Treasures from the Vault: Francisco de Goya

Sachi Yanari-Rizzo, Curator of Prints & Drawings

When we speak of the printmaking technique of aquatint it is difficult not to think of the great master of the medium: Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes. A successful painter to the Spanish royal court, nobility, and the Church, Goya is also synonymous with satire in print form. He was socially-minded and a kindred spirit to Honoré Daumier and William Hogarth. The artist created over 300 prints during his lifetime! Print was a medium in which he exercised more freedom to push his imagination and explore themes of personal interest. 

The son of a gilder, Goya studied art under José Luzán Maritínez and Francisco Bayeu Subías. (Later, Goya would marry Bayeu’s sister). In 1775, he began working for the Royal Tapestry Factory of Santa Bárbara where he created oil on canvas preparatory paintings (known as cartoons) for tapestries fashioned for royal palaces. He became painter to King Charles III at age 40 and subsequently court painter to King Charles IV of Spain.   

In 1792 he fell sick to a mysterious illness, possibly lead poisoning, something that he could have contracted through his continued contact with lead white paint. It left him weakened and with permanent hearing loss. Around this time Goya made small-scale drawings in albums. Many were ink wash drawings with broad tonal areas that could be easily transferred into aquatint.  

Etching only yields lines; the artist has to make tonal areas through hatching and cross-hatching. Aquatint is used in conjunction with etching because it can create continuous tonal passages. It was so named because of its ability to emulate ink and watercolor washes.  

In aquatint, the printmaker adheres tiny acid-resistant resin particles to a copper plate. Like etching, when the plate is immersed in an acid bath, the acid bites around the individual particles, making incised marks. The particles are removed prior to printing. The ink fills the channels in the plate and transfers to paper when it is run through the press.  The aquatint areas exhibit a grainy appearance. Goya often made subtle tonal gradations with the help of a burnishing tool that softened some of the pitted areas.  

Goya made his earliest forays into printmaking in the 1770s. Late in his career, at age 53, Goya embarked on his first major print series: Los Caprichos (1799), literally meaning caprices. His intention was to call the series Sueños (Dreams), which may relate to the “Spanish literary tradition that uses the dream as a device to satirize contemporary society and often incorporates fantastical creatures.”i Goya was gifted at translating his insightful observations into visual commentary, turning the spotlight on human vices, foibles, and corruption in Spanish society and the Catholic Church. The FWMoA owns four plates out of this epic 80 print series. 

Mindful that his prints were intended for the public, Goya tried to leave interpretations open to multiple readings and references to specific people anonymous. The Spanish Inquisition cultivated a repressive atmosphere as they kept an eye on bookstores and print shops, seeking out evidence of heresy on behalf of the Catholic church. Instead, Goya’s prints were sold in perfume and liquor shops. Despite these measures, literally days after announcements of the artist’s series, the prints were withdrawn from sale, resulting in only a few sets sold. Subsequently, Goya gave the plates and unsold copies to King Charles IV in exchange for an allowance for the artist’s son.   

A caza de dientes (Out hunting for teeth) is a parody of people’s superstitious beliefs. A woman, who averts her gaze and protects her face, pulls the teeth of a hanged man for their purported use in spells. 

A woman, who averts her gaze and protects her face, pulls the teeth of a hanged man for their purported use in spells.
Francisco Goya, Spanish, 1746-1828. A caza de dientes (Out hunting for teeth), plate 12 from Los Caprichos. Etching and aquatint on paper, 1799. Gift of William and Joan McNagny, 1981.23.1. Image courtesy of FWMoA.

Aquatint was only invented around 1650 by Dutch engraver Jan van de Velde IV. Artists in France and England rediscovered and contributed further developments in the technique during the 18th century. Que se llevaron! (They carried her off!) is a nighttime scene where the dark background in aquatint is rendered with little detail, making it barren and indistinct. Goya expertly layered aquatint and etched lines to give the shadows a greater richness. The shadowed faces contribute to the haunting quality. The victim’s legs are at a sharp angle; this diagonal movement adds more drama to the composition. 

Two hooded men carry off a woman, who screams in protest, her head thrown back and feet in the air.
Francisco Goya, Spanish, 1746-1828. Que se la llevaron! (They carried her off!), plate 8 from Los Caprichos. Etching and aquatint on paper, 1799. Gift in memory of Carolyn Randall Fairbank, 1952.02. Image courtesy of FWMoA. 

The Church was the focus of critique for its abuse of power and corruption in many of Goya’s works. In Lo que puede un sastre! (What a tailor can do!) a reverential woman kneels in prayer in front of a towering figure dressed as a clergyman. Upon closer examination we find that the gathering of followers has been deceived by a tree cloaked in a monk’s robes, a reference to the tailor in the caption. Goya may also be criticizing the deception on the part of priests and monks. On the other hand, the crowd is guilty of blind faith, seen in the woman in the foreground gazes up with her eyes wide open.   

Women kneel in supplication in front of what they believe to be a priest whose arms are outstretched. Upon close looking, the priest is actually a tree in robes.
Francisco Goya, Spanish, 1746-1828. Lo que puede un sastre! (What a tailor can do!), plate 52 from Los Caprichos. Etching and aquatint on paper, 1799. Gift in memory of Carolyn Randall Fairbank, 1952.07. Image courtesy of FWMoA.

In plate 80 Goya relies on the highly descriptive etched lines to show off his skills at caricature. The aquatint in the background is barely visible. The final target of the series is four yawning clergymen whose faces are more grotesque and monster-like than pious. After the dream-like sequences the artist presented in earlier plates, perhaps this is a call for all to awaken.  

Goya depicts four yawning clergymen whose faces are more grotesque and monster-like than pious.
Francisco Goya, Spanish, 1746-1828. Ya es hora (Now it’s time), plate 80 from Los Caprichos. Etching and aquatint on paper, 1799/1881-86. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. William, 1980.13. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

The FWMoA owns one print from Los Proverbios (Proverbs), made up of 22 etchings that were Goya’s his last, albeit unfinished, print series. It is unclear whether he even planned for the plates to be printed and circulated. Published under the title Los Proverbios, it is sometimes known as Los Disparates (Follies) taken from notes written by the artist in working proofs. The works take on a darker, pessimistic tone, sometimes even nightmarish, reflecting his mental state. The intended meanings are difficult to decipher, although writers associate them with what are referred to as his Black Paintings from the same time. 

Men stand before a mountain-like landscape. The one in the foreground holds a spear with a head on it while the others face away.
Francisco Goya, Spanish, 1746-1828. Disparate Furioso (Foolish Folly), plate 6 from Los Proverbios (Proverbs) or Disparates (Follies). Etching and aquatint on paper, ca. 1815-19/1864. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. William McNagny, 1985.02. Image courtesy of FWMoA.

The influence of Goya’s prints is immeasurable. Painters Domenico Tiepolo and Eugène Delacroix both owned copies of Los Caprichos; whereas French impressionist Eduouard Manet, and even contemporary artist Enrique Chagoya, have made clear references to the artist in their work. The best place to see Goya’s works in person is at the Museo Nacional del Prado in Madrid, Spain. The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s recent exhibition Goya’s Graphic Imagination just closed this spring, but has a virtual tour on their website and a preview of the catalogue online

Want to see more prints from the FWMoA permanent collection? Stop in and see Sachi in the Print & Drawing Study Center Tuesday-Friday 11am-3pm or by appointment.


i Mark McDonald, Goya’s Graphic Imagination (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2021), 98. 

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