Goya and Dr Arrieta

It is hardly indicative of any great insight or perspicacity to describe Goya’s paintings as “disturbing”. It is hard to think of any other artist with a darker, more harrowing vision.

Sadly, I have not yet visited Madrid, and have yet to see most of Goya’s output, but what I have seen in reproduction is striking enough. And, about two years ago, I saw an exhibition in the National Gallery, London, of Goya’s portraits. And in that exhibition there was this quite extraordinary self-portrait, loaned from the Minneapolis Institute of Art where it normally hangs.


Self-portrait with Dr Arrieta by Francisco Goya, courtesy of Minneapolis Institute of Art

Goya presents himself here as severely ill, somewhere close to that vague borderline between this world and the next, his head rolled back, clutching on to his bedsheets as if for his very life. By his side is Dr Arietta, to whom Goya presented this painting in gratitude. Dr Arrieta is shown here as a reassuring presence, holding up his patient gently but firmly, and urging him to drink from his glass of medicine – urging him, indeed, to return, as it were, to life itself.

It is a striking image, but what fascinates me most are the other faces on the canvas – shadowy faces, as if vaguely glimpsed, behind the dominating figures of the doctor and his patient. Who are they? The Wikipedia article on this painting suggests they are “perhaps [Goya’s] servants and a priest”. Well, yes: perhaps. The article goes on to further suggest, I think plausibly, that they may be “portents of doom”. I remember standing in front of this canvas, looking at those faces looming menacingly in the murk, and experiencing a certain frisson, a vague sense of something fearful. These figures, lurking in the dark, the level of their heads considerably lower than that either of the doctor or of Goya, may indeed be real people – servants and a priest, as the Wikipedia article suggests. But – and maybe this reflects only on my own cast of mind, and nothing else – I could not help sensing something demonic about them. Like some horrific spirits glimpsed in the throes of a vivid nightmare – or, perhaps, sensed in the delirious wanderings of a sick mind dangerously close to death.

If we do indeed accept these faces as demons, we could certainly interpret them as but demons of the mind, of Goya’s sick mind, false creations proceeding from the heat-oppressed brain; and that Dr Arrieta, a man of science, as the representative of Enlightenment rationality, banishing these creatures of the dark.

But there is, it seems to me, another possible explanation: it could be that though our rationality refuses to admit their reality, these demons are real enough, and that not all our science and reason could ever drive these monsters out from our minds.

10 responses to this post.

  1. Not demons. Perhaps those who have already died and gone on before. Will Goya join them or return to life?


  2. My sentiments also, SilverSeason.

    Behind Goya are deceased relatives expectantly waiting for him to join them. These relatives manifestly lack the hope radiating warmly from the faces of Goya and his doctor.


  3. Well of course, these things are open to interpretation, and one individual’s interpretation is likely to say more about the interpreter than about the painting. For me, I can’t help seeing these shadowy figures as deeply disturbing and fearful. Demonic, if you like. Maybe i’ve been too immersed in the stories of MR James!


  4. Posted by Magistra on January 19, 2018 at 2:36 pm

    Hi, Old Git – the shadows feel like all the things that are bothering him and perhaps making him sick, which could equate to demons. I think he does several paintings in the dark tones following this one. I do like how they act as a kind of Goya-style chiaroscuro set against the light of he and his doctor-friend. Hope all is well with you.


    • Hello Magistra,
      As far as I know (and I am no expert), Goya painted many dark paintings around this period – dark both in the sense of the light, and in the sense of the content.The darkness is certainly very apparent here, and the painting is clearly open to a number of interpretations. But, in art of this stature, no single interpretation drives out the others.It is, however, fascinating exploring the different interpretative possibilities.
      Regards, Himadri


  5. Hi Himadri,

    I think if you know Goya’s other work, especially his drawings and etchings, then it is difficult NOT to see those background faces as lurking, conspiratorial – even demonic, as you suggest. It’s even possible to view the doctor figure as only a seeming-saviour about to administer a draught of something lethal to finish off his patient. I don’t actually see it like that, but it’s still very difficult to say absolutely, as images are so often inherently ambiguous and great artists often play on such ambiguity.

    I still remember when I first discovered Goya’s late ‘Black Paintings’ in a huge folio-sized book in one of the Charing X Road bookshops, and felt the impact of that distinctive dark vision of life, a kind of comedy in the old sense, as in Dante – a comedy of grotesque horror. It made me realise that if an artist’s vision is powerful enough it outweighs any other shortcomings – Goya always struggled a bit with shoulders and upper arms and their foreshortening, I think, and didn’t possess the astounding facility of his fellow Spaniard, Velasquez, for example. But his vision was so strong and inventive that doesn’t matter in the end.

    Anyway, hope you are well, and glad to see you back and posting more frequently.



    • Hello Chris,
      I too find it hard to think of this painting in isolation. I haven’t seen much by Goya except in reproduction (a visit to the Prado in Madrid still awaits), but even from reproductions, it is obvious he had a dark and vivid imagination.

      I must admit I hadn’t seen the doctor in the light you suggest (although I do appreciate it is but a suggestion on your part, and that you don’t really see it that way). I can’t say I see it that way either. I see the doctor as a Man of reason, a confident Man of Enlightenment values, offering to dispel those demons that are haunting this patient. The question that haunts me is the extent to which the doctor’s Enlightenment confidence may be misplaced. Dostoyevsky (who is, as you know, a bit of an obsession of mine) was convinced that no amount of rationality could drive our demons away. I wonder whether Goya might have been hinting at this as well. I do not know.

      What you say about the technical aspects of Goya – as compared to Velazquez – fascinating. It is certainly true that an intensity of vision can overcome some technical shortcomings, but I think I need to have a closer look at the shoulders and forearms in Goya’s paintings!

      Cheers, Himadri


      • I think it’s always extremely useful to know the rest of an artist’s work to help understand the thinking and subtleties in any particular painting or drawing. Every work has to stand on its own, of course, but each can shine a light into the other and illuminate certain aspects you might not be aware of otherwise. Perhaps the other work by Goya which most obviously relates to your interpretation is the famous etching ‘The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters’, where a sleeping figure is menaced by demonic owl- and bat-like creatures, again from the rear, as if from the depths of the mind, though this time with no Enlightenment doctor to keep them at bay. And there is another from the Distasters of War, entitled ‘Nothing. It speaks for itself’, in which a dying or dead old man seems to be haunted by horrific faces.

        On your question – if Goya did possess a confident belief in the power of reason he certainly spent an inordinate amount of time recording its opposite. Perhaps he saw it as an ongoing battle, never to be won, only always fought – I don’t know either. But the later work, especially, seems to present a pretty gruesome and terrifying view of the world, and it’s difficult not to see this as his vision of something permanent in life.


      • One interesting point:

        The Spanish title of Goya’s etching is “El sueño de la razón produce monstruos”. Usually, “sueño” is translated as “sleep”, but a friend tells me that it can also mean “dream”. This being so, he wonders whether it at all possible that the monsters are created not by the absence of Reason – i.e. they are not created because reason is asleep – but rather, that they are creations of Reason itself? That these are beings that reason is reaming of? After all, the very fact that some of these monsters resemble owls (the symbol of knowledge) is a bit troubling.

        In other words, could it be that Goya is ambivalent about Reason itself? That Pure Reason, untempered by other elements, is as capable of creating monsters every bit as much as the Sleep of Reason is?

      • Those owls, yes of course that’s what they relate to! I’ve looked at this etching many times and thought what a peculiar creature to choose, without making that traditional connection. I suppose the image can still work both ways, either as dream or sleep, with the owls either as a ghastly mockery of the symbol of wisdom when reason sleeps, or as a suggestion of the horrors that can result when too much is expected of it, but both are valid, I think. For your idea of a negative ‘Dream of Reason’ I thought immediately of the 5 year plans and Year Zeros of the last century, but of course Goya lived through the barbarisms of The Terror and the Napoleonic wars, after the supposed Enlightenment triumph of the French Revolution, so it definitely works as an interpretation.

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