The Deafness of Goya – Part I

Robert Traynor
November 20, 2012

Goya is a name from 18th century Spanish art with an interesting hearing health history.  During his lifetime, Goya was without peer in his native Spain. As a painter, draftsman, and print maker, he was awarded the prestigious title of “first painter to the king” and served three generations of Spanish royalty.  In the art world, Goya is known as the “Father of the Modern Era” and stood at the crossroads of great Spanish art, straddling the boundary between the Old Masters and the modern era of Spanish painting and printmaking. Imagination, its origins and its limits, fascinated Goya and permeated his work and outweighing tradition.  His romantic paintings inspired the likes of Bacon, Picasso and Manet.

It is well known that Goya had a bright period and a dark period that was probably shaped by his life experiences.  It is also known that he was deafened at age 47 by illness which presents the question is…..what was the illness, and how much hearing loss was suffered and how did this affect his works.  A review of his artistic style demonstrates  loneliness, fear and alienation in his depictions that provide a gateway into his own mental state. Suffering from a physical and psychological breakdown, Goya reported hearing voices, losing balance, progressive deafness and simultaneous tinnitus.   Forensic physicians have speculated many disease processes ranging from Ménière’s disease to paranoid dementia, though most speculation is that it is unlikely that the true cause will ever be known.   There are some theories, however, and that is what makes this mystery of the Deafness of Goya interesting to Hearing International. 

Before we concentrate on his hearing loss, lets get to know him.  Born Francisco de Goya y Lucientes on March 30, 1746, in Fuendetodos, a village in northern Spain slightly above the city of Zaragoza on the map. The family later moved to Zaragoza, where Goya’s father worked as a gilder. At about age 14 young Goya was apprenticed to Jose Luzan, a local painter where he worked for about 4 years.  During this time, he was a ring leader for a local gang.

One night he showed up with a knife in his back and  Luzan encouraged him to apply to the Academy of San Fernando, the leading art school at the time in Madrid.   Goya submitted entries for the Spanish Royal Academy in 1763, and 1766, each time he was denied entrance to the school. He was twenty-years old when the he was turned down for the second time and it is then that he embarked for a journey to Italy.

As the center of the world of art at that time, Italy was frequented by artists from many countries. He lived there two years, won an award for painting skill at an open competition provided by the Academy of Parma and completed several small oils which still survive.  In the more romanticized tales of Goya, he is supposed to have carved his name into the lantern at St. Peter’s. He might have stayed longer in Italy, but had to leave Rome rapidly as he had created some issues with the Church by trying to kidnap a young Nun from the convent. On returning to Zaragoza in 1771, he painted frescoes for the local cathedral (Left). These works, done in the decorative rococo tradition , established Goya’s artistic reputation.  In 1773, he married Josefa Bayeu “Pepa”, sister of Zaragoza artist Francisco Bayeu. The couple had many children, but only one–a son, Xavier–survived to adulthood.  Goya got his professional start in 1774 through his marriage to Pepa that gave him an introduction to the Royal Tapestry Workshop.   For five years he designed about forty-two patterns for tapestry and settled down in the Court and discovered this prodigious world of noble and characteristic Spain. He painted a canvas for the altar of the Church of San Francisco El Grande and was appointed a member of the Academy of San Fernando, where he was denied entry years before.   This experience helped him develop his first genre of paintings, or scenes from everyday life, as he became an astute observer of human behavior. He was also influenced by Neoclassicism, which was gaining favor over the Rococo style. His study of the works of Velazquez in the royal collection also resulted in a looser, more spontaneous painting technique.   In 1783, the Count of Floridablanca, a favorite of King Carlos III, commissioned Goya to paint his portrait. He also became friends with Crown Prince Don Luis, and spent two summers with him, painting portraits of both the Infante and his family. During the 1780s, his circle of patrons grew to include the Duke and Duchess of Osuna, whom he painted, the King and other notable people of the kingdom. In 1786, Goya was given a salaried position as painter to Charles III. After the death of Charles III in 1788 and revolution in France in 1789, during the reign of Charles IV, Goya reached his peak of popularity with royalty.  A serious illness in 1792 left Goya permanently deaf, the references do not say how severe his deafness was nor do they give clear indications of the specific cause which we will explore next week at Hearing International.    Isolated from others by his deafness, he became increasingly occupied with the fantasies and inventions of his imagination and with critical and satirical observations of mankind. He evolved a bold, free new style close to caricature. In 1799 he published the Caprichos, a series of etchings satirizing human folly and weakness. His portraits became penetrating characterizations, revealing their subjects as Goya saw them.

During the Napoleonic invasion and the Spanish War of independence from 1808 to 1814, Goya served as court painter to the French. He expressed his horror of armed conflict in The Disasters of War, a series of starkly realistic etchings that depicted the atrocities of war.   After the war, the Spanish monarchy was restored to power. Goya was pardoned for serving the French, but his work was not favored by the new King Ferdinand VII. He was called before the Inquisition to explain his earlier portrait of The Naked Maja, one of the few nudes in Spanish art at the time. Goya resented this intimidation, and soon after he began his period known as the “Black Paintings or las pinturas negras.”  In the Black Paintings, which were painted on the walls of his house, Goya gave expression to his darkest visions.  Toward the end of his life, Goya had become withdrawn, embittered, disillusioned. He was deaf, he had fallen out of grace with the royal court, his country was at war again. Between 1819 and 1823, when Goya was well in his 70s, he painted a series of fourteen or fifteen dark, disturbing, enigmatic images directly onto the plastered walls of two large rooms (one upstairs, one downstairs) in his country house. These paintings, that were later transferred to canvas, are now known as las pinturas negras, the black paintings.  After years of having witnessed the excesses of absolute monarchy, Goya went into self-imposed exile in Southern France in 1824. By this time he had become embittered and disillusioned towards society and its apparent myriad deception. He continued to work in the Bordeaux region until his death on April 16, 1828.

Goya was an enigmatic figure. The painter of three generations of kings, he mastered charm and diplomacy, was linked to power, and achieved popular success. Yet, he remained an outsider, often at odds with the court, the monarchy, and the church. His royal portraits were filled with candor and honesty to the point of caricature, his religious subjects were ambiguous and marked by earthy realism, and his women in the flesh caught the attention of the Spanish Inquisition. Many of his original prints, which influenced such masters as Delacroix, Manet, and Picasso, were not seen until after his death because they were deemed too critical of the political and religious order of his day.

Now that we know the man, a bit about his life, and his times… week we will explore the possible causes of his deafness and why we may never know the cause, even upon after his body was examined and transferred to Spain to their final resting place at the Church of San Antonio de la Florida in Madrid.




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