By the time Francisco Goya died during this month in 1828, he had established himself as one of the greatest portraitists of modern times. During his 74 years, he featured both nobles and kings and humble workers and farmers in over 1,800 works. It is said that he painted at a pace so furious, he completed his wife’s portrait, now hanging in the Prado, in an hour, finished King Fernando’s huge painting in just one or two sessions, and produced the portrait of the Infante Don Louis in a single morning. No artist before or since then has executed a lifelike portrait so perfectly in so short a time.
In the winter of 1792-93, when Goya was 46, he developed a mysterious illness that nearly killed him. He survived but lost his hearing, and for the next 35 years was “deaf as a stump.” Of the nearly two dozen diagnoses that had been proposed as the cause of that illness, none fits the nature of the disorder better than a viral encephalitis, and of those viruses known to cause an encephalitis that results in deafness, none was more likely to have been responsible for destroying Goya’s hearing than the mumps virus.
The effect of Goya’s deafness on his work has long been debated. It forced him to resign his teaching post at the Royal Academy in Madrid, after robbing him of “all hope of giving any assistance [there], since [he] was unable to hear anything that the pupils said… and this led to general amusement among the boys and disruptions of the class.” But was the deafness also responsible for the radical change in the character of Goya’s art that evolved in the aftermath of his illness? Before he lost his hearing, he painted gentle, colorful scenes of picnics and games and produced elegant tapestries and cartoons in the Rococo style. Afterward, many of his works became dark and nightmarish, depicting a merciless, often vengeful view of the world. He became obsessed with disaster and mayhem and created works that nearly always carried the stamp of scorn. And yet, only after the illness did he achieve full mastery of the face in his portraits. Only after his hearing was gone did his skill as a portraitist reach its zenith, possibly, it has been suggested, because deafness made him more aware of gesture, physical expression, and all the minute particulars of how faces and bodies reveal themselves.
This transformation followed Goya’s illness, but was it caused by the illness? Did his deafness cause him to rebel against his fate through his art and produce the morbid images that populated later works, or were other traumas responsible–his wife’s numerous miscarriages, for example, or Spain’s agony under the yoke of a corrupt administration, or later, the ravages of the Peninsular War and French occupation? Although the answers to these questions will never be known for certain, the uncertainty only adds to the sense of mystery evoked by his works, perhaps too, the eternal sense of beauty and pity and pain he succeeded in conveying through his art.
Featured image credit: Witches’ Sabbath, from the Black Paintings Series by Francisco Goya. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.