‘The Sleep Of Reason Produces Monsters’ in Goya’s ‘Los Caprichos’

Essay, 2011

11 Pages, Grade: 1,7


The Sleep Of Reason Produces Monsters’ in Goya’s ‘Los Caprichos’

The Spanish painter and graphic artist Francisco José de Goya (1746-1828) is undeniably one of the most important artists at the turn of 18th to 19th century. His works set new standards for the whole succeeding European art world and still fascinate the art audience today. In his time at the Spanish court from 1786 Goya produced various portraits of noble commissioners. However, in his series of aquatint etchings, the so-called Los Caprichos („caprices“), he shows archetypes which can be related to the whole society. But those figures as well as the depicted situations are only „normal“ on the first sight. With his satiric motives Goya scratches the surface of man and shows his hidden vices.

The focus of this essay is on the most important of the Caprichos, plate 43, and its programmatic statement „ The Sleep Of Reason Produces Monsters“. The essay is going to discuss the way in which the statement is illustrated in the cycle, its structure and within single images.

On 6th February, 1799, Goya promoted his Caprichos in a daily newspaper.[1] In this announcement he formulates his aim for the cycle to be, as Fred Licht writes, “didactic and moralizing”[2]. Goya sets himself the task to illustrate “the innumerable foibles and follies to be found in any civilized society”[3], to show “common prejudices and deceitful practices which custom, ignorance, or self-interest have made usual”[4], and which in his opinion are most applicable for both satire and the stimulation of his own artistic imagination. Because the Caprichos were no commissioned works, Goya had a free hand in regard of technique and theme.[5]

His words link the Caprichos to the movement of Enlightenment, which in the second half of the Eighteenth century called for people to use their minds. Fred Licht writes: “The purpose of the plates is therefore in a perfect harmony with the aims of the Enlightenment to eradicate evil by education.”[6] Goya himself was not a big reader, but he had literate friends, for example the Spanish poet Gaspar Melchor de Jovellanos (1744 – 1811), who was much influenced by French Enlightenment thinkers.[7] Goya translated those thoughts into satirical images. Added to that, after a heavy illness Goya suffered from deafness, which on the other hand heightened his ability to observe the people around him and made him be the pessimistic, cynical artist who created the scorching, impatient criticism of the Caprichos, which differed from the optimistic approach of most Enlightenment philosophers.[8] The announcement formulates the aim of the Caprichos and interpretations can be based on that, although the viewer has to be careful, not to be fooled into relying on the background of the artist and his historical context alone.

The two contrasting artistic procedures of critical observation on the one hand and fantastic imagination on the other shape the setup of the cycle. Andrew Schulz spells out that “from the perspective of the artist, these antithetical approaches are inscribed in the etchings in the form of two contrasting self-portraits”[9]. The cycle consists of 80 aquatint etchings and can roughly be divided into two parts. The first part from plate 1 to 36 is still relatively close to genre painting and show scenes which at first seem to be taken from everyday life, even though the depicted encounters of different classes, ages and sexes are actually already peculiar. Plate 37 to 42 shows a row of asses which take the role of ignorant aristocrats. Plate 43, “El sueño de la razón produce monstrous” (The Sleep Of Reason Produces Monsters), marks the approximate centre of the cycle and can be seen as both summary of the preceding etchings and opening to the following scenes, which are more obscure and threatening and show the shadow world of the night and its monsters.

In Goya’s original planning of the cycle the Sleep of Reason was meant as frontispiece, this was however changed to the severe-looking, side portrait of the artist who presents himself fashionably dressed “as an observer and satirist”[10]. A traditional explanation of the etching describes Goya as being “in a bad humor, and with a satirical expression”[11], which exemplifies the crudity of Goya’s critique of his contemporaries. In contrast to his self-portrait in plate 43, Goya in this image is wide awake.

After the first image “a parade of man’s follies develops, always against a background of twilight or darkness and often amidst shapeless surroundings.”[12] The first part draws a satirical portrait of contemporary society, based on observations.

Capricho 2, called “El si pronuncian y la mano alargan Al primero que llega” (They say yes and give their hand to the first one who comes), follows on the title page and is therefore the first narrative one. It presents the theme of ignorance and hypocrisy of the aristocrats.

In the foreground we see a group of five persons in profile who move towards the right margin. As a whole the scene can be interpreted as wedding, which makes the bride being led to the altar by her groom, father and possibly priest or mother. In the lower background riots a hard to define crowd of people. The upper background sinks into the darkness that surrounds the room. A light from the right illuminates the mouth area and the torso of the young woman who marks the vertical centre of this Capricho. She wears a black mask in her face and another white one at the back of her head, which has a long nose and laughs open-mouthed at the groom, who in fact is an old man with wrinkled, apelike facial features. He squints lecherous at his beautiful fiancée.


[1] Stoichita, Victor I. and Coderch, Anna Maria, Goya. Der letzte Karneval (München, 2006, p. 196).

[2] licht, Fred, Goya – The Origins of the Modern Temper in Art (New York, Universe Books, 1979, p. 92).

[3] Translation of announcement: hughes, Robert, Goya (London, The Harvill Press, 2003, p. 181).

[4] ibid.

[5] cf. tomlinson, Janis A. and serraller, Francisco C., Goya - images of women ( New Haven [u.a.] 2002, p. 258).

[6] Licht, 1979, p. 92.

[7] PÉREZ SÁNCHEZ, Alfonso E. and Sayre, Eleanor A., Goya And The Spirit Of Enlightenment (Boston, Massachusetts, Museum of Fine Arts, 1989, p. xxii).

[8] Licht, 1979, p. 92.

[9] Schulz 11

[10] Schulz, Andrew, Goya’s Caprichos: Aesthetics, Perception, And The Body (New York, Cambridge University Press, 2005, p. 11).

[11] Pérez Sánchez, Sayre, 1989, p. 56.

[12] lópez-rey, José, Goya’s Caprichos: Beauty, Reason and Caricature. Volume One. (Westport, Connecticut, Greenwood Press, 1970, p. 101).

Excerpt out of 11 pages


‘The Sleep Of Reason Produces Monsters’ in Goya’s ‘Los Caprichos’
University of Essex  (Art History)
Art, Sex & Death in the 18th Century
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sleep, reason, produces, monsters’, goya’s, caprichos’
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Sandra Kuberski (Author), 2011, ‘The Sleep Of Reason Produces Monsters’ in Goya’s ‘Los Caprichos’, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/286018


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