The Etchings of Francisco De Goya

The Etchings of Francisco De Goya


Francisco de Goya y Lucientes began what would be an enormously productive career at an early age. Born in Fuendetodos, Spain in 1746, he was only 12 years old when he apprenticed in the studio of painter José Luzán y Martinez in Zaragoza. It would take him nearly 20 years and several prestigious commissions to accomplish his goal of admission to Spain's Royal Academy of San Fernando in Madrid. From that moment, however, his rise to prominence was rapid; appointed Assistant Director of the Academy in 1785, he was named pinto del rey the next year, and, in 1789, three months before the outbreak of the French Revolution, court painter to Charles IV. By 1799, when he undertook his first etchings, he was director of the Academy and one of Spain's most prominent painters.

During his long life (he died in 1828 at the age of 82) he would serve two other monarchs-- Joseph Bonaparte and Ferdinand VII--and their courts, and would witness a tumultuous period of Spanish history marked by devastating famine, the Inquisition, occupation by Napoleon's armies, and the Peninsular War with France. A highly intelligent and deeply moral individual who espoused Enlightenment ideals of truth, reason, and justice, Goya came to despise the ineffectiveness and corruption of the monarchy that patronized him, the ostentatious frivolity of the upper classes, and the hypocrisy of the religious orders. After a severe illness (possibly syphilis) in 1792-3 left him deaf, his art became dichotomous; portraits of the royal family and lighthearted depictions of aristocrats at play, painted in the rococo style of pre-revolution France, now coexisted with drawings and etchings that explored the shadow side of life and human nature. This direction first emerged in Los Caprichos, 80 etchings that exposed the vice and corruption of Spanish society and the Catholic Church, satirizing the arrogance of the nobility and the peasantry's superstitious belief in witchcraft. To protect himself from the wrath of the Court and Inquisition, Goya masked his satire by means of images that inspired multiple interpretation and, ultimately, donated the plates to the king.

In 1808, shortly after France invaded Spain, he undertook Los Desastres de la Guerra, an unsparingly horrific visual account of war, from the ferocity of village fighting, to the terrible famine that ravaged Madrid in 1811-12, claiming 20,000 lives. With a stark intensity unprecedented in the history of art, the 80 prints in the series convey the barbarity and futility of war. Not surprisingly, the Desastres were not published in Goya's lifetime; and the politically astute artist remained in official favor while producing graphic work that expressed an increasingly critical and despairing view of life in Spain at the turn of the century. Although he continued as court painter when Ferdinand VII was reinstated as monarch in 1814, he carried out few royal commissions, devoting himself to his final etching series,La Tauromaquia and Los Disparates; the latter comprised 18 enigmatic and deeply pessimistic images that recall the "black" paintings that decorated his home, the Quinta del Sordo (House of the Deaf Man), in the early 1820s. Goya emigrated to France in 1824 and died in Bordeaux in 1828 after completing a set of lithographs entitled The Bulls of Bordeaux. Of the great painter-engravers in the history of art, he was the least successful in his lifetime, publishing fewer than half of his prints and failing to sell most of those he printed.

Goya's Technique

It is not known how Goya learned the complex technique of etching. A publication of 1778 records him as an engraver, and his earliest etchings are thought to have been copies of Velázquez paintings in the royal collection. In making prints, Goyas most commonly used etching or aquatint, or a combination of the two. Etching was first used by 15th century armorers to create designs on metal by means of acid mordant; the technique was adapted for making prints in the early 16th century. The process involves covering a copper plate with a waxy, acid-resistant ground, then drawing a design in the ground with an etching needle, thus exposing the surface of the plate. Goya is known to have drawn his images on paper first and then transferred them to the plates. Once the design is etched, the plate (its back varnished for protection) is immersed in a bath of acid, which bites the exposed areas, embedding the design in the surface. The depth of the etched line depends upon the length of time the plate is submerged; the artist can re-bite lines that are too shallow, but the design, and even the plate, can be destroyed if left too long in the acid. Because etching involves drawing into a soft ground (rather than metal, for example, as in the case of engraving), the etched line is typically clean and can be delicate, intricate, and spontaneous--much like drawing.

Acquisition of La Tauromaquia

In 1974, Pomona College acquired first-edition sets of three of Francisco de Goya's four etching series: Los Caprichos (Caprices, 1799), Los Desastres de la Guerra (Disasters of War, 1810-14), and Los Disparates (Follies, also known as Los Proverbios or Proverbs, 1815-24). Twenty-five years later, the fourth has, at last, joined the collection. Last fall, a superb first edition of La Tauromaquia (Bullfight, 1816) was purchased with funds provided by the estate of Elise and Walter Mosher. It was worth the wait. With this acquisition, the Museum joins a small number of museums internationally (including the Louvre, Prado, and Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) in which it is possible to see and study first editions of all of Goya's etching series under one roof. Given the Museum's modest size and means, this is an accomplishment of which the College can be proud, as it offers Pomona students an opportunity available in no other comparable academic museum.

That Pomona College can boast so fine a collection of Goya's prints is due to several individuals. The three series acquired in 1974 were the gift of famed collector Norton Simon, who had taken over the insolvent Pasadena Art Museum in that year, transforming it into a showcase for his extraordinary collection. Simon was a particular admirer of Goya, ranking him, as do many print connoisseurs, with Dürer, Rembrandt, and Picasso as one of the greatest artist-engravers of all time. A scholarly collector, Simon owned several first-edition sets of Goya's print series. His interest in Pomona was the result of his relationship with art historian David Steadman, who had directed Montgomery Gallery since 1973. Simon's gift of the Goyas reflected his respect for the College and support of Steadman's intention to develop a high-quality print collection here.

Los Caprichos

First published in 1799, Los Caprichos exposed the vice and corruption that led Spain to be branded as "Black Spain" in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In the 80 etchings that comprise the series, Goya depicted the peasantry's superstitious belief in witchcraft, the arrogance of the nobility, and the widespread corruption of the Catholic Church. To avoid alienating powerful individuals at Court and to protect himself from the wrath of the Inquisition, however, the artist masked his satire by means of images that would inspire multiple interpretations. For example, in plate 68, 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, seen with particular brilliance in Los Caprichos is one of the hallmarks of Goya's artistry.

Only a few copies of the first edition of Los Caprichos were sold. Despite Goya's attempts to veil the critical nature of the series, he felt it necessary to withdraw the prints from circulation and make a gift of the plates to the Spanish monarch. Ultimately, however, Los Caprichos became Goya's most popular series; Domenico Tiepolo owned a set, as did Eugène Delacroix, who borrowed freely from Goya's images. Twelve editions of Los Caprichos were produced between 1799 and 1937, and it was primarily through this print series that Goya became known outside of Spain.

Los Desastres de la Guerra

In 1804, Napoleon Bonaparte declared himself Emperor of France; in 1808 he invaded Spain. Sending the royal family into exile, he installed his brother Joseph on the Spanish throne. This action incensed the native populace and precipitated the Spanish War of Independence. Between 1808 and 1813, Spaniards fought a guerrilla war against the greatest army in Europe to free themselves of French domination.

From the beginning of the War until about 1820, Goya worked on the 80 prints he would call Los Desastres de la Guerra (The Disasters of War). Rather than depicting heroic soldiers and scenes of glorious battle, Goya produced stark, sobering images of brutality, slaughter and misery. His images exposed the horror of war, from the ferocity of village fighting (plates 2-27) to the terrible famine that ravaged Madrid in 1811-12, claiming 20,000 lives (plates 48-64). In the "caprichos emphaticos" (plates 65-80) the artist comments on the war's political, religious, and ideological aspects and ramifications. With a stark intensity unprecedented in the history of art, these prints convey the barbarity and futility of war. No one is spared from man's inhumanity toward man, and no death is glorious.

Los Desastres de la Guerra were not published during Goya's lifetime, possibly because the artist feared that some of the prints were politically dangerous or, perhaps, because he knew that the nation was too tired of war to be responsive. The prints finally appeared in 1863, revealing a theme that would continue to be expressed in the art of the twentieth century: the suffering of civilians when war is no longer confined to the battlefield.

Los Disparates / Los Proverbios

Francisco Goya created his final and most enigmatic print series in the years between 1815 and 1824. For reasons that remain unclear, 40 years passed before their publication in 1864. The series was published under the title Los Proverbios, although Goya's own captions for the working proofs include the word "disparates," meaning "follies." As a result, this print series is known by both titles. The proverbs assigned to each plate were added upon publication.

Even with titles, the meanings of Los Proverbios remain ambiguous. Like Goya's "black" paintings, begun in 1819 after his recovery from a serious illness and filled with macabre visions, Los Proverbios are imbued with an overwhelming sense of pessimism and appear to reflect Goya's precarious mental state at the time. Each of the 18 etchings depicts isolated figures in dark, often nightmarish landscapes. While some plates appear harmlessly satirical, others depict gruesome monsters or attacks on innocents. Although the subject matter in this series is varied, the level of quality is constant. Goya's expert use of contour, line density, and tonal variation in weaving his dark visions clearly evidence his extraordinary abilities as a master printmaker.