At the Art Institute of Chicago Essay

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Evaluating Art

Francisco Goya’s “The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters,” plate 43 from Los Caprichos, 1797/99, is available for viewing at the Art Institute of Chicago. This etching on ivory print paper (301 x 207 mm) depicts an individual asleep at his desk as the creatures of his mind rise up around him, overshadowing him with their nightmarish dimensions (Art Institute of Chicago, 2018). The animals that surround the man are nocturnal—owls, a cat, bats—and all of them have either large eyes that focus either on the sleeping man or on the viewer, or they have ominously silhouetted wingspreads that soar overhead indicating that the nightmares are taking flight.

The image is a print that Goya completed in 1799 in Spain at a time when the Enlightenment was in full swing and Romanticism was getting under way. The “sleep of reason,” as Goya described it, was a reference to the idea that people in Europe were losing their capacity for logic and common sense—and in effect their minds—by entertaining ludicrous concepts and romantic, utopian visions for society. The French Revolution had already occurred and the continent was now at war as Napoleon made his force felt. Reason, Goya, felt was being lost every day and the world that was emerging was truly a nightmarish one as a result.

The lines of the composition help to center the viewer’s eyes on the torso of the sleeping man, as he lies forward over his desk, his head buried in his hands. The eyes of what could be a fox, shrouded in shadow peer at the viewer over the man’s back almost directly in the center of the print: the effect is that the viewer feels as though he were being sucked right into the living nightmare (Schaefer, 2018). This is undoubtedly precisely what Goya wanted to achieve: the visions emanating from the mind of the man, who could thus symbolize Europe asleep at its desk while a veritable “Reign of Terror” flies up and over the continent, are meant to startle and menace the viewer, just as the reality of the situation on the continent was startling people at the time.

Goya’s print captured the heady, disturbing sentiment of the time as the world seemed teetering on the brink of chaos—the old established order giving way to the new, uncertain future in which imagination and emotion threatened to….....

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Art Institute of Chicago. (2018). Goya, sleep of reason. Retrieved from

Schaefer, S. (2018). Goya, the sleep of reason produces monsters. Retrieved from

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