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Great art prints; Los Caprichos

Francisco Goya was a Spanish artist born in the mid-1700s, who is widely regarded as the most important Spanish artist of his time for his body of work including paintings and art prints. His family were middle class though not wealthy, and his education was unremarkable, producing a practical young man who showed some artistic promise.

After serving an apprenticeship copying stamps, he failed to get a scholarship for art school and decided to relocate to Rome to try and establish himself as an artist. A variety of colourful legends surround this period, including working as a street acrobat, and falling in love with a nun, who he planned to rescue from her convent. What is sure is that in 1771 he won a prize in a painting competition, and found employment painting frescoes for a church.

Continuing to study with established artists, his work began to show more of his mature style and delicate tonality, as he went into professional work designing tapestries, many of which ended up on the walls of Spanish royalty. This was also when he began working on etchings; a series accompanied some of the tapestries as part of the same royal commission, and the art print would become a form that Goya would thoroughly master.

Introspection, and a desire to represent truths led to the Los Caprichos series

Goya’s stature kept growing; he was appointed as a member of the Royal Academy of Fine Art, and commissioned to complete a range of family portraits for the king’s brother, and was appointed court painter to Charles IV in 1789. He worked on a range of royal portraits, perhaps best known for their lack of flattery; the king’s wife is framed as the true power behind the crown, and references to Lot, echoing an underlying message of corruption and decay.

Around this time Goya fell ill and went deaf, becoming introspective and withdrawn as the tone of his work became more critical, and he began work on the series of aquatint etchings that would become Los Caprichos. The collection of 80 art prints critiqued various elements of modern society, such as prejudice, deceit, and self interest; but it is not an entirely bleak collection, with the artist’s humour and wit often shining through.

The collection was published as an album in 1799, and were an experiment in artistic expression, about Goya’s feelings on European society during his time. Touching on superstition, ignorance, failings of leadership, the decline of rationality, and the all too present power of the church, Goya added short comments to each piece which were often as cryptic as the imagery and titles. While he claimed they commented on any society, most people saw them as critiques of Spain, with many of the characters depicted seen as representations of certain political and aristocratic people of the time, and eventually the prints were removed from sale.

A great artistic statement, and a precursor of the modern art to come

For it’s time, the collection was very daring, and very topical, a tour-de-force of critique from a very enlightenment point of view. Probably the best known art print amongst the group is “The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters”, featuring a sleeping man, thought to be Goya, surrounded by animal characters that represent evil forces in Spanish folklore; bats, owls, and a cat. Commonly perceived as depicting that evil prevails when the reason of the Enlightenment sleeps, Goya added a twist suggesting that it was more about imagination being abandoned by reason, and the impossible monsters that produced.

Like much great art, especially that of the coming modern period, the great art prints that made up Los Caprichos proved controversial; only 27 copies were sold before it was removed from sale, and Goya later admitted he felt it prudent to withdraw them due to lessons understood from the Inquisition. It was influential though, referenced in art and music, and hugely admired as a technical achievement of etching at that time, displaying Goya’s talent for tonality in an entirely different medium from painting.