Sale 19889
The Sleep of Reason: Francisco Goya’s Los Caprichos
Online 8 - 23 October 2020
Literature

Delteil 77; Harris 75

‘The satirical dimension of the Caprichos is particularly evident in the prints featuring donkeys, from plates 37 to 42. Despite their asinine nature, the protagonists in these prints engage in the noblest work of humanity, such as teaching, medicine or the arts (musical, pictorial and literary). The asses are thus humanized, and their humanlike activities are laden with critical meaning. Plate 40 represents a donkey–physician taking the pulse of an agonized patient before two dark silhouettes outlined against the curtain in the background. One of these silhouettes suggests the habit of a cleric, perhaps attending to the dying man´s spiritual health. The dramatic intensity of the image is diminished by the characterization of the doctor as an animal, introducing a subversion of the logical order of things, and whose iconographic source is the imagery associated with the commonplace of the world upside-down. Of the doctor´s social category there is no doubt: witness his frockcoat, the cravat wrapped around his neck, the chain to his fob-watch that can be seen against his breeches and, on his hoof, a splendid ring with a large gemstone. Precisely this sort of ring was the subject of mockery as a sign of the wearer´s arrogance. Francisco de Quevedo´s Sueños y discursos (Dreams and discourses; 1627) was an important source for Goya´s conception of Los Caprichos - in that collection of satirical texts, Quevedo describes the fat ring on the doctor´s thumb, with a stone so large that when he takes the patient´s pulse, they can diagnose the stone that will seal the sick man´s grave. Goya presents the paradox between the physician´s respectable appearance and his mean character, for the ass symbolizes ignorance; an idea accentuated here by the fact that his eyes are closed. This suggestion of blindness is a clear metaphor for a lack of knowledge. Thus, the donkey represents the fool who has attained an elevated place in society through the incompetent practicing of medicine, provoking the suffering and demise of his patients. The caption, Of What Ill Will he Die?, is a rhetorical formula. Given the choice between the two possible answers -the disease or the treatment - one finds the answer to be obvious: the patient will die of doctoring. The message, as a criticism of incompetent physicians and the pernicious consequences of their ineptness, would be easily understood by Goya´s contemporaries. In one of the manuscript commentaries on the Caprichos from the time of their publication, we find the following explanation: ‘There is no reason to ask what the patient has died from when he follows the advice of doctors who are ignorant brutes.’

Blas Benito, J., Portrait of Spain. Masterpieces from the Prado, Queensland Art Gallery-Art Exhibitions Australia, 2012, p. 211.

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