Goya’s Enlightenment

Remember a time when you were so ill you could not leave your bed. A time you felt so weak, that even the idea of sitting up was cause for fatigue. Flu season is largely behind us, thanks to a mild winter, but at some point you may have had the misfortune of feeling deathly ill. Spanish painter Francisco Goya felt this ill once, and was even so bold as to paint himself in such a debilitating state.

Francisco Goya (1746-1828) was never one for artistic fads, despite recommendations from his contemporaries to be respectful. If one were to classify Goya’s painting style, he would be largely considered among the Romantics. Although, Goya developed his own style, “unpolished and yet subtle, cynical and affectionate” (Rousselot). He used mainly light tones early in his career, reflective of his Italian studies, but there is evidence of cynicism and ugliness underlying his work.

Focusing in on Goya’s philosophy, his opinion on ‘line’ was once recorded as saying, “Nothing but lines and never a volume…but where do you see lines in nature?” William Blake (an essential Romantic), commented on ‘line’ with, “leave out the line and you leave out life itself.” These two comments, which contradict, highlight the complexity and beauty in classifying Goya as a Romantic painter.

Goya obsessed over the ugly, grotesque facets of life. His compositions range from pathological to imbecile. Important to note is that Goya was a court painter for the family of Charles IV, but hints of his cynicism are evident in his portrayal of the king and queen’s facial expressions, appearing dimwitted and sinister (check it out). Also, Goya drew influence from the atrocities of war, see “The Third of May 1808.”

Doctors were not immune from Goya. In a series of etchings, Los Caprichos, Goya highlights the hypocrisy and vice of society. He targets the medical profession in one scene titled¿De qué mal morirá?” (seen here). This etching shows a donkey (or ass) dressed like a physician taking the pulse of someone who is ill, possibly deceased. The translation of the title is “Of what illness will he die?” Goya is clearly poking at the ineptitude of the physician/ass, implying that the doctor is likely to kill you as much as the illness.

In 1819, Goya became very ill. Little is known about the specific affliction, but Goya had been struck deaf in 1793. The opinion for the disease responsible for the deafness varies, some theories state syphilis or lead poisoning, among others. Thankfully for Goya, Dr. Eugenio Garcia Arrieta was able to cure him of the unknown disease in 1819. Goya painted a portrait of himself and the doctor as “gratitude.”

The painting depicts Goya in a deathly manner, with pallor skin, and barely able to bring himself to receive the elixir from Dr. Arrieta. Goya is almost gasping his last breath, expressing agony so strong the viewer can almost feel his wretching pain. As an aside, many people would not be so humble to depict themselves this way. Goya was the most influential painter in Spain, a celebrity at this time. Yet Goya is not too insecure to show thanksgiving.

Dr. Arrieta is shown, not as an ass, but as a man who cares for his patient. He is sitting on the bed, with both hands on Goya, supporting him in his time of dire need. The viewer can discern from Arrieta’s expression that he is positive, altruistic, and caring. These are the classic signs of a wonderful, humanistic doctor. We are witnessing an intimate, holy moment that warms the heart.

Goya painted this painting in 1820, presenting the portrait to Arrieta with an inscription along the bottom reading

“Goya, in gratitude to his friend Arrieta: for the compassion and care with which he saved his life during the acute and dangerous illness he suffered towards the end of the year 1819 in his seventy-third year. He painted this in 1820.”

This painting is testimony to the doctor-patient relationship medicine needs today. Goya may have been bitter about physicians earlier in his life, but this painting to his doctor, and friend, represents a possible change in Goya’s prior beliefs. Dr. Arrieta saved him in more than health, but in opinion of the medical profession. Physicians today can look at Dr. Arrieta, and be reminded that we can change the opinion of our profession through providing care with compassion.

Park, M. P. “The Fine Art of Patient-doctor Relationships.” Bmj 329.7480 (2004):
1475-480. Print.
Rousselot, Jean. Medicine in Art. 1st ed. Milan: McGraw-Hill, 1967. Print.


  1. insightful art interpretation.

  2. Great post! I agree there is a poignant erosion of the doctor-patient relationship.

  3. another thoughtful post. As for his deafness, it could have been just a common cold, ear infection which became otitis – anything. there were lots of things we see as minor could cause serious problems back then. People always seem to look for exotic causes. The streets were filthy back then, it could have been anything tracked indoors.

    1. I agree. Sanitary conditions in Spain were not ideal in the late 1700’s, I’d assume. The article I cite goes into the list of symptoms associated with the initial disease, as well as follow-up by a friend’s account. A rare disease, Vogt-Koyanagi-Harada syndrome, was suggested. This involves swelling of the uveal tract (within the eye), and is associated with permanent deafness (partial blindness and dizziness were some of Goya’s initial symptoms). Thanks for the comment!

  4. Thanks for the like! Goya has always been a favorite artist of mine, although I wasn’t aware of this work of his. It does bring to mind how after all this time, there is still much unknown in medicine. I was that sick once, for months. Chronic appendicitis with a litany of unusual symptoms, leading the docs away from the correct diagnosis. At some of my darkest moments, I’m quite sure I had that look about me. He captured it well.

  5. I very much enjoy Goyas artwork. Mostly because of the fact that he was unrefined and painted the things that people would shy away from, I.E. “Unos a Otros”, “Casa de Locos”, and “The Third of May”. Great Post, thanks for sharing

  6. great post, reading this was a delightful way to start my day. thank you

  7. Wonderful, thoughtful post. You give me hope for the future of our health professions!

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