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1Goya was born on March 30, 1746, in Aragon, in the village of Fuendetodos, near Zaragoza. His father was a gilder and his mother came from a family of landowners. Little is known about his youth, which was greatly romanticized during the nineteenth century, other than the fact that during his childhood he formed a friendship with Martín Zapater, with whom he would continue to correspond for the rest of his life. Several biographies have been written based on this correspondence [4, 7]. Goya began his apprenticeship as a painter at the age of 13 [16]. In 1763, he was unsuccessful in the competition held by the Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando in Madrid. In 1771, at the age of 25, he took part in academic competitions in Italy [7]. After returning to Zaragoza, he soon found success. In 1773, he married Josefa Bayeu, the sister of his friend Francisco Bayeu, a fellow painter. Their first son was born in 1774 but died in infancy, like the majority of his six brothers and sisters [4]. Only Goya’s son Javier, born in 1784, survived into adulthood.

2Goya gradually established himself in the intellectual and artistic circles of the time, notably in the liberal circles influenced by the Enlightenment [19]. His success grew and, in 1779, he was appointed as a painter to the royal court [7]. In 1780, he was admitted to the Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando, and he was named its deputy director in 1785. In 1786, he was appointed painter to King Charles III, a monarch hailed as an enlightened reformer. In 1789, after the death of Charles III, he was named court painter to King Charles IV. In 1795, he became the director of the Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando. That same year, he met the Duchess of Alba, whom he painted on several occasions. He formed a special relationship with her, though it is unclear whether they were lovers. There are no documents or accounts from the time to provide evidence of an affair, though this has been suggested by certain romantic authors [16]. In 1799, Goya attained the highest artistic position of first court painter.

3From 1808 to 1813, the French army occupied Spain. Goya, profoundly affected by the violence and abuses stemming from the conflict, created the Disasters of War series. In 1814, Ferdinand VII returned from exile and soon revealed himself to be a tyrant. Absolute monarchy and the Inquisition were reestablished [17]. Like many liberals, Goya was forced into exile. In 1824, he took up residence in Bordeaux, with his companion Leocadia Weiss, at the home of his friend Moratín, along with a group of friends who had also been exiled. He died there in 1828 at the age of 82.

Depression in Goya’s life

Physical illness

4No health problems are reported in Goya’s correspondence until the age of 46. In late 1792, on a trip to Andalusia, he was struck by a severe illness, characterized by disabling tinnitus: he reported continual rumbling and ringing sensations in his head, accompanied by vertigo, sudden loss of vision, fever, abdominal pain, nausea, and faintness [11, 16, 27]. It took him several months to recover, but he was left with total and definitive hearing loss [29]. He was unable to work during his illness. This episode remains mysterious and controversial, particularly as all the information about it is derived solely from Goya’s correspondence or that of his friends. The descriptions of it lack detail, and there is no medical description available from the time [29]. Retrospectively, many different diagnoses have been suggested: polio, bacterial meningitis, syphilitic meningitis, lead poisoning, epilepsy, Ménière’s disease, stroke, vasculitis, Vogt-Koyanagi-Harada disease, and Cogan syndrome [9, 11, 16, 27, 29, 40].


5This bout of illness was followed by a depression that lasted several months [1, 2, 16, 29]. Little is known about this depression, other than that it was clearly related to the duration of the physical illness, the resulting deafness, and vertigo. Goya wrote of his emotional state during his recuperation: “I am still the same, in terms of my health, sometimes I feel angry, in a mood that I cannot stand myself, and sometimes I feel calmer” [4, 16].

6A second depressive episode occurred toward the end of his life in 1819, at the age of 73, after another bout of physical illness about which little is known. An epidemic prevalent in Spain at the time, probably yellow fever, may have been the cause [29]. In 1820, Goya painted himself as a patient with his doctor, Dr. Arrieta, to whom he dedicated the painting, which is currently in the collection of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts: “Goya gives thanks to his friend Arrieta for the expert care with which he saved his life from an acute and dangerous illness which he suffered at the close of the year 1819” [27].

Depression in Goya’s work

7What impact did depression have on Goya’s work? As observed in relation to other artists under similar circumstances, his artistic output, which had been intense, markedly decreased during the depressive episodes of 1792–1793 and 1819 [34] and was slow to pick up again afterward. All of Goya’s biographers highlight the changes in his work after the episode of 1792–1793, notably in the Caprichos etchings, and after the episode of 1819–1820, in particular in the Black Paintings. In terms of form, his color scheme was clearly darker than before the onset of the depressive episodes [7, 16, 25, 27, 29], while in terms of content, the gaiety and lightness that had characterized many of his paintings until that point disappeared after 1792, when the subjects of his work became more serious.

8Many biographers have suggested that the agonies of his illness, his proximity to death, and his loss of hearing made Goya more sensitive to the cruelty of the world and the vanity of existence [7, 16, 17]. Richard Hughes, for example, highlights that his view of the world was more detached, sharper, more cutting, and more subversive, and his view of his contemporaries more savage after 1792 [16]. Malraux wrote that Goya was “brutally sensitive to the demons recognized at first sight by the shared anguish of men: not only torture, but humiliation, nightmare, rape, and prison” [24]. The Caprichos etchings and the Black Paintings, produced after the two depressive episodes—never presented in public during his lifetime—are particularly characteristic of these changes.

Los Caprichos

9Los Caprichos, produced between 1793 and 1798, are a series of 80 etchings [17]. Goya withdrew them from sale two days after their publication, as a result of threats from the Inquisition, due to the violently anticlerical nature of some of the etchings. With Los Caprichos, Goya presents an acute satire of human mores, customs, characters, and relations, notably through the depiction of vices and characteristics such as greed, vanity, stupidity, cruelty, and charlatanism. As Baudelaire described them, “Goya caricatures monks yawning, monks gorging themselves, blockhead assassins preparing for matins, their crafty, hypocritical, thin, mean features like birds of prey in profile” [5]. These etchings express concerns about life, death, love, sexuality, and despair beyond the usual conventions of social satire, such as that of William Hogarth, whose engravings were widely available in Europe at the time and influenced Goya. When Los Caprichos were published, the Diario de Madrid announced: “The artist, persuaded that the censure of human errors and vices may also be the object of painting, has chosen as appropriate subjects for his work, among the multitude of extravagances and follies which are common throughout civilized society, and among vulgar prejudices and frauds rooted in custom, ignorance, or interest, those which he has believed to be most apt to provide an occasion for ridicule and at the same time to exercise his imagination” [17].

10The first plate, The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters, is typical of the series. It shows a man sitting in the dark, overwhelmed. He is surrounded by nightmarish bats and owls, as if the artist wanted to represent the agony of his soul. This plate is usually interpreted as a figure of melancholy, but it more likely represents the obscurantist forces liberated by the withdrawal of the critical spirit and should be understood as an allegory of the Enlightenment spirit [7, 17]. Goya wrote in relation to this: “Imagination deserted by reason creates impossible, useless thoughts. United with reason, imagination is the mother of all art and the source of all its beauty.” Several authors have understood it in this sense, including Lacan, who wrote in the introduction to “Seminar on the Purloined Letter”: “It is because Freud does not compromise regarding the original quality of his experience that we see him constrained to evoke therein an element that governs it from beyond life—an element he calls the death instinct. The indication that Freud gives here to those who call themselves his followers can only scandalize people in whom the sleep of reason is sustained by the monsters it produces, to borrow Goya’s pithy formulation” [22].

The Black Paintings (Pinturas negras)

11Goya produced the Black Paintings between 1820 and 1823, before he emigrated to France. He painted them on the walls of the house he had bought in 1819 on the outskirts of Madrid, the “Deaf Man’s Villa” (Quinta del Sordo). Painted in total freedom, they were not designed to be seen beyond his circle of friends [17]. Currently on display in the Museo del Prado in Madrid, they are characterized by their dark color scheme, with bright colors almost entirely absent, other than the bright red of the blood of the child devoured by Saturn [7]. The Black Paintings are also characterized by their dark, troubling themes, particularly in the Witches’ Sabbath, The Holy Office (of the Inquisition), Fantastic Vision, Fight with Cudgels, Two Old Men Eating Soup, and the very well-known Saturn Devouring His Children, which depicts Cronos devouring his children because an oracle had told him they would one day take his place [7]. This last painting was used as the cover of Lacan’s Seminar IV, “The Object Relation,” though there is no explicit reference to it in the text; perhaps it should be seen as an allusion to the fear of being devoured (in relation to Little Hans) [21]. Some authors have seen Saturn Devouring His Children as an allegory of melancholy, the mother of arts and letters, as it was conceived of during Antiquity (particularly in the work of Aristotle and Hippocrates), in the Middle Ages, and during the Renaissance, in particular the allegory of the melancholy temperament characterized by the secretion of black bile, under the influence of the planet Saturn, as represented notably by Dürer and Cranach [25].


Controversy surrounding the illness of 1792

12The physical illness from which Goya suffered in 1792–1793 remains controversial, notably due to the lack of detail in the sources. The hypothesis of some kind of infection, proposed due to the frequent occurrence of epidemics at the time, cannot be verified retrospectively. Malaria in particular was endemic in Spain in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and therefore cannot be excluded as a possibility, but it is a recurrent disease. A systematic analysis of the Madrid Gazetta during the winter of 1792–1793 has found no reference to any epidemics [29]. Some authors have suggested that Goya had a neurological condition, in particular right hemiplegia, suggesting a stroke [37]. However, this information comes from the correspondence of one of Goya’s friends, who referred to a “state of paralysis and apoplexy” [29]. Yet, as all conditions affecting the head were referred to as apoplexy at the time, this provides little evidence to support the hypothesis of a stroke. The fact that Goya was a smoker, however, and that his death 35 years later was related to a stroke, does suggest a certain vulnerability to vascular disease. It should also be noted that depression is a common complication of strokes (between 19 and 36%, according to two meta-analyses looking at several thousand stroke patients), in particular severe strokes, especially when the functional disability is significant [12, 13, 31, 32]. The existence of depression after a stroke may be related to damage to the left hemisphere, in particular the frontal lobe and basal ganglia [31]. Vasculitis has also been suggested as a possible diagnosis for Goya, specifically a rare form resulting in focal occlusion of the retina, the cochlea, and the brain [29].

13Lead poisoning, suggested due to the high levels of lead in paint at the time [7, 26] is unlikely, given the artist’s lack of symptoms despite continued exposure to the substance after 1792 [29]. Other authors have posited the hypothesis of meningovascular syphilis, but the fact that Goya lived for a further 36 years, in full possession of his artistic abilities, rules out this diagnosis [16, 29]. The hypothesis of aggravated symptoms due to quinine poisoning has been suggested [29]. Quinine, in the form of a plant extract, was commonly used at the time to combat fever. Poisoning takes the form of vertigo, tinnitus, headaches, eye problems, fever, nausea, abdominal pain, and confusion: a clinical picture similar to Goya’s. There is however no argument to support the hypothesis of acute psychotic disorders, which have sometimes been suggested [23], as Goya’s presentation appears more to have resembled a confusional state with oneiric symptoms, as seen in a number of central nervous system disorders.

14The hypothesis of the onset of a systemic disease, suggested in the 1960s, appears more likely, in particular Vogt-Koyanagi-Harada disease, which was suggested by Cawthorne in 1962 [9, 42]. This uveomeningoencephalitic syndrome is an autoimmune disease characterized by damage to pigmented tissues, particularly affecting eyesight, hearing, and the central nervous system, primarily affecting adults between the ages of 20 and 50 [10, 36, 40]. The prodromal stage resembles a viral infection, while the established stage is characterized by feelings of dizziness, the onset of fever, headaches, nausea, abdominal pain, and neck stiffness. The remission stage is characterized by depigmentation of the parts of the body affected. The prognosis for sight is generally good. The impact on hearing, primarily characterized by tinnitus, is not generally as severe as the impact on sight, and deafness is not listed in the diagnostic criteria published by the international committee on this disease in 2001 [30]. Some cases of definitive hearing loss have however been described following the onset of Vogt-Koyanagi-Harada disease [9, 15, 38]. These symptoms are similar to those experienced by Goya, but the recurrent nature of this disease, which does not tally with the artist’s experience, and the lack of skin and skin appendage depigmentation run counter to this diagnosis [29]. Another rare systemic disease, Cogan syndrome, has also been suggested. Cogan syndrome is characterized by interstitial keratitis with vestibular and auditory disorders, in particular vertigo and tinnitus, along with definitive hearing loss in half of cases [29].

Are there any factors that may have triggered Goya’s depression?

15Several factors may have triggered the onset of Goya’s depressive episodes. His temporary loss of sight during the acute episode of 1792–1793 and the complete loss of hearing that followed are very likely to have triggered the onset of depression. This is common in subjects with hearing loss [41]. Other artists have also experienced depression following sensory problems, such as Monet after his difficulty with color perception, related to a cataract that progressed from 1912 until an operation in 1922, and Beethoven after he went deaf [29]. As such, a number of authors have suggested that depression is more common among artists than in the general population, in particular depression related to bipolar disorder [3, 28, 35, 39].

16It is also well established that many central nervous system disorders—in particular vascular disorders—and systemic diseases frequently lead to depression [12, 13, 31, 32].

The impact of depression on creation

17Reduced artistic output and a darker color scheme are common among painters with depression [3]. A good example of this is provided by Rembrandt, who, according to Joseph Schildkraut, experienced a prolonged episode of sadness, perhaps depression, after the death of his wife Saskia [34]. Schildkraut notes Rembrandt’s reduced output for several months, along with the dark color scheme of the few paintings and etchings he produced during this period, in particular the etching representing Saint Jerome in a dark chamber, on display at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston [34]. Reduced productivity is not of course specific to painters; it is found in all professional activities. The darker color scheme is however by nature specific to the visual arts [42].

Did Goya have bipolar disorder?

18Some, mainly Spanish, authors have suggested that Goya had bipolar disorder [1, 2, 18, 25]. For Francisco Alonso-Fernández, Goya’s mysterious illness in 1792 was initially a serious depression rather than a physical condition, and he refutes the proposed diagnoses of syphilis, encephalitis, and stroke [1, 2]. Alonso-Fernández also suggests that the depression Goya suffered in 1792–1793 was followed by a manic episode, and that the second period of depression, in 1819, was also followed by a creative mania during his time in Bordeaux (1824–1828).

19Based on Goya’s letters to his friend Zapater, Alonso-Fernández identifies three-yearly depressive cycles. He also notes the artist’s heightened emotional responsiveness and cyclothymic character, as well as a pyknic build [1, 2]. For Alonso-Fernández, the endogenous nature of the depression was particularly marked. Olga Martín Díaz also suggests that Goya had bipolar-type mood swings [25]. She also proposes the existence of depressive episodes in 1777–1778, 1780, 1781, 1784, and 1788, preceding two bipolar cycles from 1792 to 1798 and from 1820 to 1828. In particular, she observes that the depressive episodes were marked by a pronounced social withdrawal, but she does not specify the sources for this in her article [25].

20The hypothesis of Goya having bipolar disorder remains doubtful, however, as it is primarily based on the interpretation of the painter’s correspondence. There are no medical reports available from the time, and the reliability of retrospective diagnoses, established long after a subject’s death, remains weak. Alonso-Fernández also entirely overlooks the issue of the artist’s subsequent deafness, despite there being no doubt of its existence, and he rebuts the existence of physical disorders, despite these being highly likely.

21The hypothesis of bipolar disorder is however by no means incompatible with the existence of conditions affecting the central nervous system. Many cortical and subcortical lesions in the central nervous system (in the orbitofrontal cortex, inferior temporal cortex, caudate nuclei, and thalamus), in particular traumatic, vascular, tumoral, toxic, metabolic, infectious, or epilepsy-related lesions, can lead to bipolar disorder (secondary mania) in subjects with no history of mood disorders [6, 12, 20, 31–33].

Goya’s character

22Can evidence to support the hypothesis of Goya having bipolar disorder be found by examining hypothetical personality traits from the bipolar spectrum, in particular the existence of mania, as suggested by Alonso-Fernández? Goya’s biographers describe him as generous and enthusiastic, someone who had a deep love of life, was attentive and affectionate with children, liked to take risks, and engaged in numerous affairs [4, 16]. His contemporaries describe him as having an endearing, exceptional, surprising, sometimes adventurous, and daring personality. A lover of bullfighting and hunting, on one occasion he is said to have found himself in the arena. His adolescence has been described as troubled because he wrote in his correspondence with Zapater that “during their youth [they were] rascals and should make amends” [4]. He is said to have been involved in several duels, but his life was romanticized by nineteenth-century biographers. Goya told his friend, the poet Moratín, that at one time he was able to fight bulls and “that with a sword in hand, he feared no one” [4], but there is no third-party testimony able to corroborate his claims. Goya’s reputation as a fighter is not in fact established.

23Beyond the episodes of 1792–1793 and 1819, Goya’s life was remarkable in its professional and financial stability. His artistic productivity was intense and regular throughout his life (700 paintings, 300 etchings, and 900 drawings), except during the depressive episodes and following the death of the Duchess of Alba [14]. According to his correspondence with his son, he could produce a painting in a single sitting, sometimes working for up to ten hours at a time [16]. Goya earned a great deal of money and did not like to incur debts [4], which does not fit the picture of bipolar disorder. He willingly sought advice from his friend Zapater, an astute businessman, about the best way to invest his money. Goya was also stable in terms of residence, for example living on the Calle del Desengaño in Madrid from 1779 to 1824. His adaptability is recognized by all his biographers. During his dazzling social ascent, he became close to powerful men while retaining total independence of spirit. Even at the height of his fame, he did not forget his origins and was sensitive to the suffering of the weak, often depicting them in his paintings, including in prison or mental asylum scenes. He also appears to have overcome the trials he faced over the course of his life, in particular the deaths of six children in early infancy, of his wife in 1812, and of the Duchess of Alba in 1802, although following the latter’s death he does appear to have gone several months without painting.

24This emotional and behavioral stability, described in his biographies, does not fit with the existence of a bipolar mood disorder. While some of his character traits may be compatible with a certain level of mania, they can hardly be called pathological: neither these nor the possible mood swings described by Alonso-Fernández and Martín Díaz resulted in suffering on the part of Goya or those close to him, other than during the episodes of 1792 and 1819. Beyond his depressive episodes, on the scale from normal to pathological, Goya appears to have been closer to normal than pathological.

Creation and resilience: The Disasters of War

25Another element potentially suggestive of bipolar disorder is the caustic quality that was a constant presence in Goya’s work. This causticity was directed in particular against all forms of authority, notably the Church and absolute monarchy. Baudelaire was astonished that Goya, “this hater of monks, could dream so much of witches, sabbaths, devilry, children cooked on the spit” [5]. But Goya’s caustic gaze was clearly directed at all forms of prejudice and both religious and pagan superstition, as José Cabanis highlights: “emptied of all religion, the world teeming with instincts finds its pleasure in violence, cruelty, sex, and torture” [8].

26Yet here again this caustic quality clearly remained on the normal end of the scale, and it was generally linked to the political and military context of the time. It can be found outside the episodes of mood swings described by Alonso-Fernández and Martín Díaz: for example in the 82 etchings in the Disasters of War series, produced between 1810 and 1815 and published in 1863, illustrating episodes of the war between Spanish partisans and French troops during Napoleon’s invasion of Spain in 1808 [17]. They represent the most indefensible aspects of war: scenes of torture, rape, pillage, and dead bodies left strewn on the ground, as seen by the artist: “yo lo vi,” as he said himself. Paul Morand describes them as depicting “squalid murders, peasants sitting on their victims and bleeding them like pigs, hussars dragging women by their hair, a sinister mob of soldiers tugging on the hanged by the feet, brawls between stupefied dragoons and skewering shrews, girls taken against their will under dark vaults, injured men thrown from windows like sacks, vile stonings, perverse slashings, corpses cut up, profaned, and defaced, the disorder of torn puppets, the dismemberment of butchers.” Clearly, the Disasters of War are a lucid account of the events of the time and cannot be attributed to any kind of pathology. Perhaps these etchings enabled Goya to overcome an unbearable reality, as Schildkraut has observed of other artists [35]. In the same way, Los Caprichos and the Black Paintings enabled him to sublimate his pessimistic view of the world after his illness. Unless, as Malraux suggests, “he discovered his genius the day he dared to stop pleasing” [24].


27Goya experienced at least two documented depressive episodes, in 1792–1793 and in 1819. The impact of depression on his work can be seen in his reduced creative output. Depression was also reflected in his darker color scheme and the serious themes of some of his paintings and etchings, in contrast with the gaiety and abundance of colors in the paintings produced prior to the depressive episodes. The evidence to support the hypothesis of bipolar disorder, proposed by a number of authors, is insufficiently convincing. The mania, caustic quality, and mood swings attributed to the artist appear to have been within normal limits and do not, in any case, appear to have resulted in harmful consequences for him or those close to him. Only the episodes of 1792 and 1819 were pathological and appear to have been secondary to physical conditions [22].


The painter Francisco de Goya y Lucientes suffered two severe depressive episodes in his life, one in 1792, at the age of 46, after a severe illness that left him totally deaf, and the other in 1819, at the age of 73. These depressions were marked by a slackening of his creative activity and a darkening in his color schemes. After these depressive episodes, his works contained more serious themes than previously, particularly in the Caprichos series, a satire on life, death, love, vanity, greed, stupidity, cruelty, and sexuality, and also in his cycle of Black Paintings. Certain authors have brought up the possibility of a bipolar disorder, but this hypothesis has little to back it up.

  • Goya
  • art and psychiatry
  • artistic creation
  • depression

La dépression dans la vie et l’œuvre de Goya (1746-1828)

Le peintre Francisco Goya y Lucientes a présenté deux épisodes dépressifs sévères au cours de sa vie. L’un est survenu en 1792, à l’âge de 46 ans, après une maladie grave qui lui a laissé comme séquelles une surdité totale. L’autre est survenu en 1819, à l’âge de 73 ans. Ces épisodes ont été marqués par la raréfaction de son activité créatrice et par l’assombrissement des couleurs. Après les épisodes dépressifs, les œuvres étaient caractérisées par des thèmes plus graves qu’auparavant, en particulier dans la série des Caprices, satire autour de la vie, la mort, l’amour, la vanité, la cupidité, la sottise, la cruauté et la sexualité ainsi que dans le cycle des peintures noires. Certains auteurs ont évoqué l’existence d’un trouble bipolaire, mais cette hypothèse reste peu argumentée.

  • Goya
  • art et psychiatrie
  • création artistique
  • dépression

La depresión en la vida y la obra de Goya (1746-1828)

El pintor Francisco de Goya y Lucientes presentó dos episodios depresivos severos durante su vida. Uno sobrevino en 1792, a la edad de cuarenta y seis años, después de una enfermedad grave que le dejó como secuela una sordera total. El otro sobrevino en 1819, a la edad de setenta y tres años. Estos episodios estuvieron marcados por la disminución de su actividad creadora y por el oscurecimiento de los colores. Después de los episodios depresivos las obras estaban caracterizadas por temas más graves que antes, en particular en la serie de los Caprichos, sátira sobre la vida, la muerte, el amor, la vanidad, la codicia, la necedad, la crueldad y la sexualidad, así como en el ciclo de las pinturas negras. Algunos autores han evocado la existencia de un trastorno bipolar, pero esta hipótesis está poco argumentada.

  • Goya
  • arte y psiquiatría
  • creación artística
  • depresión


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Alain Dervaux
Psychiatrist at the Sainte-Anne Hospital.
Addiction Department, Sainte-Anne Hospital, 1 rue Cabanis, 75014 Paris
Uploaded on on 14/12/2021
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