Goya’s Self-Portrait with Dr. Arrieta

Francisco de Goya, Spanish (1746-1828)
Self-Portrait with Dr. Arrieta, 1820
Oil on canvas
Minneapolis Institute of Art

Goya created a famous print series called Los Caprichos_ (Caprices), made up of eighty scenes criticizing human behavior. This image he titled The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters.


Remember how you felt the last time you were sick? Perhaps your muscles were weak and aching. Maybe your mind was confused by feverish dreams. You might have slept for days.

That is how the old man here seems to feel. His sickly face is nearly as pale as the bedsheets. Ghostly heads hover behind his bed, like figures in a dream. He is too weak even to drink without help. The blackness of the room gives no clue whether it is day or night.

Fortunately, a younger, healthier man is by his side. This man’s skin has a healthy reddish glow. His arms are strong and his hands comforting. The ruby liquid in the glass he offers seems to promise that color, and life, will return to the man in bed.

The painter of this picture knew all too well how it felt to be sick because he was the man in bed. The younger man was his doctor, Eugenio García Arrieta. Francisco de Goya, Spain’s most famous painter of the time, painted the picture to thank Dr. Arrieta for saving his life.


Painter to the king

Francisco de Goya,
Charles IV of Spain and His Family,
Museo del Prado, Madrid

Goya painted this portrait of King Charles IV of Spain and his family. Charles IV was the second of three kings Goya served.
Francisco de Goya was one of Spain’s most famous painters. He got his start creating designs for tapestries to decorate the walls of royal palaces. Before long, he was named painter to the king. He served three rulers, painting many portraits of the royal family and other people he met at court.

Goya was known for the honesty of his portraits. He did not hesitate to show a person’s sags and wrinkles, even when he was painting the king. His careful observations also revealed a sitter’s personality and emotional life not always a flattering view. But as you can see here, he applied the same honesty to himself.

When he was seventy-three, Goya retired to a small house outside Madrid. Not long after that he fell seriously ill, and when he recovered he painted this picture. He lived for another eight years.


Picturing a world without reason

Goya had been seriously ill once before when he was forty-six years old. The illness affected his sight, hearing, and balance. He recovered after a few years but was completely deaf for the rest of his life.

While he was convalescing, Goya spent a lot of time reading. He grew passionate about ideas then sweeping Europe. Human affairs should be based on reason and science, not tradition or superstition, argued the philosophers of the Enlightenment. Their writings inspired revolutions in France and America and gave rise to modern ideas about democracy and equality.

Goya’s pictures especially his prints and drawings often showed the effects of a world without reason. He created scenes filled with madness, cruelty, and rude behavior. Many of them were inspired by the horrors of his time the invasion of Spain by French armies under Napoleon and the cruelty of the Spanish king Ferdinand VII. But other visions may reflect his own painful experiences of illness. Goya’s free use of fantasy and imagination had an important influence on later artists.


An act of kindness in a nightmarish world


Francisco de Goya,
Saturn Devouring His Son,
Museo del Prado, Madrid

This is one of fourteen horrifying murals Goya painted on the walls of his house around the time of his second illness.


By the time he was an old man, Goya had lost hope for the ideas of the Enlightenment. The French who had overthrown the Spanish king in 1808 turned out to be brutal themselves. The next king of Spain, Ferdinand VII, was even crueler than the kings who had ruled before him.

To Goya the world seemed a terrible place and human beings terrible creatures. Just before he fell sick again, Goya began painting horrifying figures on the walls of his new house. (Those murals, known as the Black Paintings, were later cut from the walls and taken to a museum.) His illness must have seemed yet another calamity.

Enter Dr. Arrieta, whose devoted care restored Goya to health. Around the time of Goya’s recovery, King Ferdinand was forced to accept a constitution limiting his power (unfortunately, he became an absolute ruler again just three years later). This picture can be seen as a simple gesture of thanks to Dr. Arrieta for saving Goya’s life. But it can also be seen as a statement of hope. Perhaps reason seen here in the form of Dr. Arrieta and the science of medicine could make the world a better place after all.

Related Activities

Thank-you Card

Who has made a difference in your life? Thank them in the way Goya thanked Dr. Arrieta with a portrait. Be sure to include yourself in it, too. At the bottom of the picture, write a statement explaining what the person you chose has done for you.

Goya Comes to Life

The makers of Goya’s Ghosts, a movie inspired by Goya’s life and paintings, re-created scenes from his paintings. Stage a short play of your own based on Goya’s Self-Portrait with Dr. Arrieta. Use the portrait to develop the characters and dialogue and prepare costumes.

Spain in the Age of Enlightenment

Goya saw dramatic political changes in his lifetime. Use the library or the Internet to find out more about Spain in the 18th and 19th centuries. How do you think Goya might have felt about the various events that occurred then? Write about them from his perspective in an imaginary diary.