The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters is an aquatint by the Spanish painter and printmaker Francisco Goya. Created between 1797 and 1799, the artwork is part of the satirical series Los Caprichos (The Caprices), dedicated to the follies of Spanish society at the end of the 18th century. As the title states, the print shows the terrible consequences of the absence of rationality.
What is Depicted in the Artwork?
Francisco Goya created The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters as part of the cycle Los Caprichos (The Caprices, or Follies), a series of works published in 1799 that satirically, allegorically, and fantastically criticised the vices and human follies of contemporary Spanish society. The aquatint is the 43rd of the 80 artworks.
The scene depicts a man, probably an artist or writer, deep in sleep at his desk. The table bears an inscription in Spanish ‘El sueño de la razón produce monstruos’ (‘The sleep of reason produces monsters’). With sleep, rationality vanishes, and the asleep mind produces nightmares. All around him, there is a multitude of malignant creatures: menacing owls and bats, a feline -probably a lynx- watching guardedly, nocturnal birds, and another animal crouching and looking straight into the spectator’s eyes. The artwork is therefore conceived in two parts: on one side the sleeper, on the other the nightmares generated by the mind of the sleeping one. According to iconographic tradition, the animals represented are symbols of evil, ignorance, and madness.
This is a very different subject from the ones Goya had painted up to that time. The artist was a court painter; he produced tapestry cartoons for the Spanish royal residences, commissions for churches and altarpieces, and portraits for nobles and monarchs. Los Caprichos is a sharp critique of the customs and ignorance of the society portrayed until then. Goya in explaining the reasons for the series said that the inspiration came “from the multitude of follies and blunders common in every civil society, as well as from the vulgar prejudices and lies authorized by custom, ignorance or interest, those that he has thought most suitable matter for ridicule.”
The motto engraved on the desk and giving the print its title has been the subject of various interpretations. “The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters” seems to indicate Goya’s adherence to the Enlightenment, the 18th-century current of thought that exalted the value of reason above all else. However, in an autograph manuscript by the artist preserved in the Prado Museum, the message of the print seems more complicated. Goya expresses an opinion on arts and imagination: “Imagination abandoned by reason produces impossible monsters; united with her, she is the mother of the arts and source of their wonders.”
The print is thus not simply a praise of reason, but an exaltation of art as a balanced combination of reason and imagination. If imagination is allowed to run free, without the help of rationality, it only creates terrible monsters; similarly, too rigid reason limits creativity. Instead, the fusion of reason and imagination gives rise to a power capable of generating wonders.
Francisco Goya’s production is thus placed in an intermediate position between the rationalism of the Enlightenment and Romantic theories, which saw emotion and imagination as the counterpart to rationality. His caption ‘The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters” is a warning not to be guided only by reason, but to keep it active at all times.
Francisco Goya realizes other series characterized by haunting themes and critical intentions:
- Black Paintings is a group of 14 paintings realized between 1819 and 1823, that represents the later years of Goya’s life. They embody the suffering state of mind of the artist, who was living isolated and deaf in a farmhouse in Madrid (known as the Quinta del Sordo).
- The Disasters of War is a series of 82 prints realized between 1810 and 1820. It is interpreted by art historians as a critique against the violence and horrific atrocities of war, although during Napoleon’s French Empire and Spanish conflict, Goya continued to work as a court painter for Spanish and French monarchs.
What is aquatint?
The aquatint is an etching technique invented in the second half of the 18th century. It is a variation of etching. Like etching, it uses a copper or zing plate covered with wax resin. The artist etches the image with a needle directly onto the resin and immerses the metal pleat in an acid bath, creating the matrix. The aquatint is characterised by the possibility of obtaining different shades of colour.