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Occasionally in the life of a very great artist some event, or some achievement, marks a turning point in his career. The publication of Los Caprichos, eighty aquatint plates, roughly 12 1/2 by 8 3/4 inches in their uncut state, was both these in Francisco Goya's case. The year was 1799, and one even knows the day, thanks to an advertisement in a newspaper, the Diario de Madrid. It was Tuesday, February 6th! Quite amusingly, the exact spot of publication was a shop for liquors and perfumes, in the "Street of Disillusion" (Calle del Desengaño) right opposite Goya's own house. The price was 320 reales, or about thirty- five dollars in our currency—a little less than forty cents a print (a fairly normal price for those days).
Despite this less than earth-shaking figure, the prints were not only Goya's largest graphic work to date—and he was already fifty-three years old—but a tremendous leap in quality and power above any prints he had ever done before. At an age when most artists are at the height of their career, he was only beginning to show his mastery of drawing, tone, and intellectual content. To be sure he was one of the court painters of King Carlos IV, but had he died before the drawings and prints for Los Caprichos were made, he would today be rated as an attractive painter of the pre-Revolutionary era and, in graphics, as mainly a reproductive etcher—not the major artist and the father of modern art which he had started to become.
Goya became desperately ill in 1792 with a combination of nervous and physical troubles which cannot be completely explained even by the plausible suggestion that the artist was suffering from Menière's disease in its worst form. Slowly in 1793 and 1794 he recuperated, although his friends Martin Zapater, Bernardo Yriarte, and Gaspar Melchor de Jovellanos, the Minister of Justice in 1797, despaired both for his life and his nervous stability. During the recovery period he did a lot of reading about the French Revolution, then at its most extreme period, and the philosophy which brought it about. When he was reasonably well again—although almost deaf—he was a changed man: bitter at times, secretive, far less exuberant. He was also able to express his new power, and proceeded to do so by preparing (with quite a number of pencil, crayon, and wash sketches) his aquatinted copper plates, from which he struck a few trial proofs, before letters, and six magnificent sets (so far recorded) of pre-publication proofs with captions, probably as gifts for his most important friends. These six sets have a few errors in the captions that were corrected in the first edition. It is from one of these six sets that the eighty basic Caprichos prints in the present volume were reproduced.
When the first edition was ready, Goya sat back, with some anxiety, to see what the public reception would be. The reason one knows that he was apprehensive is that he had changed his idea for the opening plate. Originally he intended what is now Plate 43 for this position since it shows the artist himself (although his face is hidden) suffering from the diabolic visions of his anguished brain. Goya's caption "The sleep of reason produces monsters" is deliberately deceptive. Thanks to the discovery of Miss Eleanor Sayre, Curator of the Department of Prints and Drawings in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, one is able to claim that Goya must have found inspiration in two engraved pictorial title pages to a Paris, 1793, edition of Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Philosophie. Supposing they reached Goya early in 1794, it would have been at the time of his recovery, the moment when one believes he was planning the Caprichos series, and keenly aware of the contrast between the "terror" in France and "reaction" in Spain. All the essential elements of Plate 43 are in those two pictorial title pages: the man leaning his head on a desk, the owls, the bats, and the great cat. The lettering on the side of the desk is unique so far as this series is concerned. It could just as easily have contained the title, Los Caprichos, with the name of the artist and date.
Goya probably feared the source of his inspiration might be discovered and lead him into trouble with the political as well as clerical powers to whom the very name of Rousseau was then anathema. So he substituted a superb self-portrait, in profile, in which he wears what was later called a Bolivar hat, and had his name engraved (probably by a caliigraphic artist) beneath it. Mr. Walter C. Baker, in New York City, owns the preliminary red chalk drawing (reproduced as the frontispiece of this volume) for the present, and final, aquatint Plate 1.
There proved to be ample grounds for Goya's evasive action and for the elusive nature of the captions beneath each plate (except the first), for which half a dozen or more contemporary manuscript "explanations" exist. Probably the so-called "Prado" and "Ayala" manuscripts are the best (the text of the "Prado" manuscript is given in Spanish and English on the pages facing the etchings, just below the English translations of the captions). But no one manuscript is clearly authoritative; they vary in the power of their prose, and the conviction which the "explanation" carries. One of these manuscripts, which now belongs to the writer of this introduction, may be by Llorente, who was Secretary of the Spanish Inquisition. In any case, the hue and cry became so great that after only twenty-seven copies had been bought, Goya was forced to suspend sales. Finally in 1803 the whole matter was covered up when the boorish, bumbling King, who liked Goya personally, ordered the artist to give to the crown all the unsold sets, as well as the copper plates themselves, which he said he had "expressly ordered Goya to make." This order saved Goya both from the political right and from the Inquisition. Yet the purchaser of this series of reproductions will notice how often political or anticlerical caricatures can be inferred.
For instance, Plate 23, entitled "Aquellos polbos" (Those specks of dust), represents the passing of a sentence on an offender against the Inquisition. The prisoner is robed in the dread penitential dress called the "San Benito." The title recalls a Spanish proverb: "This dust produces that mud." But Goya has been purposely equivocal. It is not simply that the prisoner has been brought to justice for his offense. There is a deeper layer of meaning. At whom is Goya's anger leveled ? At the prisoner, or at the cruel judge (at the right), or at the populace who come to stare and to gloat?
Similarly, in Plate 6, "Nadie se conoce" (Nobody knows himself), Goya possibly expected a number of people to recognize the masked young woman at the right because of the attendant figures and the gossip of the day, just as they might recognize the woman who is being carried away in Plate 8 and the fine lady in Plate 36 who is returning on a windy night with her duenna—despite the fact that her face has been covered by her blowing scarf. According to contemporary rumor, this personage could have been the Spanish Queen returning to the palace from a midnight tryst. Neither the Ayala nor Prado manuscript leveled this accusation—a later art historian, Paul Lefort, did. Professor José López-Rey suggests the caption may refer to a current Spanish pun; Goya also invoked a pun in No. 26.
Plate 39 is pure political caricature where both the two chief manuscript explanations happily agree. They say that this donkey (or ass) has been driven mad by genealogies. In this case is it a known member of the Spanish intellectuals ? Or is it the unpopular favorite of the Queen, the Prime Minister Godoy, who had had his ancestry traced back, in a current publication, to the Visigothic Kings of Spain?
Plates 52 and 53 are clearly anticlerical again: the scarecrow to whom the ignorant peasant woman is praying wears a monk's cowl and gown, thinly disguised; the monks who listen to the parrot praise it for its "golden beak" as it preaches to them. The ugly woman in Plate 55 will try on lovely new bonnets until her dying day, while one of the onlookers, at least, will titter. Was she the Duchess of Benavente, mother of the Duque de Osuna, still vain at the age of seventy-five ? Why was the woman in Plate 32 imprisoned "for being too sensitive"? All one can surely say here is that Goya's mastery of the new aquatint technique was never better displayed, for the plate does not contain a single etched line. It is entirely made up of brush washes achieved by successive "stoppings out" of elements in the composition and rebitings of the plate in an acid bath until there are a dozen gradations of tonal value.
The artist's amazing power of continued intellectual and technical growth—learning long past the age when lesser artists have become static—is convincingly displayed in the Caprichos series. Goya was a late starter. He only began to hit his stride in Los Caprichos. And he still had almost thirty years of achievement ahead since he did not die until he was eighty-two (in 1828).
Almost all the last plates of this print series, from about Plate 58 on, are fantastic and allegorical. Many are among the most beautiful Goya ever made. Plate 64, "Buen Viage," is a case in point, since it is filled with mystery. The Prado manuscript offers a poetic interpretation: "Where is this infernal company going, filling the air with noise in the darkness of night ? If it were daytime it would be quite a different matter and gun shots would bring the whole group of them to the ground; but as it is night, no one can see them."
"Ya es hora" (It is time), Caprichos Plate 80, concludes the published series on a diabolic note. It is the tocsin call to awaken at the last split second of a nightmare's hold. After all none of this was really "true"—just the figment of a disordered imagination, as Joseph Addison says in his essay "On the Pleasures of the Imagination" (Spectator, July 3, 1712), which Goya's friend José Luis Munárriz translated: "When the brain is hurt by an accident, or the mind disordered by dreams or sickness, the fancy is overrun with wild dismal ideas, and terrified with a thousand hideous monsters of its own framing."
This passage may well be the chief literary source for Goya's series of caprices since it is very nearly biographical for him. But Goya's imagination in this case did not lead him into error, but rather onto a higher plane of artistic achievement than almost any caricaturist and social commentator before his time.
Cambridge, Mass. April, 1969
Excerpted from LOS CAPRICHOS by FRANCISCO GOYA Y LUCIENTES. Copyright © 1969 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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