Here’s What You Need to Know About Francisco Goya’s Los Caprichos

Francisco Goya created the satirical Los Caprichos at the dawn of a new age. What are the observations he left us with?

Mar 17, 2022By Mieke Leenders, MA & BA Art History, Medieval Iconology to Modern art
los caprichos plates by francisco goya


Francisco Goya did not show us gods and heroes. While his early work did follow the tradition of court portraits and even rococo-styled tapestries for the royal palace, the artist is best known for introducing a new vocabulary to the artistic expressions of his time. Corruption, superstition, greed, folly, and nightmares are all themes that are explored in his 80 etchings known as Los Caprichos (The Caprices). Goya put the ugliness of society in stark contrast with the new reality and took stock of the follies that undermined the establishment of reason in the Age of Enlightenment.


Francisco Goya: A Revolutionary Turns Cynical

francisco goya self portrait
Self-Portrait; Plate 1 from “Los Caprichos” by Francisco Goya, 1799, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes’ (1746–1828) life and art were defined by change. In his adulthood, he played witness to the rage of the War of Spanish Independence (1808–1814), the Napoleonic Wars (1803–1815), the rise of the ideals of Enlightenment, and suffered the effects of a crushing illness that left him deaf. He died in 1828, when the Ominous Decade (1823-1833), 10 years marked by riots and political instability, was still in full swing.


Francisco Goya reached artistic maturity under the enlightened Bourbon kings Charles III (r. 1759–1788) and Charles IV (1788-1808). It is under the reign of Charles IV, a rather docile figure who still pursued many of the ideals of the enlightenment, that the 80 etchings of Los Caprichos (1797-1798) were created.


francisco goya los caprichos devout profession
Plate 70 from ‘Los Caprichos’: Devout Profession  by Francisco Goya, 1799, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


The French Revolution had caused a ripple effect across Europe, and artists such as Francisco Goya were inspired by the ideals of equality and reason. Los Caprichos presents reason as a beautiful but perhaps unachievable ideal plagued by corruption, superstition, and the folly of man. What’s more, the series stands at the beginning of a great stylistic and iconographic change in Goya’s career. The artist went to dark and sinister territories by the end of his life, especially in his works called the Black Paintings.

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francisco goya nicolas Guye portrait
Portrait of General Nicolas Philippe Guye by Francisco Goya, 1810, via Fundacion Goya en Aragon


But the enlightened monarchy was not to last and it disintegrated when Napoleon’s forces invaded Spain in 1808. While repulsed by the mass executions of those compelled to take a stand against the foreign invaders, Goya pledged his allegiance to Joseph Bonaparte during the French occupation and proceeded to produce court-appointed portraits. In spite of his diplomatic game, Francisco Goya didn’t hesitate to reveal his true feelings years later in the iconic The Second of May 1808 and The Third of May 1808.


In the first work, he depicted the brutal battle at Madrid’s Puerta del Sol, while in the latter, Goya illustrated the execution of captured Spanish resistance on the Príncipe Pío. In ‘The Second of May’, Goya’s gift for social and political observation reached archetypical levels, and the concept of resistance was summarized in the colossal figure of the man in the white shirt raising his arms in defiance.


francisco goya third of may 1808
Third of May 1808 by Francisco Goya, 1814, via Fundacion Goya en Aragon


These masterpieces were created around the same time when another series of prints called ‘The Disasters of War’ was in progress. Here, the satirical social criticism of Los Caprichos is replaced with a biting, realistic depiction of the monstrosities that war allows to transpire and the direct effects it had on the Spanish population. We see executions, people dying of starvation, and an old woman rushing to the aid of a girl being assaulted by a soldier. Francisco Goya seems to say that the corruption and folly of men have come full circle, and these are the cards we are now dealt.


francisco goya bury them and keep them quiet
Plate18 from ‘The Disasters of War’: ‘Bury them and keep quiet.’ By Francisco Goya, 1810, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


While the Bourbon monarchy was restored after Napoleon’s defeat in 1814, the new king did not share his predecessor’s passion for the enlightenment. In fact, under Ferdinand VII, the constitution was revoked, and the inquisition was reinstated. The absolute monarch unleashed a reign of terror, and Francisco Goya found himself starved of royal commissions and isolated from Madrid’s intellectual scene. During this time, between 1819 and 1823, Goya created his Black Paintings.


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Saturn Devouring One of His Children of the Black Painting by Francisco Goya, 1820-23, via Fundacion Goya en Aragon


While Los Caprichos was briefly put on the market, the 14 paintings of the series were never meant to leave Goya’s home. Violence, insanity, and isolation are vividly explored in the dark canvases that abandon the iconography of the old masters and pave the way for modern representations of expressionism and surrealism. One might see these Black Paintings as a more terrifying and cynical progression of Los Caprichos and The Disasters of War because we see the artist expressing his views in a private sphere. With works like ‘Witches’ Sabbath’, ‘Saturn Devouring One of His Children’, ‘The Colossus’, and ‘The Drowning Dog’, the works seem to be less about social commentary, and more about a brooding, aging artist taking stock of what these years of illness, instability, and disaster had done to him.


Los Caprichos: A Realistic Fantasy Drenched In Satire and Morality

francisco goya how they pluck her
Plate 21 from ‘ Los Caprichos’: How they pluck her! by Francisco Goya, 1799, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


In the late 18th century, Europe was buzzing with the ideals of revolution, reason, and progress. With the strides taken by Charles III in terms of scientific innovation, Francisco Goya saw his homeland transform both for better and for worse. Because of the time period, Los Caprichos is often read through the lens of enlightenment thought. While Goya is certainly a child of his time, to make the stark division between the new ideals of freedom and the vices of corruption, is somewhat wrong.


francisco goya tale bearers
Plate 48 from’ Los Caprichos’: Tale-Bearers–Blasts of Wind by Francisco Goya, 1799, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


In 1792, a few years before the production of the prints, Goya contracted a mysterious illness that made him deaf over time. After recovering from what could have been anything from syphilis to lead poisoning, Francisco Goya’s style changed. The bright portraits and rococo-style cartoons were replaced with a dark, but wholly original, iconography. The grizzly tension between the Old and New Spain was certainly present, but so was the inner battle of a man feeling less at home with himself.


francisco goya hobgoblins
Plate 49 from ‘Los Caprichos’: Hobgoblins by Francisco Goya, 1799, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


These observations are recorded in Goya’s bizarre and mysterious etchings and aquatints where he satirized Spanish society and behavior related to immorality and superstition. In ‘Hobgoblins’, for example, he mocked the clergy by displaying them as mischievous, ugly, fantasy creatures, while ‘Pretty Teacher’ puts sex work on par with witchcraft. While the aristocracy was also put in the line of fire, Goya’s royal patrons remained loyal and protected him even when he was summoned by the inquisition.


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Plate 68 from the series Los Caprichos (Caprices) Pretty Teacher! by Francisco Goya, 1799, via the Philadelphia Museum of Art


The title of the series, Los Caprichos, does suggest a tinge of fantasy. In Renaissance and Baroque painting, capriccio refers to architectural fantasies created by the combination of various ruins and structures. The purpose of capriccio was to create visually potent fantasies from imagination, such as Giovanni Paolo Panini did in his Fantasy View with the Pantheon and Other Monuments of Ancient Rome. In music, the term refers to virtuosic pieces free of a set form and brimming with a high-paced intensity, such as Ludwig van Beethoven’s: Rondo a Capriccio Op.129.


Francisco Goya was using the term in a slightly different way. While often fantastical and imaginative, Los Caprichos were also charged with powerful morality, and held a mirror to Spanish society. Rather than lose himself in a delightful fantasy, Goya made a statement and seemed to cherish the hope that art, beyond being fanciful and imaginative, can actually make a difference.


Francisco Goya’s Monsters: Superstition and the Sleep of Reason

francisco goya bon voyage los caprichos
Plate 64 from ‘Los Caprichos’: Bon Voyage by Francisco Goya 1799, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


Monsters are no strangers to art. In medieval and renaissance representations, creatures from the dark often appeared in elaborate depictions of hell. The inventiveness and whimsy that artists equated with hell, purgatory, and punishment, reached its pinnacle with Hieronymus Bosch’s side panel of his Garden of Earthly Delights. Dubbed by Spanish author Felipe de Guevara’ Comentario de la Pintura y Pintores Antiguos as the inventor of monsters and chimera, Bosch portrayed hell as a celebration of the grotesque and explored human debauchery in a way that was almost comical.


francisco goya neither more nor less
Plate 41 from ‘Los Caprichos’: Neither more nor less by Francisco Goya, 1799, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


While the devil did enter his work, most notably in the form of a black goat, most of Goya’s monsters broke free from dogma and found deeper meaning in earthly and even philosophical themes. ‘The Sleep Of Reason Brings Forth Monsters’, the best-known print in the series, shows a man asleep at his desk with papers and pens scattered over the surface. Owls screech at the sleeping man’s head, bats ominously gather from the distance, and a wide-eyed lynx observes the scene calmly.


francisco goya the sleep of reason brings forth monsters
Plate 43 from ‘Los Caprichos’: The sleep of reason produces monsters by Francisco Goya, 1799, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


Many interpretations have been given to this piece. Traditionally, late 18th-century iconography attributes bats with ignorance, cats with witchcraft, and owls with folly. But when we look at the behavior of these creatures, they are more than just symbols. They are the active participants in a nightmarish scene that seems to paralyze the man’s conscious, rational thought. Francisco Goya frequently explored the idea of ignorance and folly as a violent paralytic and often saw religion and superstition as the leading causes. In his etching entitledCorrection’, for example, Goya used a scene of witchcraft to communicate that the church’s and nobility’s power were not based on reason, but on blind faith.


francisco goya what a tailor can do
Plate 52 from ‘Los Caprichos’: What a tailor can do! by Francisco Goya, 1799, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


The concept of blind faith is skillfully explored in ‘What a tailor can do’. We see a group of women kneeling before a cloaked figure that looks like a priest but is actually a tree covered in cleverly styled cloth. Both deceit and superficiality are present here, as Francisco Goya seems to say that it takes more than a nice frock to create a worthy priest and that worship will be blind when based on falsehood and trickery.


francisco goya does the pupil know more
Plate 37 from ‘Los Caprichos’: Might not the pupil know more? by Francisco Goya, 1799, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


But, what about the falsehoods people share in everyday tasks and relations, Francisco Goya pondered? In a series presenting humans as donkeys, Goya followed the rich tradition of using animals to tell a moralizing tale. In ‘Might the pupil know more?’ Goya introduced the concept of fools educating fools. If we continue to teach our own lies and misrepresentations, how can future generations build more rational and prosperous societies? Here, we see a clear reference to the enlightenment ideal of education. Between the 1650s and 1780s, there was a growing interest in new ideas. Traditional ways of thinking related to authority and dogma started to change, and for artists such as Goya, the change couldn’t come fast enough.


francisco goya they say yes and give their hand to the first comer
Plate 2 from ‘Los Caprichos’: They say yes and give their hand to the first comer by Francisco Goya, 1799,  via The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


The prints go on to explore monsters in different forms. While religion is a common topic, Goya did not hide his disdain towards the hypocrisy behind other societal rituals either. ‘They say yes and give their hand to the first comer’ is a print about marriage, showing the human “monstrous” ugliness. In art, ugliness carries both literal and moral meanings, which Umberto Eco eloquently explored in his 2007 essay On Ugliness. We see a young girl marrying a hideous older man. The ugliness of the groom and the bystanders is almost caricaturistic. The woman we see is masked. Goya didn’t show sympathy for the young girl being married off to the old man. Through an accompanying poem by Jovellanos, he suggested that the girl is really only in it for the money, while the old man wanted a trophy wife.


francisco goya they spruce themselves up
Plate 51 from ‘Los Caprichos’: They spruce themselves up by Francisco Goya, 1799, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


You might be asking yourself: are Los Caprichos fantastical? Perhaps on the surface. But the hidden meanings of Goya’s monsters seem to lie in their ability to erase the borders between fantasy and reality. In ‘They spruce themselves up’, we see goblins engaging in vain acts of personal grooming. Goblins indulge in behavior typically reserved for men. Much like donkeys, revealing stupidity and incompetence in educators, the goblins communicate the ugliness of vanity. And just like that, the monsters become equal to the humans they are mocking.

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By Mieke LeendersMA & BA Art History, Medieval Iconology to Modern art Mieke is a writer, editor, art historian, and social justice advocate. She holds an MA and BA in Art History from the University of Leuven, Belgium, where she specialized in medieval and renaissance iconology. Next to that, she dived deeply into modern and contemporary art forms from painting and sculpture to outsider art and new media. She also made a profound study of history, western philosophy (ancient to modern), classical music, literature, and anthropology. A passionate traveler, Mieke set out on a solo backpacking trip in 2017, exploring regions of Asia and Latin America. She is currently residing in Costa Rica.