It wasn’t a particularly auspicious start. On February 6, 1799, an announcement appeared on the front page of the Diario de Madrid advertising Los Caprichos:
A series of prints of whimsical subjects, invented and etched by Don Francisco Goya. The artist, persuaded that the censure of human errors and vices—though it seems to belong properly to oratory and poetry—may also be the object of painting, has chosen as appropriate subjects for his work, among the multitude of extravagances and follies which are common throughout civilized society, and among vulgar prejudices and frauds rooted in custom, ignorance, or interest, those which he has believed to be most apt to provide an occasion for ridicule and at the same time to exercise his imagination.
The advertisement goes on to assure potential collectors that the subjects of the prints are imaginary and that “in none of the compositions constituting this series has the artist proposed to ridicule the particular defects of this or that individual…”
It closes with the address where the prints can be bought—the ironically named No. 1 Calle del Desengaño, or Street of Disillusion #1—and the price: 320 reales for the set, the equivalent of one ounce of gold. The unusual venue, a perfume and liquor store near Goya’s apartment, was the result of the artist not being able to find a regular bookshop to handle the sale, according to Goya biographer Robert Hughes.
The venture was a resounding failure. Only 27 sets of the edition of 300 sold, and Goya withdrew Los Caprichos from public sale shortly after their release, afraid of falling foul of the Inquisition. It was a substantial monetary loss for the artist.
Perhaps the lack of sales shouldn’t come as a surprise. Despite the ad’s assurances to the contrary, Los Caprichos skewers the wealthy and politically connected aristocrats and clergy, among them the few people who could actually afford—and understand—the works.
But of course this was not to be the end of Los Caprichos; the prints would turn out to be a slow burning fuse. As Philip Hofer wrote, “had [Goya] 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.”
The “series of prints of whimsical subjects” changed everything. As Robert Flynn Johnson wrote, “Los Caprichos stands as the greatest single work of art created in Spain since the writings of Cervantes and the paintings of Velázquez, over one hundred fifty years earlier. These astonishing prints have cast a dark shadow of inspiration over generations of artists since their creation. Eugene Delacroix owned a copy of all eighty plates, and their influence is evident in the socially conscious art of Honoré Daumier and Edouard Manet, among others.”
Hughes expanded on this sentiment. “His influence, the inspiration of his presence, the pressing need to reckon with him, lie behind a surprising number of careers: much of Manet, for instance, depends on Goya, just as much of the film imagery of Luis Buñuel does; and you can’t easily imagine Picasso or Beckmann without him.”
And the impact continues to this day. According to Ellen Gamerman in The Wall Street Journal, Goya is entering a “pop-culture moment,” partly “because of the modern themes he explored. He laid bare anxiety, violence, sadism, lust and ambivalence with a depth that many experts call unmatched by artists who came before him.” She goes on to list the artist’s influence on a number of contemporary artists, writers, and filmmakers, from director Danny Boyle and YBA stars Jake and Dinos Chapman to novelist Siri Hustvedt.
Not bad for a flop.
The Artstor Digital Library offers more than 250 images of Los Caprichos, most notably the entire series from the Smith College Museum of Art, as well as selections from other editions from the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the Berlin State Museums, and others.