Susac's Syndrome, Goya's Alleged Disease

Goya may have had Susac's syndrome. This is because, from the age of 46, he displayed an irascible character and suffered deafness and hallucinations. In fact, this disorder could also mediate in the appearance of his darker and even dramatic pictorial style.
Susac's Syndrome, Goya's Alleged Disease
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by the psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 15 November, 2021

Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes was 46 years old when his life changed completely, as he may have been afflicted by Susac’s syndrome. His head was suddenly full of noise, confusion, and a certainty that he was losing his mind. He experienced some after-effects after two years of convalescence in Cadiz. Deafness was the most evident. Today, a series of investigations affirm that the origin of this condition wasn’t syphilis.

Coincidence or misfortune, what Goya experienced gave way to one of his most representative and productive pictorial periods: the Black Paintings. His paintings stopped being relaxing, detailed, and luminous. He crossed a threshold towards a more pessimistic and introspective universe after his illness, which blended with the historical period he lived in.

He had to leave the Real Academia de Bellas Artes of San Fernando due to deafness. Thus, the departure led to a work in which reality became deformed, dark, and even grotesque. His imagination and mastery knew no limits. According to current experts, the illness had nothing to do with venereal infections, the inhalation of chemical products in his paintings, or thrombosis.

Now, the hypothesis is that Francisco had Susac’s syndrome, an autoimmune disease that corresponds with the complex symptomatology experienced by this celebrated Aragonese.

“Fantasy, abandoned by reason, produces impossible monsters; united with it, she’s the mother of the arts and the origin of marvels.”

-Francisco de Goya-

"El Coloso" by Goya, may reflect Susac's syndrome.
The Colossus by Francisco de Goya

Susac’s Syndrome and Francisco de Goya

As the story goes, in 1819, Goya retired to a country house known as Quinta del Sordo. There, he began a series of murals that are now known as Black Paintings. He had already lost his hearing and also had certain vision problems, dizziness, and pronounced mood swings.

A few years ago, experts believed that his exposure to lead could have made him ill. This is because the white paint he used in his work contained a high amount of this component. You may not be aware of it but its frequent inhalation often leads to these symptoms. However, an interesting 2017 study revealed new information.

Dr. Rona Hertzano, from the University of Maryland in Baltimore, conducted it and New Scientist magazine published it. This study points out that Francisco de Goya had Susac’s syndrome. This ailment explains why his art became darker and grotesque.

What’s Susac’s syndrome?

This is a rare disease that originates in the central nervous system. It’s an immune disorder with a visible clinical triad:

  1. An encephalopathy.
  2. Visual problems.
  3. Hearing problems.

Its origin is a vascular problem, small infarcts in several arteries of the encephalon, the retina, and the inner ear. On average, it usually starts with recurrent migraines until the patient goes into a coma. Moreover, there are usually after-effects after they wake up from the coma, such as visual impairment, deafness, hallucinations, behavioral alterations, memory loss, etc.

Furthermore, it’s important to point out that Susac’s syndrome can be treated with corticosteroids.

Goya's self-portrait.

The disease may have enhanced Goya’s talent

A medical event known as the Historical Clinicopathological Conference is held every year. The goal is to challenge a scientist to diagnose the ailments of a famous historical patient. Some did it with Charles Darwin a few years ago and with Goya two years ago.

Dr. Hertzano gave evidence of the possible autoimmune disease of the painter, which would explain his deafness, the alterations in his character, the hallucinations, and the artistic style that shaped his Black Paintings. Once again, the presence of an illness seems to be the cause of the singular style that defines some artists.

An example of this is Vincent Van Gogh and his bipolar disorder and Edvard Munch and Emily Dickinson with their respective depressions. However, Susac’s syndrome wasn’t the exclusive cause of Goya drifting into a somber style. It was a combination of factors, such as the era in which he lived, for example.

The Spanish war, where executions and torture were common, where greed and emptiness were common, was quite in tune with the darkness he inhabited due to his deafness. This change in his style was avant-garde and unknowingly laid the foundations of contemporary painting. His illness could’ve been easily treated today without problems. However, perhaps the world wouldn’t have those works that are now universal pieces in history had Goya not been deaf.

Sometimes, the world is as it should be.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.