The young beauty in the Ballade de Lénore, the gentle Ophelia in Hamlet and the tenderhearted Marguerite in Faust – madness, death and damnation lie in wait for all of them.
André Breton's reading of Gothic novels left him with vivid memories of that contrast: "These were books you could take up, open at random, and always find an elusive scent of dark forests and high, vaulted chambers. Their heroines were crudely drawn, but impeccably lovely. You could visualise them instantly […], as they succumbed to the pale and icy apparitions which stalked them through gloomy dungeons. This was literature both ultranovelistic and hyper-sophisticated, and nothing could surpass its thrilling impact."
These innocent, defenceless young women are persecuted for their ideals, but the horror their undeserved sufferings inspire also carries a distinct erotic charge – and artists were quick to exploit it in both directions. Their pictures and Breton's words evoke memories of reading horror stories and Sade's novels beneath the bedclothes: when the young captive suffers, Virtue and Nature – the Enlightenment's twin deities – are violated with her.
The deceptively clear distinction between enlightenment and obscurantism was now supplanted by the vision of a new, grey, frightening and uncertain world, in which no sharp line could be drawn between good and evil, reality and fantasy, reason and absurdity, the beliefs of the past and the revolutionary fervour of the present.
But instead of living in the past or doing nothing, Goya swapped his court painter's brush for the etcher's unsparing needle. Black in all its shades was the keynote of the many series of engravings he now produced on freely chosen themes, with only the Inquisition's censors to contend with.
The Caprices, a series produced at the end of the 18th century, reflects his amazement and exasperation at the imaginative wealth of Spanish popular culture, steeped in the superstition, fanaticism and ignorance promoted by the Jesuits.
Ten years later, the atrocities which marked the war against Napoleon inspired The Disasters of War – a cry of outrage and horror at the barbaric excesses of the "Grande Nation" and the terrifying emptiness of a world with no God or morality.