Jennifer Wilber is an author and freelance writer from Ohio. She holds a B.A. in Creative Writing and English.
The Dream vs. The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters
Dreaming and imagination have been popular topics in art throughout history. One such influential piece is The Dream, an oil painting by French Post-Impressionist painter Henri Rousseau. This painting was created in 1910 and is currently displayed at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. Another influential work of art dealing with similar themes is The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters, an etching by Spanish Romantic artist Francisco Goya. It was created in 1799 and is currently displayed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. These two works of art deal each with the topic of imagination and dreams, but in two very different ways.
The Dream depicts a nude woman asleep on a couch in France who has been transported to the fantastical dream world of an exotic African jungle, “mixing the domestic with the exotic” (The Dream, 1910 by Henri Rousseau). There, she discovers exotic birds, lions, and an elephant. In the classic Post-Impressionist style, The Dream uses intense colors to evoke emotions in the viewer. As with other great Post-Impressionist artists, Rousseau sought to invoke powerful emotional responses in the viewers of his artwork.
Though the woman in the painting has never been to Africa, she can imagine what it must be like there in her dream, just as Rousseau had never been outside of France, but enjoyed painting exotic far-off lands based on depictions from popular literature, frequent visits to the gardens and zoo in Paris, and his own imagination (Henri Rousseau Biography, Art, and Analysis of Works). Though Rousseau had dreams of becoming a great academic painter, he was largely self-taught and became the “quintessential naïve artist” in the eyes of the art world (Henri Rousseau Biography, Art, and Analysis of Works). Rousseau’s use of bright colors and his childlike painting technique give his painted world in The Dream a feeling of whimsy and playfulness.
The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters
The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters features an artist asleep at his drawing table, dreaming of evil monsters represented by owls, bats, and a cat. According to Schwendener, this etching was part of an 80-part series by Goya entitled Los Caprichos, in which Goya criticized the abuses by the Catholic Church, social issues (such as pedophilia and prostitution), and persisting superstition in an age of revolution. The monsters in The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters represent imagination separated from reason. The bats symbolize ignorance, the owls symbolize folly, and the cat symbolizes witchcraft (Schwendener). Goya believed that imagination and reason should not be separated from one another. This work serves as a warning that we should not be governed by reason or imagination alone (Los Caprichos: The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters).
This etching serves as a transitional work of art between the Enlightenment period and the Romantic period. According to the Khan Academy, The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters “warns that we should not be governed by reason alone—an idea central to Romanticism’s reaction against Enlightenment doctrine.” The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters was created using the aquatint technique to give it a dark, grainy, nightmarish quality (Goya, The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters). The dark colors and frightening themes serve to warn the viewer of some terrible fate.
Similarities between The Dream and The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters
Both The Dream and The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters deal with the themes of imagination and dreams. Each piece depicts a sleeping person experiencing a vivid dream in which the dreamers have encountered extraordinary beasts. Both dreamers imagine types of birds and cats in their dreams. Both pieces can also be viewed through the lens of multiple art movements. The Dream, though a Post-Impressionist work of art, was also celebrated by Surrealist artists for its dream-like moods (Henri Rousseau Biography, Art, and Analysis of Works). The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters bridges the gap between Enlightenment and Romantic thinking. Whereas Enlightenment doctrine promotes reason over emotion, Romanticism focuses more on emotions and imagination. The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters warns against both extremes (Goya, The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters).
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Differences Between The Dream and The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters
Though both pieces have similar themes, they deal with these themes in very different ways. While Rousseau used vibrant, unnatural colors and unrealistic proportions to create a dreamlike quality in The Dream, Goya took a different approach. The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters shows a dark and frightening dream world full of monsters. Because Rousseau was largely self-taught as an artist, his style was seen by critics as undeveloped and "childlike" (Henri Rousseau Biography, Art, and Analysis of Works). This lack of education may have worked in his favor in that his style was completely his own and he was free to create artwork as his imagination dictated. Goya, on the other hand, was influenced by the political climate of the time, so his artwork took on a more cynical tone. The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters was part of his Los Caprichos series, which criticized Spanish society of the time (Schwendener). The Dream gives a sense of wonder and begs the viewer to explore all the possibilities of their imagination, while The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters warns the viewer not to sacrifice reason for imagination, or vice versa. Though these two works share a common theme, there are many differences between the more innocent themes of The Dream and the darker themes of The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters.
These works show how the humanities help to shape our understanding of our culture and the world around us. Artists use their work to share their imagination and ideas with the world. Whether they simply want to share their inner imaginings, as with Rousseau, or make a deeper political statement, as did Goya, creating art allows the artist to express their most personal ideas and viewpoints to their audience in a way that is engaging and interesting. By understanding the cultures that produced different works of art, we can more clearly understand the artists’ original intents. As cultural moods change, we can also find new interpretations and meanings in existing works of art. All artwork is important to understanding and preserving our culture, whether it is visual art, music, or literature.
The Dream and The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters are two important works of art from two different time periods. Each of these works helps us to understand the role of imagination in influencing the humanities. Rousseau’s The Dream shows us that imagination by itself can help to create works of art that inspire the viewer to think in new and novel ways. It shows that art can transport the viewer to places that they have never even imagined visiting. Goya’s The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters, on the other hand, warns against relying only on imagination over reason, and vice versa. It illustrates that relying too much on imagination without using reason can have frightening consequences. Together, these two works illustrate both the good and the dark sides of the imagination.
"Henri Rousseau Biography, Art, and Analysis of Works." The Art Story. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 Oct. 2015. <http://www.theartstory.org/artist-rousseau-henri.htm>.
"Goya, The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters." Khan Academy. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 Oct. 2015. <https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/becoming-modern/romanticism/romanticism-in-spain/a/goya-the-sleep-of-reason-produces-monsters>.
"The Dream, 1910 by Henri Rousseau." HenriRousseau.net. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 Oct. 2015. <http://www.henrirousseau.net/the-dream.jsp>.
"Los Caprichos: The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters." Norton Simon Museum. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 Oct. 2015. <http://www.nortonsimon.org/collections/browse_title.php?id=F.1969.04.43.G>.
Schwendener, Martha. "Goya’s Dark Etchings From a Past Full of Horrors." The New York Times. The New York Times, 29 Oct. 2011. Web. 23 Oct. 2015. <http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/30/nyregion/goyas-etchings-of-a-dark-and-complicated-past.html?_r=2>.
© 2017 Jennifer Wilber