The Family of Carlos IV hangs in a place of honor in Madrid’s Prado Museum. At first glance Goya’s painting doesn’t seem exceptional, just a bunch of self-satisfied people dressed in finery while having their group portrait painted. But if we look harder we can see what prompted Ernest Hemingway to call this painting a masterpiece of loathing.
Francisco Goya (1746-1828) held the position of First Painter to the King of Spain, and was his personal friend. In fact, the two liked to wrestle when prying eyes weren’t around. But Goya’s integrity as an artist compelled him to depict the king warts and all. Goya was an ill-mannered skirt chaser, a relentless social climber, and stone deaf. The artist also went through periods where a recurring illness rendered him insane. He couldn’t have been easy to get along with.
Spain’s most complicated artist has always captured the public’s imagination; we reject the notion of him as a rich courtier currying favors from nobility; instead we think of him as one of us, poking and prodding the establishment with his wit and genius. This was the guy who painted the famous Clothed Maja (lower class woman of mystery) along with the more famous naked version—the first female nude ever painted to show pubic hair. The nude version was hidden from the Inquisition behind a wall that spun around when a cord was pulled.
Goya was known to seduce married women and engage in swordfights and duels from time to time, and there were those bouts with insanity that would eventually set him on the path to artistic exploration heralding the birth of modern art.
In 1800 Goya was commissioned to paint the family of King Carlos IV. This was the last time Goya would paint for the royal family and it’s tempting to think the reason had to do with this remarkable painting, but not so. No one depicted in the painting ever registered a complaint. The truth—the royal family was too dimwitted to see what Goya had done. He’d peeled back the layers on this rotten onion to expose the stinking center; it’s as if Goya had decided to bury forever the concept of the divine right of kings. Goya seems to be saying: if this greedy grasping family has been elevated by God, then surely God doesn’t know what he’s doing.
An art critic once commented that this didn’t resemble nobility at all, claiming this looked more like the corner baker and his family dressed up after winning the lottery. An apt description, even though the man in the brown suit happens to be King of Spain. Showing off his mastery of brushwork, Goya whips up glorious silks and medals on the monarch’s chest, but the King’s face, bloated from a lifetime of excess and privilege, is piggish and stupid.
In this painting as in life, Carlos has been pushed aside by a legendary shrew, his overbearing wife Queen Maria Luisa of Parma, so unsightly she often made fun of her own ugliness. But she was proud of her plump arms, which Goya paints as if about to explode like overripe fruit. The little boy in the red suit is Maria Luisa’s youngest child, Infante Francisco. Francisco’s face is a dead ringer for that of Manuel de Godoy, Spain’s Prime Minister and Queen Maria Luisa’s not-so-secret lover.
On the left side of the composition a young man in pale blue struggles to conceal the Draco Malfoy sneer of someone who delighted in torturing small animals. He is Crown Prince Ferdinand who would one day reign as Ferdinand VII, arguably the worst king ever to sit on the throne of Spain. He insisted that Goya include his beautiful bride. Notice how the bride’s head is turned so you can’t make out her features. Why? Because there was no bride. The crown prince wasn’t even engaged at the time. He’s portrayed for all eternity standing beside a faceless woman.
Other interesting details can be found in this masterpiece, including Goya himself, lurking in the shadows while creating this very painting. The flashing blue diamond in the Queen’s headpiece is probably the diamond that disappeared from Versailles during the French Revolution—now in the Smithsonian and known as the Hope Diamond.
It’s said that when The Family of Carlos IV was finished, a friend of the artist saw the canvas and was so horrified at this depiction of the royal family that he feared Goya would be thrown in prison. Fortunately for us, the painting was never altered.
Goya had originally supported Napoleon, but disillusionment with the French emperor prompted him to turn his back on public life as he grew older. Instead, he channeled his tormented subconscious and created some of the most powerful art ever conceived. To this day, many of us still see Spain, the horrors of war, superstition and witchcraft through his eyes.
At the end of Goya’s life his country was controlled by the tyrant Ferdinand VII, depicted by Goya as a foul-faced boy years earlier. Goya had not supported Ferdinand’s rise to power, and was surprised when the new king confronted him with, “The only reason we don’t hang you is because we admire you so much.”
As it turned out, admiring Goya was the only thing Ferdinand VII ever did right.