What killed Goya?

Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes (1746-1828) is one of the most important painters in history. The author produced more than 1,800 works of art ranging from decorative paintings to portraits of English nobles and humble workers, earning him a reputation as one of the greatest artists of modern times. In 1793 he developed a mysterious illness and the consequences that it caused caused the character of the painter’s work to change radically. Thus he created fabulous works, sometimes dark and full of pain, that enriched his legacy. What happened? Why did Goya change?

Self-portrait with cap (Francisco de Goya, 1824)
Wikimedia Commons / Prado Museum

Goya had an athletic complexion and as a young man he was always in good health but, reached maturity, his life was marked by three great and intense periods of illness that pierced the body and mind of the painter with the force with which a hot knife cuts a butter block.

The first stake took place during the winter of 1792-1793 and lasted for several months. In November 1792, Goya became seriously ill in Seville, at the age of 47. According to the correspondence that Goya exchanged with his great friend Martín Zapater y Clavería, the painter remained bedridden for two months.

Martín Zapater reproached Goya for his lack of care and common sense, alluding to the painter’s well-known promiscuity, which could have guaranteed him the unpleasant company of a venereal disease. In March 1793 Goya improved a lot in several aspects: he recovered his sight, forgot his dizziness and began to move without difficulty. Unfortunately, not all were blissful fuss, because the noises in the head and the unwelcome deafness that came into the life of the painter from the hand of the affection persisted. After a while, damn the picture, Goya found that the disease had left him deaf.

Goya to his doctor Arrieta (Francisco de Goya, 1820).
Wikimedia Commons / Minneapolis Institute of Arts

At the end of 1819, Goya suffered another goring. Some authors maintain that Goya suffered from typhus. From the symptoms it is possible, although it is not entirely clear. On this occasion he was treated by the doctor Eugenio García Arrieta, who was a specialist in infectious diseases.

The good work of Arrieta saved Goya, who gratefully painted an oil titled Goya to his doctor Arrieta, where the painter appears self-portrayed looking downcast, vulnerable, gloomy and almost dying while he is held firmly by his doctor. In the lower part of the painting there is an epigraph that declares Goya’s gratitude to his friend Arrieta, and that is:

Goya, grateful to his friend Arrieta: for the wisdom and care with which he saved his life in his acute and dangerous illness, suffered at the end of the year 1819, at the age of seventy-three. He painted it in 1820”.

The third and last empitonization began in 1825 when Goya developed a tumor in the perineum and manifested urological difficulties. On December 20, 1825, Goya confessed to Joaquín Ferrer that everything was failing him: his eyesight, his hand, his pen, and that the only thing he had in abundance was willpower. This stage ended with the death of the painter on April 16, 1828.

In reality, the cause of death is unknown. According to the information obtained from his correspondence, in which the symptoms he suffered were described, various pathologies are pointed out. The paralysis of the auditory nerves responsible for Goya’s deafness may have a syphilitic or toxic origin. However, there is no consensus on this, and the list of potential causes of mortality includes Vogt-Koyanagi-Harada syndrome (VKH) –also known as uveomeningeal syndrome–, Cogan’s syndrome, Susac syndrome, syphilis, malaria, yellow fever, quinine poisoning, and lead poisoning.

Syphilis and lead

It is possible that the cause of death was multiple. Several biographers collect that Josefa, Goya’s wife, had 20 pregnancies that ended in stillbirths, a term referring to when a baby dies in the womb during the last 20 weeks of pregnancy. This circumstance can be explained as evidence of the possible syphilis suffered by Goya, achieved in the libertine sessions that Martín Zapater and Clavería reproached so many times.

The symptoms that Goya showed and that included loss of vision, hearing, motor capacity and behavioral changes point to the development of a process of meningovascular neurosyphilis. The fact that Goya survived many years with the disease is explained by the possible antisiphilitic mercurial treatments administered to him, which caused a supposed mercurial encephalopathy.

To the gradual and accidental poisoning with mercury, the lead company had to be added. Between the 18th and 20th centuries it was common for painters to make their own pigments, some of which contained toxic elements such as cadmium and lead. Goya was no exception and used to mix and grind the pigments he used himself, including white lead, a highly toxic pigment made up of basic lead carbonate that the painter applied profusely to obtain the famous appearance of pearly luminosity in some of his works. .

The coven (Francisco de Goya, 1921-23).
Wikimedia Commons / Prado Museum

Low exposure to lead can cause dizziness, but medium and prolonged exposure causes peripheral neuropathies. High lead exposure is deadly and causes hematological, intestinal, and neurological disorders. It seems likely that he was responsible, or at least a participant, in Goya’s deafness and alterations in behavior.

I still learn (Francisco de Goya around 1826).
Wikimedia Commons / Prado Museum

If we do not go into detail, Goya was a contradictory artist. Along with the strange and the fantastic, he painted the comic and the mundane; Along with the bright light, he also bet on the dark. Biographers have divided the course of Goya’s painting into two definite periods that are delimited by the before and after his illness. The first is characterized by joy and light; the second, by horror and ghosts.

It is difficult to glimpse with certainty what killed Goya or what pathology caused him to lose his hearing, but the truth is that the aging painter, immersed in the disease, changed his perception. This prompted him to explore unique themes represented by twisted and morbid images, which resulted in a reform of his painting.

Thus, in the last stage of Goya the famous black paintsDark, works depicting human imperfection, worldly fears, cruelty, despair, or even insanity. They were generated by a sick and deaf artist who was probably tormented by the psychic suffering caused by the diabolical combination of syphilis and lead.


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