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Goya, a pragmatic romanticist. Part 1 - Los Caprichos

Updated: Dec 14, 2019

"He who departs entirely from Nature will surely merit high esteem, since he has to put before the eyes of the public forms and poses which has existed previously in the darkness and confusion of an irrational mind, or one which is beset by uncontrolled passion."

Francisco Goya: Announcement for

the 1st edition of Los Caprichos

Goya, Self-portrait. The Met - public domain.
Goya, Self-portrait. The Met - public domain.

Romantic painter sharing the ideas of the Age of Enlightenment, anarchistic anti-monarchist and liberal who happily accepted commissions from the Court, a Francophile condemning French occupation of Spain only to paint the portraits of the occupants, a humanist distrustful of the human nature. Goya is so complicated as an artist and as a historical person that curators of the very best museums wring their hands and give up on sanity of research, instead coming with the most fantastic ideas - one, in an obvious bout of desperation, calling the author of Saturn devouring his son a “realist” painter... To say that Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes was a controversial figure in the artistic world of the late 18th and the early 19th century sounds like an understatement.


All his mature years Goya belonged to Los Ilustrados, a group of progressive, often pre-liberal and well-educated champions of La Ilustración the Spanish version of the Age of Enlightenment, a movement dominating the second half of 18 century and the first half of 19. Surrounded by friend who shared similar ideas, Goya never let his social and political views to determine the selection of clients and often worked for patrons representing ultraconservative wing of government. His etchings executed during the Franco-Spanish war condemn the cruelty of Napoleons army, at the same time he accepted commission from the highest levels of Joseph Bonaparte’s court, allegedly even painting the King himself. Distrustful of religion, he couldn't stand the brutal ransacking of monasteries. After restoration of Ferdinand VII and abolition of the liberal constitution of 1812, Goya would design caricatures of the monarch, but would also still work for the King. All his life Goya balanced pragmatism versus romanticism, the first demonstrated in deals with public official, the second dominating his private life and opinions shared with like-thinking friends.


The four years of apprenticeship under Jose Luzan, a Spanish painter trained in Naples in the Italian version of the Rococo style, gave Goya the sound basics of the pictorial composition. Most of the education relied on copying prints from his master’s personal collection; at the time a standard curriculum for art students in Spain. After failing twice to obtain a scholarship at the Spanish Royal Academy of Arts, Goya decided to travel to Rome and learn art there.

In Rome Goya lived above the Spanish Steps, at the house at Via Trinita del Monte rented by a Polish painter Taddeo Kuntze (Tadeusz Konicz). Kuntze specialized in religious art and mythological paintings kept within the church sanctioned stream of the Enlightenment, the church in this case personified by His Eminency Bishop of Krakow, whose patronage he enjoyed. There is a popular theory that while living with Kuntze, Goya for a while shared lodgings at Via Trinita with the most prominent and influential printer of those times, the Venetian Giambattista Piranesi, who at the time already published his famous cycle Invenzioni capricciosi di carceri or the Capricious Imaginations of Prisons, and who indeed was in Rome around that time, working on his series of ancient ruins. While the possibility of meeting between the very young and completely unknown Spaniard and the famous master printer remains very theoretical, Goya did have in his personal collection several prints by Piranesi, including the Carceri. Piranesi designs inspired not only etchings and drawing of madhouses and their patients created by Goya, but possibly also the fantastic, almost surreal designs of the Los Caprichos series.

Goya, Capricho 37. Ill. METs - public domain.
Goya, Capricho 37. Ill. The Met - public domain.

Throughout the centuries, an important place in graphic arts was reserved for satire and caricature. In European artistic tradition this can already be seen in the marginalia and the lettrines of medieval religious books. Later the caricatures and satire moved into etchings and drawings by Renaissance and Baroque masters, who often created humorous, if sometimes rather crude representations of human behavior. The Age of Enlightenment gave satirical prints a new meaning. The mass-production of popular prints created a perfect medium to carry new ideas. Inexpensive, easily available and widely discussed etching satirized political figures and criticized ignorance. By the end of the 18th century Goya already established himself as a painter but was struggling with a loss of hearing – a side effect of an serious illness. The illness and the handicap may direct his attention toward less decorative aspects of Spanish society. In 1799 the artist designed and executed Los Caprichos – “Caprices”, a series of etchings representing human flaws and vices, superstitions and vanity.

The composition of Capricho 37, ¿Si sabrá más el discípulo? (Might the pupil know more?) is organized along the massive, triangular form of a large, sitting donkey. The animal wears a cloth skull cap, dark cravat adorns his white shirt with puffed sleeves covert by a loose, also dark, jacket. Identical attire Goya gave to the teacher in his much earlier painting, La letra con sangre entra, (Letters written in blood) of 1885. In Capricho, the donkey-teacher gives lesson to a class of donkeys. One of the donkey students sits in front of the teacher, obediently tracing the lines of letter “A” with his hoof. While in La Letra, teacher’s main occupation seemed to be the dispensing of corporal punishment to the unruly students, in Capricho the punishment is not necessary, the student will learn from his teacher, and just like his teacher he will be nothing but a donkey. For Goya, the education process led by unapt teachers only pretends to work toward dissemination of knowledge, in truth it is nothing more than replication of ignorance. The bitter comment might have come from Goya’s own experiences. Even though his family could be classified as the lower (maybe the lowest) middle class, they were not wealthy enough to provide their children with expensive, private education. Instead, Goya attended Escuelas Pías de San Antón, catholic school founded by Piarists order which offered free education. For all we know, the future painter was not very fond of its curriculum, and it seems only two things from the Escuelas stayd with him: his life-long friendship with Martin Zapater, a fellow pupil met at school, and a deep distrust toward this kind of learning. (Goya, the eternal pragmatists, much later painted the founder of the school into the altarpiece, possibly in a bid to smooth the road to paradise for himself…)

Goya, Capricho 43. Ill. The Met - public domain.
Goya, Capricho 43. Ill. The Met - public domain.

The general idea behind Los Caprichos has been summarized in much discussed plate nr 43, El sueño de la razon produce monstrous, - The sleep of reason produces monsters.

Goya only partially explained the meaning in the cryptic message attached to the image: "The artist is dreaming. His only purpose is to banish harmful, vulgar beliefs and to perpetuate in this work of caprices the solid testimony of truth".

In traditional analysis, like the one presented by Francis Klingender, the purpose and meaning of this print lies in contrasting the evils of bigotry and superstition with advantages of reason. In dreams we are besieged by demons, but when we wake up there is logic and reality. But did Goya really mean it to be essentially an advertisement for the Enlightenment movement? Karl Marx, to whose ideas Klingender subscribed, might have influenced that reading. For Robert Hughes this explanation seems a bit too simplistic. In his very thorough biography of Goya he writes: “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." Following that line of thought, the “Sleep of reason” should hint at the general critique of the humanity; its shortcomings represented by various monsters.

Possibly another reading could be suggested. For Goya, the art is a creation of informed illusion, in a way not very different from to dreams. Looking at art and dreaming we can experience emotions and situations which in daily life safely remain outside our grasp. Goya not only allows, but encourages the viewer to interpret the images as metaphorical explanation of real events and actual actions, just like the viewer may try to see dreams as adjusted projections of reality. Ultimately though, what we understand is based on our own experiences. While every viewer – and every artist – has different experiences, visual metaphor offered by an artwork makes it possible for us to find some common ground.

To be continued... ;)

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