The Deafness of Goya – Part II

Robert Traynor
November 27, 2012

Last week at Hearing International we got to know Francisco Goya, the famous Spanish painter often called the “Father of Modern Art”.  From last week’s discussion, we know that Goya was a mischievous boy and young man, but became a serious painter from the late 1770s until his death in 1828.  Beginning as a tapestry artist, he was later appointed as a painter to both the Spanish Court and the Napoleonic French Court, and was a member of the Royal Spanish Academy of Art. There was both a bright and a dark side to his work.  During the bright period he painted numerous portraits of royalty, scenes from Spanish and French life; paintings in the dark period were nightmarish, gruesome and grotesque, and they stirred up great controversy.

When Goya was forty-six, in 1792, he contracted a mysterious illness that left him incapacitated.  We know from his letters to close friends that his vision went blurry, he suffered from comas and partial paralysis, and he struggled with bouts of dizziness and hearing loss. After the illness left him deaf, his interior world had to feed itself on light and shadow and emotions, and it began to populate itself with feelings, longings, and ghosts. Goya became more withdrawn and introspective and his vitality was directed entirely to his painting.

Possible Causes for the Deafness

Goya’s illness is said to have come on “out of the blue” after he exerted himself attempting to fix an axle on a carriage in the rain and cold.  The illness itself lasted for almost 2 years before all of the symptoms disappeared–except for the deafness. There is significant speculation as to the cause of his deafness, with suggestions of syphilis, toxic lead poisoning, and Vogt/Koyanagi/Harada Syndrome, including meningitis. Although there is ample evidence of Goya’s wild and freewheeling lifestyle, Cawthorne (1962) states relative to the syphilis diagnosis: “he was a good looking young man and probably not infrequently at risk for the disease.”  Syphilis was a common diagnosis for diseases that were strange and unknown at the time. 

Another possibility is toxic lead poisoning.  Artists are exposed through their work to a number of potentially harmful chemicals, fumes, dusts, and heavy metals.  Though it was not known at the time, painting in the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries was a hazardous occupation.  Most artists mixed their own pigments, using lead, cadmium, mercury, and other deadly substances.  Lead compounds were an important component of many paints in the past because lead in the forms of lead carbonate and lead oxides had excellent adhesive, drying, and covering abilities.

Another possibility outlined by Cawthorne (1962) is a very rare syndrome, Vogt, Koyanagi, Harada Syndrome.  True VKH syndrome is a human disease, well described for nearly a century.  A syndrome is a collection of symptoms. In humans, VKH syndrome consists of the following:

  • Deep inflammation of the eye tissues leading to atrial blindness.  Approximately 70% of people with VKH syndrome become blind, and it is usually the inflammation in the eyes that appears first.
  • Premature whitening of the hair (present in 90% of cases).
  • Whitening of the skin (50%) of the cases).
  • Inflammation of the membranes of the nervous system (meningitis).  This process leads to deafness in about half of the people affected with VKH syndrome.
  • Usually manifests in people of Mediterranean, Hispanic or Asian descent.

Which is the true diagnosis?

Forensic physicians suggest that if Goya’s illness was syphilis, there would have been more evidence of sickness and bizarre behavior indicating a spreading disease process with more cardiovascular and neurological implications at a younger age.

Goya was known for his messy way of painting, —with brush, trowel, rag, and hands furiously moving as he mixed and worked, likely absorbing the toxins through his lungs, mouth, and skin.  Goya could have slowly poisoned himself without knowing it, possibly by sucking his fingers that were forever full of flakes of white paint.  Many famous artists have had serious health problems related to the materials they used.  A number of historians agree that because he was one of the artists who mixed all of his own paints, Goya could well have developed a very serious case of lead poisoning.

Throughout the rest of his career, Goya repeatedly suffered bouts of the same mysterious sickness. When he fell ill, he was forced to quit working.  That might have saved his life, because his layoffs would have allowed the lead levels in his blood to drop—, at least until he felt well enough to resume working again, starting the cycle all over. White lead, linseed oil, and inorganic pigments were the basic components for paint, and there is no reason to believe that the “Father of Modern Art” was any more immune to these toxins than Beethoven or Van Gogh.

Goya was, of course, of Hispanic descent and he had many of the symptoms of VKH syndrome.  The analysis of the data suggests that it could be either toxic poisoning from the lead or, as Cawthorne (1962) indicates, VKH syndrome.  VKH syndrome would explain the sudden total deafness, while toxic deafness would be more of a gradual progression.  VKH with meningitis would explain the suddenness of onset and the deafness, the recovery period, and the residual effects on his hearing and balance systems.

Why will we never really know?

In 1898, there was an effort to bring Goya’s body back to Spain from Bordeaux.  But when the body was exhumed, the head was missing, making it impossible to examine the temporal bones and other head and neck issues that would shed light on the cause of his deafness.  When Goya died, the study of Phrenology, which looks at various head shapes and bumps on the skull to determine traits, was popular.  It is speculated that Goya’s head was stolen to study the bumps.  Study of his temporal bones would have been substantially more fruitful.

  1. Very interesting discussion of Francisco Goya. As an oil painter, I am grateful to modern, safe oil paints and other painting materials! It seems likely Goya’s illness may have been lead poisoning. Perhaps he suffered from two of the illnesses described. Thankfully, Mr. Goya left us with many beautiful and dramatic works before his death.

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