A Painting a Day: Goya's "The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters" (c.1799)


A painting of the day to remind us how vitally important art is under a president (and a larger culture) that doesn't value the humanities and sees it as "useless" to the business of society.
Today we have Goya's famous etching "The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters" (1797-99) from his series of grotesque and gothic imagery, Los Caprichos. This is one of my favorite Gothic images and one I used often in my classes in any number of contexts--to introduce Frankenstein, to discuss Romanticism, to critique the Enlightenment, etc. Goya was a true visionary, very like Beethoven in his ability to transform old genres and ideas and then turn them into something powerful and unrecognizable. This piece, in its stark black and white imagery, is designed to be nightmarish--yet with a purpose. Far from simply giving us lurid imagery, Goya uses horror as a metaphor the same way Mary Shelley would a decade or so later. Because ultimately, the most terrifying things in the world are all born from our imagination--and then let loose upon the world.
In this image, an Enlightenment gentleman has fallen asleep in the midst of his labors, perhaps writing a treatise on reason, or the fundamental "rightness" of all things. I always imagine this figure as somewhat like Dr. Pangloss in Voltaire's Candide (1759). who assured his pupil that "we are in the best of all possible worlds," and that the nose was created so that we had somewhere to place our spectacles. Yet as soon as he slumbers, the dreams awake--all manner of nocturnal terrors such as bats, owls, and disturbingly sphinx-like cats. The swarm of terrors surround him, with the intention of either eating him or carting him away to a midnight mass of spirits. The idea being that no man or woman is so in control of their faculties--the darkness is always there, waiting to be unleashed or even whispering at your ear. Reason denies the existence of imagination and nightmares at its peril, for when reason sleeps, the terrors go unchecked and give birth to even greater chaos.
Goya completed this painting with the sentence "the sleep of reason produces monsters...united with her, she is the mother of the arts and the origin of their marvels." The Romantic poets and artists knew that you had to channel the darkness of the psyche and of society itself to create great art. Art is never born of rejection or of denial; only by looking deep into the well of the sublime can you hear the echo of your own thoughts. Goya knew this, and no one peered deeper into that well than he did. Society, unfortunately, continued to deny until they had several bloody revolutions on their hands..

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