Francisco Goya, The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters (c. 1797)

Francisco Jose de Goya y Lucientes The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters (c. 1797). Etching, 21.5 cm × 15 cm.

This famous etching by Francisco Goya comes from a set of works called "Los Caprichos" that included about 80 prints on a large range of controversial topics ranging from prostitution, witches, sexual abuse of children, and scathing comments on contemporary doctors and public figures. I have chosen to only speak about this work because of its fame and also because it has a subject matter than many people can relate to without knowing the wider context of the work and why Goya's "Los Caprichos" was so maligned at the time of its publication that the artist recalled any remaining unsold sets days after its release.

The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters show the artist himself asleep at his desk. The lone human figure is isolated against a backdrop of black birds and nightmarish creatures and seem to swoop and circle him like a carcass. The horned predatory birds and dark canine that sits at his feet symbolize the fantastical images humans can have while sleep lowers the defenses against the mind's wandering and dark thoughts. With the barrier of reason down the mind can be infiltrated with nonsensical and dangerous thinking from one's subconscious, where all of one's most base insecurities lie. These "monsters" of the human psyche attack at night when the mind is most vulnerable. Who has not had their mind wander into dark territory in the middle of the night when nothing seems quite reasonable or right? When reason sleeps, anything is possible.

Goya ((b. March 30, 1746 - April 16, 1828), whose full name is actually Francisco Jose de Goya y Lucientes, was a Spanish artist who worked during some of the most turbulent times in Spain's history. One of Goya's most famous works is his The Third of May 1808 (1814) which shows Spaniards being shot by Napoleon's men during the French invasion of Spain. Goya's work alternates between the earlier years of court portraiture and more superficial fare, the political commentaries of The Third of May 1808, and his later, more disturbing interpretations of mythology such as his Saturn Devouring His Son (1819-1823), from his Black Paintings series.

This work, in particular, seems to be a forerunner to his later, darker works. Though the scene is set to seem a dream, the idea of monsters coming out at night is nothing new and was especially prevalent in the Romantic period that Goya worked in. The idea of night incubus' infiltrating homes and minds was discussed and often illustrated by Romantic artists. Though here the intent does not appear sexual, the dread or sinister intent of the animals seems clear. An inscription below the work reads, "Fantasy abandoned by reason produces impossible monsters: united with her, she is the mother of the arts and the origin of their marvels."

1 comment:

  1. Hello Lydia
    I came looking for the sleep of reason because I have written a book called Darkness and denial.
    The book is non-fiction, about the modern penchant for pollyannaism and looking at life superficially to the detriment of one's understanding of the darker elements of it.
    In it I will reproduce a work of Rembrandt and this Sleep of Reason of Goya's, to go beside this passage:
    my conscious intention had been to darken the picture HR operatives have of our fellow worker’s lives, I had in mind the fecund dark of Rembrandt, that ultimately enlightening foil whose end is to collect and focus attention and thus to bathe in light the inward life of those it surrounds. I was thinking of the darkness in that secret, suggestive matrix of light and shade which the eye sweeps across, tacitly accumulating the unresolved and complex, the half-seen, the ominous, the guilty, the shameful, the deeply dissonant and integrating those qualities into the formless and powerful understanding of things that lies beyond the reach of words, nay thought, and then, from within that cloud of unknowing, distils understanding like the very intimacy of God, forms it and focuses it upon those faces that inhabit the painting’s regions of light, investing them with meaning, pity, identity and psychological complexity beyond the power of mere physical wattage to illuminate or elicit.

    What I loosed instead were the night terrors that provoke the somnambulists, somniloquists, sleeping beauties, brain disordered encephalitics, gargoyles and all the other capricious Goyan fiends which the sleep of reason produces who would take to the canvas with a knife or douse its pain with bright pink paint. Meanies and monsters amok with pollyanna pencils.