Doctors don’t feature much in art. True, the walls of royal colleges record changing fashions in portraiture, and wealthy society doctors like to commission pictures of themselves. Satirists like Hogarth have lampooned the quacks and moody Scandinavians included them as bit players in deathbed scenes. But only rarely does a picture featuring a doctor command our attention.
In his seventies, deaf and widowed, Francisco Goya was living at Quinta del Sordo (the Deaf Man’s Farmhouse) near Madrid and covering its walls with his nightmare visions. Now known now as the black paintings, they hang today in the Prado in Madrid. He fell ill and was attended by his friend Dr Eugenio García Arrieta. He recovered, and the next year painted ‘Goya curado por el doctor Arrieta’ (‘Goya cured by Doctor Arrieta’) as a thank-you for his friend.
Goya’s self-portrait shows how ill he was. His skin is grey, his eyes sunken, his jaw slack. He plucks at the sheets. Behind the two men other faces are faintly visible; perhaps Goya is hallucinating. He has no strength. Arrieta, his arm round the painter, props him up and urges him to drink. The liquid in the glass is brownish. Is it medicine, or perhaps wine which may well have been a safer fluid to take than water? The doctor’s expression is intense; he has his eyes on the glass as he lifts it to Goya’s lips. At this moment he is not permitting himself to yield to sorrow.
Arrieta was not the sort of quack that Goya himself mercilessly satirised in his aquatints Los Caprichos. He had apparently made a study of plague* and if so we can perhaps assume that he was a physician who made the best of his medical knowledge. In his dedication at the bottom of the painting Goya says his illness was ‘acute and dangerous’ and both men must have known that the painter, already 73, would in all probability succumb. In the inscription Goya acknowledges that his friend’s skill and care saved his life.
Some see in Arrieta’s face the benevolence of friendship, but I think that his expression conveys his anxiety for his patient’s life, his fear that he cannot save him. The patient must take some fluids and he is intent on getting him to drink. But the doctor’s anxiety is also that of a man whose friend is close to death. I think his compassion is shown not in his face but in his posture. He is physically and emotionally supporting the sick man. For the patient’s sake he must tread the line between professionalism and friendship, and Goya’s recovery is a testament to Arrieta’s success in finding that delicate balance.
‘Self portrait with Dr Arrieta’, also known as ‘Goya curado por el doctor Arrieta’ painted in 1820 by Francisco de Goya y Lucientes (1746-1828), Minneapolis Institute of the Arts
* Robert Hughes Goya 2003 Vintage 0 099 45368 1
First published in NASGP Newsletter 'The Sessional GP' August/September 2006
Judith Harvey was a research scientist, ran the VSO programme in Papua New Guinea and taught in a Liverpool comprehensive school before going to medical school. She has been a partner, a salaried GP and a locum, an LMC chair and a long-time supporter NASGP. Her charity, Cuba Medical Link, enables medical students to go to Cuba for their electives.
Judith has now published all her articles from the NASGP website as a new book Perspectives: A GP reflects on medical practice and, well, just about everything…