The Disasters of War


Among the treasures in the collections of the Heritage Library of the Complutense University of Madrid are two of the 100 copies—one from the Faculty of Arts and the other from the Faculty of Medicine—that comprised the third edition of Francisco de Goya’s series Los Desastres de la Guerra (The disasters of war). Goya’s etchings illustrate events he witnessed in Madrid and Zaragoza, his birthplace and where these works were produced after he fled the court in 1810‒15. These etchings were published posthumously. The collections of the British Museum hold a copy of the work that Goya gave to his friend Ceán Bermúdez, the title of which is Fatales consequencias de la sangrienta guerra en España con Buonaparte. Y otros caprichos enfaticos (Fatal consequences of the bloody war in Spain with Bonaparte, and other emphatic caprices). The images were kept in the artist’s country estate, Quinta del Sordo, and were owned by Goya’s son Javier until his death in 1854. In 1862 the Royal Academy of Fine Arts of San Fernando bought 80 copperplates, which were published for the first time in 1863 under the title “The Disasters of War.” In 1870, Paul Lefort recovered the two remaining images, numbers 81 and 82, and donated them to the academy, completing the whole set that is held at the National Chalcography of Madrid (chalcography is the art of engraving on copper). In this series, Goya concentrates on the other side of the war: its calamities and misery. There are no major battlefield scenes: a handful of people are engaged in clashes. While the first drafts for these works contain some scenery, all anecdotal elements are removed from the final versions and the scenes become universal in their absence of detail. The war scenes are devoid of the traditional heroism and triumphalism of such representations; the artist focuses on the horror of the war in a modern and original way and surprises by not putting blame exclusively on either side. The French are condemned for the occupation and the Spanish for excessive violence. The scholar Enrique Lafuente Ferrari claims that it is likely Goya did not publish “The Disasters of War” at the time of creation for fear of an absolutist reaction, and that Ceán, in turn, added the “Emphatic Caprices” phrase to the most compromising images in an attempt to justify them. The technique used varies from work to work: along with etching, which was a novelty at the time in Spain, Goya makes use of watercolor and aquatint. Consequently, a single plate can combine different techniques. According to Lafuente, the use of etching adds to the drama in the scenes. Overall, seven editions of the work were published by 1937. The last of these editions was produced by Adolfo Rupérez, the celebrated printer of artists’ engravings, with an introduction that warns “not to discard any proof of so sacred relics or they would disappear forever.”

Last updated: July 31, 2017