The Black Humour of Goya: Smiles of Reason, Smiles of Unreason

The career of the Spanish artist Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes (1746-1828) is said to have spanned the length of the old masters and entered into the realm of what we would recognize today as modern art. This I am not terribly qualified to comment on, but the movement in Goya’s work that most interest me is the one that led him to the stark and dire images he chose to paint on the walls of his house in 1819 as well as the series of prints he produced from 1799 to 1823.

He first made a name for himself doing portraits for the Spanish nobility and for some time was under the employ of the Spanish Crown. One of his better known works of this period is “Charles IV of Spain and His Family”. It is generally considered to be a subtle satire on the decadence of the noble family, yet this view has been challenged in recent years and anyone interested in the promise and perils of art history and the attempt to discern what a painter really meant would do well to read up on it.

In the early 1790s he was stricken deaf by an uncertain disease, and this, combined with the political disorder and uncertainty of the decade, is generally considered to have perpetrated his change in style.

While his “The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters” was often seen to be a warning and a rallying cry for the forces of Enlightenment in the 18th and 19th centuries, when seen together with the other 80 aquatint prints of which the series consists one is less inclined to see it in such a straightforward manner. Indeed, one is a very selective witness to look at any of these works in isolation. With their titles and depictions the prints seem to be in dialogue with each other in a number of ways, chastising, commenting, ironizing society and each other.

Take, for instance, plate 52 “What a Tailor Can Do”, which depicts a frightful, tearful crowd pleading, seemingly worshiping an ominous figure, who is in fact no more than a tree. This would seem in keeping with the Enlightenment condemnation of superstition.

Yet how to account for the shear bulk of such depictions in which a very different kind of irony seems present, indeed, whose uncanny candor invoke the very opposite effect, a feeling that superstition, the ghastly, smiling faces of madness, are in fact the dominant force in the world? Plate 60 “Trials” shows a goat, two cats, a skull and various other implements surrounding a suspended central figure in a state of distress, while a woman smiles on in a most terrible way. The Plate 45 “Little Goblins” plate 63 “Look How Serious They Are”, the vulgar plate 69 “Blow”. There is, surely, a black humour here, irony in frightful eyes and ghastly smiles, but can it be said to be the irony of a force which knows itself as the “Enlightenment”? Indeed, one which recognizes itself to be in fact an ascendant power? At best is it not one madman smirking cruelly at another in the courtyard of a lunatic asylum?

If there is to be found any resolution in this images it is perhaps best displayed in the ambiguous messages of plate 74 “Don’t Scream, Silly!” and 72 “You Wont Escape!” In both of these it seems we are presented with women in otherwise frightening and ominous situations, but unlike many of the other images, their smiles do not invoke distress, but something closer to an impish joy. Indeed, despite the implied chaise in “You Wont Escape” the woman seems to not be running as much as she is dancing away from the phantasms that surround her. Even in their midst, she gives them a playful glance, which is much more than can be said for many of the other subjects of irony and discord in the series.

Irony is a difficult beast to tame, and one is often tempted to simply conclude that anything and everything an ironic artist expresses is irony all the way down. But even the cleverest irony contains within it the seed of its own future ironization, that is, a conviction of one sort or another. In Goya’s case, if one has meditated upon this series well, it could be said that there is an unsettling dialectic at work between reason, which ironizes, and unreason, which is both the subject and yet the subversive element of clever irony. Beyond them both dance the laughing women, who are neither completely mad, nor totally sane, but have the wherewithal to move with cheer un-recriminating, between both worlds.

For More Information:

Olszewski, Edward J. “Exorcising Goya’s ‘The Family of charles IV'”. In Artibus et Historiae Vol. 20, No. 40 (1999), pp. 169-185. Stable URL:
Luxenberg, Alisa. “Further Light on the Critical Reception of Goya’s ‘Family of Charles IV’ as Caricature”. In Artibus et Historiae
Vol. 23, No. 46 (2002), pp. 179-182. Stable URL:
Klein, Peter K. “Insanity and the Sublime: Aesthetics and Theories of Mental Illness in Goya’s Yard with Lunatics and Related Works” in Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes. Vol. 61, (1998), pp. 198-252. Article Stable URL:

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