Object of the Month: Goya and the Medical Profession

8 September 2011

 Francisco José de Goya, 'Of What Ill Will He Die?'. Wellcome Images
[object Object]

Francisco José de Goya, 'Of What Ill Will He Die?'. Wellcome Images

What kind of doctor would be portrayed as a donkey? William Birnie investigates a curiously satirical Goya etching on display in our Medicine Man gallery.

Throughout his career Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes (1746-1828), who is regarded as the most important Spanish romantic painter and printmaker of his time, moved from the insouciant to the deeply pessimistic in his paintings, drawings, etchings and frescoes. The Goya etching housed in our Medicine Man gallery, entitled De Que Mal Morira? (Of What Ill Will He Die?) is part of a set of eighty such prints which attacks human vanity. They were first published in 1799.

This series of graphic images, entitled Los Caprichos, meaning whim, caprice or fancy, is extremely influential in the history of Western art and was itself influenced by Enlightenment thought, created during a time of social repression and economic crisis in Spain. In order for progress to be made and for humanity to advance, Goya believed the chains of backwardness had to be broken, and Los Caprichos encapsulates his attempts to analyse the human condition and his ambivalence toward authority and the church. In the words of the artist himself, Los Caprichos displays “the innumerable foibles and follies to be found in any civilized society … the common prejudices and deceitful practices which custom, ignorance and self interest have made usual”.

Themes dealt with in the etchings include the corruption of the nobility, witchcraft, child rearing and avarice, with a varied cast of characters comprising goblins, monks, aristocrats, prostitutes and animals acting like human fools. The donkey, acting the roles of wicked, pompous or foolish human beings, is particularly prevalent and appears in six etchings.

A prominent belief during the Enlightenment was the faith in the progress and perfectibility of society with the help of science and technology. Happiness would be promoted if physical health was protected and restored, and with this came a general ‘medicalized society’ reliant on the employment of professionals who could deal expertly with health related problems. This meant all others in the popular sector claiming healing roles were to be dismissed as quacks, an obstacle to progress.

Los Caprichos takes place in a world on the margins of reason, heading towards fantasy and it is a discerning statement of man’s bad habits, eccentricities and madness. In De Que Mal Morira? (Of What Illness Will He Die?) the recumbent man is attended by two shadowed figures and his physician who is characterised as a fashionably attired ass. The ass is searching for his patient’s pulse, while displaying a garishly large gem on his hoof. Goya denounces vice using satire, yet denied all intention of personalities in his work; subjects were chosen which best highlighted the hypocrisies of the day and exposed them to ridicule. Goya himself said in an advertisement from 1799: “In none of the compositions which form part of this collection has the author proposed to ridicule the particular defects of any one individual…”

This particular etching is satirising the maladroitness and self-posturing of the medical profession, as the patient is clearly dead, yet the ass physician continues to check for a pulse. Goya is suggesting that the treatment given by ignorant doctors may be just as dangerous, if not more so, than the illness from which the patient is suffering, and that perhaps the patient knows his own constitution best. This was a view shared by Arnulfe d’Aumont, a French physician who wrote an article on the subject for Diderot’s Encyclopédie, and stated: ‘There does not exist a definition of health applicable to everyone, each has his own state of wellbeing.’

Anxiety and nightmares are depicted in the series, showing a society going to ruin. One print shows donkeys riding on the backs of the hard-working poor, while another shows a donkey teacher reading from a book to a donkey pupil; the implication being that the pantomime will persist if we continue to believe in the fallacies of earlier generations. In Enlightenment ideology, self-sufficiency in treatment based on superstition or lack of knowledge was displaced by a new dependency on qualified physicians and surgeons. It was this medical elite, with superior knowledge about bodily processes in health and sickness, that took on an increasingly prominent role in European society.

The world of unreason in which Los Caprichos takes place runs counter to the ordered reality which thinkers in the 18th century believed to contain an underlying pattern, giving rational knowledge as to how the body worked. The physicians, under considerable pressure to apply all known measures for the benefit of their patients, often wealthy patrons, had to rationalise the causes and manifestations of disease in line with contemporary thought shared by the educated elite. This in turn helped to firm up the bonds between healers and patients.

Goya is deriding these physicians who employed traditional remedies by linking them rationally to their new theories, giving an old therapy new logic and authority: treatments, as evident in this etching, that were often of dubious efficacy. The lack of sound knowledge, augmented by physicians dependent on house calls, rather than hospitals, in order to further understand illness, led many physicians to focus purely on their patient’s most obvious symptoms and the need to impress their  patients with heroic measures such as bleeding. It is perhaps this over eagerness on the behalf of the ass physician that Goya is so scathing of in his work.

Willian Birnie is a Visitor Service Assistant at Wellcome Collection. You can contact him at W.Birnie@wellcome.ac.uk.