Illustrating Illness

Elisa DiOdoardo is a junior at Syracuse University. She is studying English Education/English & Textual Studies with a minor in Art History.

Francisco de Goya is an acclaimed Spanish artist who is identified with the Romantic movement, and his etching titled De que mal morira? (Of what will he die?) is no exception to this. Between 1797-1799, Goya worked on this print, along with 79 other etchings, as a part of his series Los Caprichos. This was around the time that he began experiencing a variety of health issues, including deafness, which had a significant impact on his artistic pursuits. While Goya is often cited as a prominent figure in Romantic art, his series Los Caprichos can be used to both support and oppose this claim, and this becomes apparent when looking at how Goya combined Romantic elements with his own unique stylistic choices that did not necessarily align with typical Romantic values. In De que mal morira? Goya approaches his composition from a very macabre perspective, drawing on his own personal experiences with his health as well as the condition of Spanish politics at the time. Here, he makes it apparent that he is no stranger to the world of health problems, and this image specifically explores the relationship that Goya had with medical professionals.

   Based on surviving letters from Goya’s life, scholars have been able to compile a list of symptoms that Goya suffered from, including physical ailments such as deafness and transient paralysis, as well as mental health issues like depression (Casey, 67). From this collection of symptoms, as well as the visual evidence seen in his art, recent doctors have attempted to diagnose Goya, citing illnesses such as typhoid fever, lead poisoning, and syphilis as possible conditions (Casey, 67). While there is extensive literature on the subject, it would be difficult to truly confirm any of these diagnoses in the present day; however, it is widely accepted that Goya suffered from depression. The fact that Goya went undiagnosed during the entirety of his lifetime supports the negative opinions that he held about doctors. Even without an exact diagnosis, though, viewers can still see how Goya’s ailments impacted his artistic career.

   De que mal morira? clearly illustrates the negative opinions that Goya held regarding medical professionals. In the etching, the physician is blatantly portrayed as an ass who is using his hoof to “somewhat indifferently” read the pulse of a deceased patient (Casey, 71). During Goya’s time, it was common for people to understand medical professionals as “killers of the healthy,” due to the inadequate qualifications that were required of these individuals (Casey, 72). Such inadequacies were only further perpetuated by the Spanish Inquisition that fueled the perception that this kind of education was neither necessary nor appropriate (Casey, 71). Because of this, it was certainly possible that Goya was dealing with truly incompetent doctors, thus his scathing representation of them as an incapable animal. Goya also distrusted Spanish politics, which he frequently targeted in his paintings and prints (Casey, 71). Interestingly, etchings on paper were not as highly valued as paintings, as the Royal Academy of Fine Arts of San Fernando did not acknowledge their worth, so Goya had difficulty selling his prints (Rose, 309).

   Because Los Caprichos stemmed from Goya’s own experiences, the prints in this series consistently display the raw emotion that is associated with Romanticism. The dark nature of De que mal morira? underscores this raw emotion, encouraging the viewer to approach the composition from a more melancholy perspective. Additionally, the individual markings that can be seen in the etching are not very precise, and they sometimes become chaotic, similar to Giovanni Battista Piranesi’s prison etchings. This messiness adds a level of unpredictability to the piece, and this sense of mystery is also enhanced by the shadows in the background. Behind the doctor and the deceased patient, there are two shadows of figures who are not seen in the foreground, which raises many questions from the viewer’s standpoint.

   While Goya is widely recognized today as a prominent artist from the Romantic era, his later body of work often went against the beliefs that are typically associated with the Romantic movement. For instance, scholars have identified the lack of landscape in Goya’s compositions, particularly his later pieces. Romantic artists have been known to pay close attention to nature in their images, yet in De que mal morira? Goya focuses much more on his human subjects than on their surroundings (Casey, 67). Moreover, the Romantic movement often opposed the Enlightenment, yet Goya was a strong advocate for the Enlightenment and its emphasis on reason and close observation. In this etching specifically, Goya draws attention to the importance of science and reasoning within the fields of medicine.

   Another work that is closely related to De que mal morira? is Goya’s Self Portrait with Dr. Eugenio Garcia Arrieta. This painting was completed in 1820, much later than his Los Caprichos series, and in it, we can see how Goya’s outlook on doctors and medicine had changed since his experiences in the late 1790s. At this point, Goya was being treated by Dr. Arrieta, who he considered a close, trust-worthy friend (Rose, 314). The inscription in the lower portion of the painting reads “Goya in gratitude to his friend Arrieta for the skill and great care with which he saved his life in his acute and dangerous illness” (Rose, 314). This inscription alone demonstrates how Goya’s opinion about doctors had shifted during the time when he was treated by Dr. Arrieta. In addition to the inscription, Goya’s depiction of the doctor is drastically different from his images in Los Capricho—images like De que mal morira? in which he represented the doctor as a literal ass, implying the figure’s incompetence at his job (Rose, 314). By the time his self-portrait with Dr. Arrieta was completed in 1820, however, Goya had come to recognize that doctors can be respectable, capable individuals. He has depicted Dr. Arrieta as a human, rather than an anthropomorphic ass, who was saving his life, rather than acting as a “killer of the healthy” (Rose, 314). Although Goya now viewed doctors in a more positive light, this self-portrait was also a highly romanticized image.

   While Goya’s personal beliefs may have shifted during the time that passed between the making of the etching and the self-portrait, several Romantic elements continued to prevail in both works. Because Goya identified so strongly with his ailments, a heightened emphasis on emotions is still present in the later painting. The subject matter remains closely related to Goya’s personal life and continues to exhibit the same raw emotion that infuses De que mal morira?. Moreover, in the self- portrait, the patient is Goya himself, holding on for dear life, rather than an unnamed deceased patient. Additionally, while the dark black background contributes to the gloomy atmosphere captured in the composition, it lacks the detail that one might expect in a Romantic painting; however, this lack of background remains consistent with the simple background seen in De que mal morira?, suggesting a limited connection to nature or a landscape.

   Goya’s images can easily be compared to the works of other Romantic artists, such as Jacques-Louis David’s The Death of Marat, which was painted in 1793, around the same time that Goya was working on his etchings for Los Caprichos. These images are similar in the way that they handle themes of death and distrust, and both can be interpreted as being politically charged artistic works. The Death of Marat features a deceased figure lying in a bathtub, and is positioned in a manner similar to Goya’s representation of the deceased patient in De que mal morira?. Additionally, David tells a story of deceit through The Death of Marat, as Jean-Paul Marat’s murderer was a member of the opposing political party who used lies and tricks to enter Marat’s chamber. This evokes a sense of distrust in David’s painting, which can easily be compared to the distrust that underscores Goya’s etching. Goya portrays the doctor as someone who should not be trusted with the lives of people.

   De que mal morira? is just one example of how Francisco Goya used art to comment on the condition of the world around him. Although Goya was working on Los Caprichos in the late 1700s, many of the themes we see in this series are still relevant in the world today. For instance, Goya’s candid exploration of mental health and his biting commentary on the ability or inability of doctors to deal with mental issues were bold and forward-thinking for their time. Today, discussions about mental health are becoming increasingly more prominent, and Goya can be considered a pioneering artist who tackled mental health issues in his art. Open conversations about mental health are received more positively now than they were in Goya’s time. Additionally, many people today are questioning the legitimacy of doctors rather than blindly following them, which is exactly what Goya was doing in his etching. Common medical practices have become extremely controversial, especially matters like vaccines, and people are publicly expressing their opinions every day, just like Goya was doing in Los Caprichos.

   While Goya is typically associated with Romanticism, he did not allow the constraints of the movement to limit his artistic endeavors. He found inspiration in many aspects of his life, and he was motivated by his negative experiences to create passionate, emotionally-charged art.


Further Reading

  • Casey, Laura L. “Goya: In Sickness and in Health.” International Journal of Surgery, 4
  • Rose, Clifford F. “The Deafness of Goya.” International Review of Neurobiology, 74 (2006):
  • Schulz, Andrew. “Satirizing the Senses: The Representation of Perception in Goya’s Los
    Caprichos.” Art History, 23 (2000): 153-181.

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