Physical and psychological profile

Goya was a man of lively temperament and quick temper, devoted to painting and gifted with a portentous imagination

Francisco de Goya, painter (Caprichos)

Goya was of medium height with brown hair. He had a somewhat florid round face with dark eyes, a broad nose and wide mouth: Celtiberian features commonly found in Navarre, Aragon and La Rioja. His looks also reveal his Basque origins (the Goyas were from Cerain, Guipuzcoa). Although no physical analysis has been made of his mortal remains, the artist left ample documentation about himself through his self portraits.

More intimate knowledge of his character can be gleaned from an enormous amount of correspondence with the friend he first met at school in the Escuela Pias de Zaragoza, Martin Zapater y Claveria, a local government functionary and keen collector of his friend's work. This correspondence is nothing if not frank. On January 9th, 1779, after telling his friend about the the warm reception he received from King Charles IV and the Infantes (the future Charles IV and his wife Maria Luisa) to whom he showed some paintings, Goya talked about the ideal life, "But old friend, there's no greater pleasure than to be out in the country and living the good life, no one will change my mind about that, and even less so, now that I'm beginning to have ever more powerful and rancorous enemies". On 1st January 1786, then the Court painter, he told his friend about his ride in a new carriage, how it overturned, and how he hurt his leg as a result. He mentioned that he no longer had to kowtow to anybody and that he no longer had to look for clients, they came flocking to him for commissions. He was getting on in life as a good bourgeois citizen should. With characteristic honesty he writes on 25th April 1786, "I am greatly pleased that you approve of my thinking, and let us speak plainly, if one must live in this world so briefly, then one should live according to one's pleasures."

Goya had the lively temperament and quick temper that distinguish the Aragonese type within the Spanish gallery of regional characters. "When I remember painting and Saragossa, I burn alive," he confessed to Zapater when talking about the results of his work on the Regina Martyrum cupola in the Basilica del Pilar in Zaragoza. It was a temper that mellowed with the practice of his favourite pastime, hunting, an activity he participated in with the King and the Infante Luis de Bourbon, Goya's benefactor and brother of the King.

He was not particularly well educated, but his contact with the Court and the friends he made there, along with a tour of Italy (during which he learnt to speak Italian with some fluency) acted as something of a civilizing influence. His horizon of artistic images was in a state of constant expansion, a consequence of his eternal restlessness.

In 1792 he fell gravely ill while on a journey to Cadiz. One suggested explanation of this and other attacks of ill health has been saturnism, a type of poisoning caused by the almost daily handling of white lead. One consequence of his illness was an inability to communicate with others except by means of hand signals. This created a new set of visions of life: "To divert my mind from consideration of my ills, and to compensate for the grave damage that they have caused, I have dedicated my time to painting a series of cabinet paintings in which I have managed to make observations that are not normally encountered in commissioned works, and in which caprice and invention have no limits" (letter to Bernardo de Iriarte, 4.1.1794).

Goya wove together a private fantasy that led to the series of lithographs known as the Caprichos (1799) and then to other works of "caprice and invention." Then finally at the end of his life, well-off and almost retired, he was to create the Black paintings on the walls of his house in Madrid. These paintings have yet to be interpreted satisfactorily and may be an allegorical self-portrait (Saturn-Melancholia). The restlessness that drove him to continue to create and try out new techniques such as lithography never left him. His personality and sense of the fantastic ("The sleep of reason creates monsters") led him to extremes, to the edge. In his eighties, he reveals himself in a drawing (Museo del Prado, Madrid), like an ancient Methuselah, with the title from a motto attributed to Michelangelo, "Still learning".


Canellas, Ángel (ed.). Francisco de Goya : Diplomatario. Zaragoza, 1981.

Canellas, Ángel (ed.). Francisco de Goya : Diplomatario : Addenda. Zaragoza, 1991.

Ricardo Centellas

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