Family of Charles IV

One of the most famous paintings by Goya (1746 – 1828) — and a splendid example of how art paintings capture history – is his Family of Charles IV.  When he created this art painting in 1800, he was 54, had been deaf for seven years, and had recently been appointed first painter to the Spanish king, Charles IV.

The famous artwork of the Spanish Royal Collection were deeply influential on Goya.  One such influence is immediately apparent in The Family of Charles IV.

goya family of charles IV

Francisco Goya.  The Family of Charles IV, 1800.  Oil on canvas, 9′ 2″ by 11′.  Museo del Prado, Madrid.

While it initially seems odd that Goya includes his own portrait with his patrons’ (he’s in the shadows, laboring on a massive canvas), this portrait evokes Velazquez’s own portrait captured in one of his most famous art paintings, Las Meninas, the family of King Philip IV of Spain.

In the left foreground, resplendent in a blue, embroidered costume, is Ferdinand, Prince of the Asturias.  He was heir to the throne but nonetheless orchestrated a coup d’etat against his parents in 1808.  After the occupying French forces were ousted by the Duke of Wellington — some of the horror of this reign is captured in one of the most famous paintings by Goya,

Executions of the Third of May, 1808 —  Ferdinand assumed the throne and reigned as a despot.  Among his deplorable acts were eliminating free speech, and banishing liberals — including Goya, who fled in 1824 to Bordeaux, France, where he remained in exile until his death in 1828.

All of the court members are identifiable, with one notable exception – the woman to Ferdinand’s left, with her face averted, is a stand-in for his future, yet-to-be-determined wife. In the center of the canvas looms the queen, Maria Luisa.  Although Spain was a devoutly Roman Catholic country during these years, Maria Luisa and her paramour, the politican Manuel Godoy, essentially ruled Spain (with their illicit affair memorialized in this famous artwork). To Maria Luisa’s left is the king himself, who, despite lavish clothing laden with awards and jewelry, was a weak and ineffectual ruler.

Some art historians contend that this art painting is an expose of  Spain’s royal family, depicting them, Marilyn Stokstad notes, “as common, ugly, and inept.”  Stokstad counters, observing that the royal family approved his preliminary sketches.  Further, it seems highly unlikely that Goya would so publicly or permanently disparage his patrons.  “Don’t bit the hand that feeds you” was true even two centuries ago!

velazquez las meninas

Velazquez.  Las Meninas, 1656.  Oil on canvas. 10′ 7″ by 9′ .5″.  Museo del Prado, Madrid.


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