Self-Portrait with Doctor Arrieta, Oil on canvas, 45½” x 30⅛”
My idea when I started this blog was to deal only with the things that appear within a painting without regard to the circumstances in which the painting was created, or where the world’s opinion lay as to what the painting might mean. It was simply about observing and leaving it to others to draw conclusions. Sadly, that has proven impractical over time for a few reasons.
We presume that the web is our answer to everything, that if we need something it will be there. But the internet is not infallible, particularly when it comes to the visual image. Color reproduction varies wildly and only rarely intersects with the painting itself as seen in the museum. Further, unless there is an excellent high definition image available, it is easy to lose important details in a painting. So I veer back and forth between my original plan and whatever other thing this is turning out to be.
That said, the idea of why I choose what I choose came up when my wife asked what I would like for my own personal collection. She knew that I select pictures here for their storytelling potential, for the discovery, but that they are not necessarily my first picks to decorate my office. So I got out my oversized art textbook and said these are the ones I want.
This painting is the first one I showed her, and she was more than a little surprised. It is not a painting she would ever want to see hanging in the house. Never mind. It is certainly in my top five.
Goya was born in Spain in 1746 and died in 1828 at the age of 82. He lived in a time that pulsed with the passion and foment of political change. Everywhere, mankind was formally shrugging free of the chains of monarchy in favor of democratic self-determination. One of the side effects of change was the introduction of a kind of blunt honesty within the arts. Goya was a formal court painter, his living tied directly to the patronage of the royal family. Yet his famous painting of Charles IV of Spain and his Family, 1800, made no attempt to flatter its subjects. (The Wikipedia page on Goya quotes Gautier as saying it looks like a picture of the “corner baker and his wife after they won the lottery.”) It took incredible bravery (or incredible chutzpah) to do that and get away with it in those days. Indeed, much of his work is satirical and courageous. For a court painter, he was quite the activist, and this did cost him by the time Ferdinand VII was on the throne. But it takes a very simple and somewhat juvenile kind of bravery to play the gadfly in the political sphere. It does not compare to the personal courage and sacrifice shown in this single self-portrait.
Goya painted this as a gift to his doctor who had got him through a rough patch in which he very nearly died. At the bottom of the canvas is a long inscription in Spanish which is translated thus: 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 when he was seventy-three years old. He painted it in 1820.
We live in a visual age. We are used to seeing countless thousands of all kinds of human conditions and never think twice about them. Goya did not. No one was taking snaps of him through his illness. There was no videotape. Think of yourself for a moment. Close your eyes and see yourself as a person. That first image that comes up is never really what you look like. It is someone younger, usually, and better looking, someone strong and capable. You can force yourself to see how you must have looked when you were ill, but it is difficult, and I’ll bet you subconsciously borrow images from television shows so that it seems authentic.
Without the benefit of Gray’s Anatomy it must have been much more difficult for Goya, but he nails it. This man is as sick as you can get and still make yourself respond. He has surrendered everything to the man behind him. The doctor is focused on what he’s doing, businesslike. He endeavors to make Goya drink his potion. Goya seems defeated, as wholly and completely vulnerable as a man can get; his fingers loosely clasp the sheets; his head leans back, away from the glass with his eyes closed. He seems to argue in favor of dying. But the doctor radiates vitality. His coat is a deep hunter green, a life color. The bed itself has a blanket of russet orange, a harvest color to suggest that we will yet be ripe when we emerge, we will still have a purpose.
Study the doctor’s posture again and he might almost be about to take the drink himself. No medicine, but a fine sherry to oil the wheels of the excellent tale he is about to whisper into Goya’s ear. “Tales are for living men,” he says. His arms hold the artist as if he is his boon companion. The doctor wills him well by treating him as if he were. It takes only a little imagination to see this doctor as Goya’s hero, his champion, his shield against the dark faces waiting in the background.
Many have speculated that during this period of Goya’s life, dementia gnawed at his awareness. This might help explain the grim watching figures behind the doctor, a stern panel of judges perhaps weighing the considerable sins of so great an artist. Goya is showing himself stripped of every defense, almost childlike in his willingness to accept whatever judgment we deliver. For a man of his stature, from a culture which places so high a value on formality and machismo, this is a stunning display of courage and generosity. This is all that I am, he says. All that I am, and even that I now owe to another. How very little we are worth in the end, and yet we still try to make a little something to live beyond us.
Yeah, I would own a print of this. However, I’m not altogether sure any of my walls are fit to display it.