In 1792, the Spanish painter Francisco Goya (1746–1828) became gravely ill. His convalescence and recovery lasted for more than a year, leaving him completely deaf. (Lead poisoning was suspected.) Had he died right then, at the age of forty-six, Goya would have been remembered as a competent, even elegant, Rococo painter with realist tendencies, but nothing more. Instead, his illness transformed him into an extraordinary artist, one marked by great emotional depth and inventive formal technique.
There’s no denying Goya’s prowess as a painter. Just recall his arresting portraits and still lifes, or his masterful frescoes in San Antonio de la Florida Chapel in Madrid. There’s also his powerful Executions of the Third of May 1808 (1814) and his unsettling Black Paintings (1819–23), made near the end of his life. To fully grasp the extent of Goya’s achievements, though, one must consider his drawings and prints.
Beginning in the mid-1790s, Goya began creating libretas de apuntes (journal albums). He used them to sketch a range of visions and impressions of the world with markedly different styles. By the time he died in exile in Bordeaux, Goya had produced some nine hundred drawings and more than three hundred prints, etched in both aquatint and lithograph. (The libretas were later taken apart and dispersed, and now exist as individual works.) Since the 1960s, scholars have acknowledged Goya’s graphic output as foundational for European and global art. Together with Dürer and Rembrandt, he paved the way for artists like Honoré Daumier, Georges Rouault, Käthe Kollwitz, George Grosz, and José Clemente Orozco. His influence continues right up to the present day in printmakers as diverse as Kiki Smith and Juan Sánchez.
It’s appropriate, then, that the Metropolitan Museum in New York has just opened a new exhibition (the first in recent memory to take place on U.S. soil) focused entirely on Goya’s drawings and prints. Containing more than a hundred works (mostly from the Met’s permanent collection, supplemented with loans from the Prado, the Biblioteca Nacional in Madrid, and other libraries in Boston and New York), the show fills three modestly sized galleries. Organized by Mark McDonald, also the principal author of the show’s excellent catalog, it’s especially refreshing during these days of visual overload. Set against sober, neutral walls, Goya’s small, powerful works take us from looking into seeing.