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The Worst "Selfie" Ever, or the Best?

August 18, 2017

We live in the age of the “selfie.” They’re everywhere on social media, and people are even buying selfie sticks so they can extend their reach and get better images of themselves. I-Phone cameras even have a key that reverses the camera to focus backwards, making it super easy to snap a picture of yourself.


The first selfies were, of course, self-portraits, with artists staring into mirrors as they captured their own likenesses. Self portraits served a purpose beyond vanity. Potential clients could study a self-portrait and compare it to the artist, and if the likeness and technique were deemed suitable a commission could result. Artists like Titian, Rubens and Rembrandt lavished attention on selfies, using them as business cards to flaunt their skill.


Goya has long captured the public’s imagination. His set of paintings, Clothed Maja (woman of the night) and Nude Maja— one of only two female nudes in the history of Spanish art—are world famous, and the myth that the artist had an affair with the flighty Duchess of Alba persists to this very day. Goya was the Hemingway of his time; virile, brash, lover of women, bullfights and excitement. He was ambitious and managed to land the position of First Painter to the King of Spain, a position that protected him when he came in conflict with the powerful Spanish Inquisition.


In 1792, Goya developed a sudden serious illness which included dizziness, weakness, delirium, abdominal pain, deafness, and partial blindness.By the time he returned to Madrid in 1793, Goya was completely deaf. Various diagnoses of this serious illness have been offered: syphilis, lead poisoning, cerebrovascular disease, acute infection of the central nervous system, and the rare condition of Vogt-Koyanagi-Harada syndrome—temporary inflammation of the uveal tract associated with permanent deafness.


In 1819 Goya had a second serious affliction. No information is available on the nature of the illness, and no record has been found outlining the treatment of his attending physician, Dr Arrieta. We only know of Goya’s last illness because of this painting. An inscription below the figures explains why Goya made the picture: “Goya, in gratitude to his friend Arrieta: for the compassion and care with which he saved his life during the acute and dangerous illness he suffered towards the end of the year 1819 in his seventy-third year.” He painted it in 1820.


This selfie is remarkable for a variety of reasons. This was not painted to show off Goya’s skill with a brush. The colors are somber, and Goya has not flattered himself. On the contrary, few artists have painted themselves in such a compromising situation. Goya looks about to give up the ghost as he clutches his bed sheets. Dr. Arrieta supports the artist and offers medicine. In the background, reminiscent of Goya’s famous Black Paintings, are ghoulish figures, including a priest.



Self-Portrait with Dr. Arrieta (1820)


The doctor’s treatments worked; Goya lived another eight years. This was probably his last self-portrait, a present for the friend who saved his life. I think it might be the most remarkable “selfie” ever.




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I love this story. Neve thought of these self portraits as old time "selfies", but you are absolutely correct!
By: Marcia @ Menopausal Mother on August 18, 2017
It is much better than any Kardashian selfie that's gotten millions of "likes."
By: PT Dilloway on August 18, 2017
If you had been my art history teacher I would have enjoyed the class. as it was, all I got was some guy pontificating about what the long dead artist meant by this or that painting. it was seriously boring.
By: Ellen Abbott on August 18, 2017
Love the story and the painting!
By: The Bug on August 18, 2017
Very touching story. You have a knack for relating what could so easily be dry facts, into terms we can understand in today's world.
By: Botanist on August 18, 2017
Selfies...self-portraits were business cards. How interesting.
By: Tabor on August 18, 2017
I never thought of the self portraits being a business card of sorts, it makes complete sense. Goya's last "selfie" is a nice work of art, it shows the respect that he had for his doctors skills in my opinion.
By: Jimmy on August 18, 2017
Wow. What a story. Thanks once again for sharing, Stephen. I really enjoyed this one.
By: Mr. Shife on August 18, 2017
A rich and informative post. I did not know of Goya's last self portrait. What a fascinating and gripping back story! I am eager to share this with artist friends. Thanks for another art adventure.
By: Tom Cochrun on August 18, 2017
He certainly was candid about how he looked when he was ill, and how grateful to his physician. We should all be so up front about ourselves.
By: messymimi on August 18, 2017
You could say this was a selfie with cause as he wanted to pay tribute to his care giver, but then other selfies have a cause too.
By: red Kline on August 18, 2017
That is impressive. The painting, and that the doctor helped him live another 8 years!
By: Val on August 18, 2017
Another great story and a great painting to go with it. Wow!
By: Catalyst on August 18, 2017
I can't believe I've never seen this painting. Thanks for sharing it and the fascinating story.
By: Mitchell is Moving on August 19, 2017
I never knew that about the self portraits but it makes perfect sense. That painting was amazing and thanks for the lesson on Goya's illness I had not heard of. I always learn here. .
By: Arkansas Patti on August 19, 2017
Secretive about his last illness, and no mention what may have been the doctor's remedy. Any clue's?
By: Daniel LaFrance on August 19, 2017
I learn so much here & I always enjoy it!!
By: fishducky on August 19, 2017
What a haunting "selfie." If I painted a self-portrait, it would be a stick figure. Love, Janie
By: Janie Junebug on August 19, 2017
Holy smokes- amazing self portrait and story.
By: Kathe W. on August 19, 2017
Art history with Professor Chatterbox is one of my favorite classes!
By: Pixel Peeper on August 19, 2017
As others have said, you make art history relatable and interesting. Thanks for another fine lesson.
By: jenny_o on August 19, 2017
And here I thought Goya was just used for the label on cans of beans!
By: Al Penwasser on August 20, 2017

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