Goya’s aquatint No. 43, “El sueño de la razón produce monstrous” (El sueño) or “The Sleep of Reason produces monsters,” has been subject to many complex interpretations. As part of eighty fantastical and bizarre aquatints of his 1799 collection, “Los Caprichos,” El sueño dramatically illustrates a conglomeration of symbols. This work appears to represent Goya’s dream of an enlightened Spain.
The allegorical significance of so-called monsters ominously hovering over a dreamer is, in some ways, ambiguous. Some interpreters have claimed that the print represents evil in the guise of ominous bats. Others emphasize the psychology of dreams with assumed meanings. If, as Arthur Danto states in The Transfiguration of the Commonplace, that “there is a difference between the meaning and reference of a picture,” then Goya’s initial meaning of the aquatint causes one to discern the differences.
While employed as an official court painter, Goya’s experimental art began to emerge. He utilized and perfected a technique known as aquatint printmaking. This effect leaves a “rotten egg” look, similar to a sepia-tone process. Four brown color gradients are keyed into this print. The background depicts a host of black bats as well as portentous owls soaring toward the central figure highlighted in the foreground. A frontal light source focuses upon this seated figure and is refracted onto the wings of three owls directly behind the figure. If it were not for the shoulder-length hair, tight breeches, stockings, and sash indicative of the Spanish majo of the era, one might mistake the figure as female. Many critics believe that Goya was the subject of this print. He was known to dress like the more earthy peasants or majos of his time, rather than the foppish petimetres who imitated the fashions of 18th-century France.
Objects etched on this rectangular composition form an incomplete pyramidal arrangement. Therefore, the mid-to-lower right area of the print is truncated, while the darker mid-tone brown evenly blankets the upper right of the aquatint. An impression of depth is achieved as the black bats and owls gradually fade into the background.
In terms of animal symbolism, bats have often been seen as representing ignorance, evil, and death. They are blind creatures of the night who have often been associated with the devil. According to one critic, Spanish folklore of Goya’s time depicted them as “stereotypes of mindless stupidity.” The cats in this etching are depicted as impervious to the gloomy atmosphere. One of them sits calmly on the floor nearby, while the other is situated behind the majo. Both stare intensely towards viewers of the print. Felines, in particular, were believed have the ability to differentiate truth from error.
Goya, as our central figure, is slumped on his desk as the “monsters” loom over him. The sketchbook and pen nearby are abandoned while he sleeps. His face is buried in his arms. On the front of the desk the words, “el sueño de la razón produce monstrous” is imprinted in large, white, lower-case letters. There is one owlet holding a paintbrush, anticipating the sleeper’s acceptance. It is not obvious who or what any of the “monsters” allegorically represent.
G.W.F. Hegel once said that “the owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk,” meaning that philosophy comes to understand a historical condition just as it passes away. Philosophy cannot be prescriptive as it understands only in hindsight. There is one owl behind the majo that projects this understanding, as its wings are fully extended. The Spanish word, sueño, usually connotes “sleep“, but it can also mean “dream.” Goya’s dream may be directed to his own culture, which has been haunted by the ghosts of its suppressive religious and monarchical traditions. The oppressive darkness of the blind bats are likely to represent the weight of superstition from the masses, or the ignorance of the nobility who seek to perpetuate archaic ideas. With enlarged eyes and perked ears, the felines suggest that they have become silent witnesses to the innumerable foibles and follies found in “civilized” society. One owl, with wings full extended, signals the dusk of an era. Goya understands that a long cultural sleep may be necessary to realize his dream of an enlightened Spain.