined to accept, the imagery unleashed in the unrelentingly dark and cynical series of Los Caprichos continues to provoke and disturb our contemporary consciousness--even after two centuries! That is the essence of great art, to endure, and to continue to have relevance.

There are three recognizable subject sub-groups within the Caprichos: the first consists of plates 5, 7, 15–17, 19–20, 27–28, 31, and 35–36 involving prostitution; the second is a specific “donkey” series (plates 37–42) that lampoons the pretensions of such professions and social classes as medicine, law, academia, the arts, and aristocracy; and the last and largest series (plates 43–51, 56, and 59–71) depicts the activities of witches, goblins, and other fantastic creatures. It is clear that many images are but thinly veiled depictions of the clergy in all manner of deplorable activities.

Similar themes are prevalent in English and French popular prints of the period. In England, the graphic work of William Hogarth, Thomas Rowlandson, and James Gillray abound with witty and satiric depictions of the follies of men and women. In their work, however, there is a light-hearted, innocent quality similar to the plot twists of situation comedies on television today. This is not so in the Caprichos. We are rescued from total depression regarding Goya’s dark disillusionment only by the brilliance and originality of his composition and virtuoso print technique.

What was Goya thinking when he produced 300 sets of Los Caprichos? With 80 prints in each, it was a production that came to the astounding number of 2,400 total sheets! Each set sold for 320 reales, the cost of one ounce of gold, rather a high price at that time. As it was, the project turned out to be a financial disaster--only twenty-seven sets of the edition of three hundred were actually sold over the next four years!

In 1803 Goya donated the copper plates and all remaining sets to the Royal Printworks in exchange for a pension for his only surviving son, Javier. The fiasco represented by this publication almost certainly cast a pall over his future graphic cycles. Of the three other great series, Los Desastres de la Guerra (1810–14), La Tauromaquia (1815–16), and Los Proverbios (1815–24), only La Tauromaquia (a history of bullfighting) was offered for sale by Goya during his lifetime.

Although he was a skillful and honored painter, there is no doubt that Francisco Goya’s greatest fame rests on his achievements as a printmaker. Los Caprichos stands as the greatest single work of art created in Spain since the writings of Cervantes and the paintings of Velázquez, over one hundred fifty years earlier. These astonishing prints have cast a dark shadow of inspiration over generations of artists since their creation. Eugene Delacroix owned a copy of all eighty plates, and their influence is evident in the socially conscious art of Honoré Daumier and Edouard Manet, among others.

It is sad, as Robert Hughes has written, that “. . . the fact, that at the end of the twentieth century, we had (as we still have) no person who could successfully make eloquent and morally urgent art out of human disaster, tells us some-thing about the shriveled expectations of what art can do. So how could someone [Goya] have managed it with such success two centuries earlier?” [7]

Goya was stubborn, an artist of utter perseverance. He maneuvered through the social, political, and religious minefields of his era, rarely sacrificing his integrity. In 1824, at eighty years of age, he summed up his own character when he wrote, “I can’t see, or write, or hear—I have nothing left but my will—and that I have in abundance.” [8]

Robert Flynn Johnson, 2005

Robert Flynn Johnson has been Curator in Charge of the Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco since 1975. He has organized many important exhibitions; a partial list of publications associated with these exhibitions includes: Lucian Freud: Works on Paper (W. W. Norton); Peter Milton: Complete Prints, 1960–1996 (Chronicle); Plant Kingdoms: The Photographs of Charles Jones (Thames and Hudson); Leonard Baskin: Monumental Woodcuts, 1952–1963 (Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco); Artists’ Books in the Modern Era 1870–2000: The Reva and David Logan Collection of Illustrated Books, 2001 (Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco); Reverie and Reality: 19th Century Photography of India from the Ehrenfeld Collection, 2003 (Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco); Anonymous: Enigmatic Images from Unknown Photographers, 2004 (Thames and Hudson); The Child: Works by Gottfried Helnwein, 2004 (Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco).


Francisco Goya’s art is as moving and meaningful today as it was two centuries ago. Both in artistic technique and in the social consciousness of his subject matter, Goya has continued to influence generations of artists in their own work.

Accompanying this exhibition are images by two distinguished artists directly inspired by Los Caprichos. Edward Hagedorn (American, 1902–1982), was an eccentric California artist who created a large body of highly original art. He worked from the late nineteen-twenties through the early nineteen-sixties. Violently anti-war, and cynical about the corporate economic culture that was to evolve into the military-industrial complex, Hagedorn produced compelling, savagely satiric, even hallucinogenic images in support of his beliefs. It is no surprise that Hagedorn was moved to execute a large format drawing after plate 51 of Los Caprichos, [Se repulen], “They spruce themselves up.” Enrique Chagoya (American, born Mexico, 1953), a widely collected artist, is similar to Hagedorn in his belief that art should be used as a weapon of truth to attack injustice through irony, ridicule, and satire. Taking eight plates from Goya’s Caprichos as his model, Chagoya has populated his series with a madhouse of characters from current popular culture: Yuppies, Snow White, Linda Tripp, Jessie Helms, Jerry Falwell, even the artist himself posed as an artist/monkey, make an appearance. Chagoya’s prints are hilarious and topical—-and their very existence resonates with the lasting power of Goya’s vision.



1. Robert Hughes, Goya (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003), 61.
2. Sarah Symmons, Goya (London: Phaidon Press, 1998), 139.
3. Ian Crofton, ed., A Dictionary of Art Quotations
(New York: Schirmer Books, 1988), 80.
4. Robert Hughes, Goya (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003), 179.
5. Robert Goldwater and Marco Treves, Artists on Art
(New York: Pantheon Books, 1947), 203-4.
6. Kenneth Clark, The Romantic Rebellion
(New York: Harper and Row, New York, 1973), 77.
7. Robert Hughes, Goya (New York: Alfred Knopf, 2003), 7.
8. Kenneth Clark, The Romantic Rebellion (New York: Harper and Row, 1973), 95