Exhibition sheds new light on the dark side of Goya

The work of Francisco Goya, one of the most influential 19th-century figures in Western art, is renowned for being gloomy and traumatic. But a new exhibition in Paris suggests that this dark reputation is a little undeserved and seeks, literally, to cast new light on the Spanish painter and engraver.

The theory is that the blacker final versions may have been deliberately exaggerated by 19th-century print-makers after his death.

Francisco de Goya y Lucientes, whose life spanned the politically and morally troubled late 18th century and early 19th century, is known for his grim and nightmarish depictions of war and human folly. Towards the end of his life Goya became reclusive and produced frightening and obscure paintings – the infamous Black Paintings.

"Goya, graveur", the new exhibition at the Petit Palais just off the Champs-Elysées, brings together about 280 works with the focus on etchings and lithographs. The collection features some rarely seen test prints, made under the artist's supervision. They are matched with the better known, "final" prints made after Goya's death in 1828. These are darker than Goya's versions.

According to the exhibition's curators, the 19th century artisans, producing prints from Goya's original copper plates, often gave them a darker patina than the artist had intended. "Goya is remembered as an artist obsessed with monsters and monstrous things – with the dark," said Simon André-Deconchat, one of the curators. "What is often forgotten is that he represented those monsters to condemn them."

Among the collection is an image from Goya's "Disaster of War" series, done between 1810 and 1820, which portrays the horrors of the 1807 Napoleonic invasion of Spain. Que Valor (What Courage) shows a Spanish heroine, Agustina de Aragon, holding a match that she is said to have taken from the hand of a dead artillery man in order to fire a cannon at French soldiers during the siege of Saragossa. According to legend, it was her efforts that helped to repel Napoleon's troops.

The original, made under Goya's supervision, has bright, highly contrasting colours. Agustina's white dress shines out against a dark cannon and bodies. In the print made after the artist's death, the scene is plunged into a dark fog.

"After Goya's death, he was seen as very dark, so that's how they rendered his work," said André-Deconchat. "But really, he was an artist of the enlightenment, who etched because he wanted to change things."

Goya's etchings were a personal reflection on the times in which he lived, such as the "Caprichos" series, dating from 1799, which depict human vice and folly in grim detail. Like many of his works, they were not sold until after his death.

The exhibition is at the Petit Palais until 8 June