Los Caprichos


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GOYA Y LUCIENTES, Francisco José de. Los Caprichos. [Madrid: 1799]. Small folio (12 by 8 inches), contemporary full mottled brown calf gilt, red morocco spine label.

First edition, superb copy, of Goya’s rarest book, Los Caprichos, one of only a few copies sold in Madrid by Goya himself, and in its most desirable first state, without the scratch on plate 45, indicating it was one of the first copies printed.

Los Caprichos is Goya’s “satire on human folly and wickedness with particular reference to the customs and manners of his time” (Harris I, 102). He named the work after his desire to be able to indulge in his “caprices”, or wild imaginings, in a format different from that of the commissioned paintings he usually created. After Los Caprichos, the artist returned to this format repeatedly, as seen in his other great collections of etchings, Los Desastres de la Guerra and Tauromaquia. But it is in Los Caprichos, the only one of his great books of plates published during his lifetime, and supervised by himself from beginning to end, that one sees the most revolutionary aspects of Goya’s work. And it is only in this first edition that one can see the finest examples of his artistry, as later printings (the second edition was not published until 1855) are inferior in clarity and sharpness.

Los Caprichos is central to our conception of Goya. To prove this, we need only ask how he would be perceived if he had never published these etchings…Without Los Caprichos, the cabinet paintings and drawings would be anomalous; with Los Caprichos, they seem a natural part of Goya’s development… More than a series, Los Caprichos offers a kaleidoscopic view of evil, encompassing prostitutes, clergy, imagined witches and goblins. Never before had any artist presented such a complex group of images, which effortlessly slip from the mundane to the supernatural. Not surprisingly, it is the Goya of the Caprichos, of social satire and the supernatural, that still dominates popular perceptions of the artist. Los Caprichos also marks a breakthrough in the art of printmaking. Up to this point, master printmakers had worked in engraving or etching, but the primary technical innovation of Los Caprichos lies in Goya’s use of aquatint. Briefly stated, the use of aquatint enables the artist to create a pattern of tone on the etched plate. If this tone is deeply bitten, it holds a great deal of ink. In the best early impressions (before the plate is worn down), these passages print as a rich velvety surface. Aquatint enabled Goya to project his figures against the dark void, to create a world of vice that is hidden from daylight and from normal perception” (Tomlinson, 123).

“Goya published his set of eighty satirical prints himself, and put them on sale in a shop below his apartment in 1799. He knew perfectly well that he was taking a risk in issuing these prints, since they mirrored the advanced opinions of his liberal friends… We know that he was threatened by the Inquisition” (Juliet Wilson Bareau). All told, Goya appears to have sold no more than 27 copies of the work in the four years following its release, out of about 300 copies printed. Most of the remainder (240 copies) of the first edition ended up being sold to King Charles IV four years later. One imperfection mars the beauty of Los Caprichos: early in the printing process, a scratch appeared on the face of a figure on plate 45. Only the very earliest, and therefore finest, copies printed (probably fewer than 30) lack the scratch. The scratch is absent in this copy. The first edition “is easily identified by the brilliance of the impressions and by the paper and ink used… A number of copies were bound for Goya in Spanish mottled calf with the title and the author’s name on the spine in gold letters on red or green. They are often before the scratch on Pl. 45 and are invariably particularly fine.” (Harris II, 63). The binding of this copy is consistent in appearance with the binding employed by Goya.

Of particular note in this copy is that bound in the back of it is a large manuscript leaf that explains the plates. Entitled “Satiras de Goya,” it has been copied from the painter’s own notes. Goya appears to have written these notes with the intention of publishing them, but, perhaps due to their controversial content, they were never published and exist only in manuscript form in several copies. Because Goya deliberately obscured the subversive meanings behind many of the plates, manuscript commentaries such as this are highly desirable as a means to understand Goya’s intentions, and rarely present. There are three primary versions of these manuscript commentaries, one located in the Prado Museum, one in the National Library of Madrid, and one originally from the Lopez de Ayala collection. The entirely handwritten manuscript bound into this volume differs slightly from the three manuscripts noted above.

This exceedingly lovely volume of Los Caprichos is clearly one of the earliest copies printed, as demonstrated by the brilliant, vivid quality of the plates. Quite rare. This first edition was printed on beautiful laid paper, without watermark, and without a title page. Contemporary owner signature on margin of Plate I (a self-portrait of Goya), not affecting image.

Some light wear and chipping to head and tail of spine; a small loss of paper to the margin of plate 22, not affecting image; a tear without loss to the manuscript table. A fine, lovely, first edition of Goya’s watershed book, of extraordinary rarity.

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