On Goya's La familia de Carlos IV
When Goya painted his dazzling and disturbing
masterpiece, "The Family of Carlos IV," he put himself at his easel into the
background of the canvas, indicating great self-assurance on the face of it and, perhaps,
some thought that the bizarre courtly group needed an intelligent, down-to-earth face as
counterpoint. Goya belongs in the picture, for this critical age of Spanish history cannot
be discussed apart from a man who is considered by many to be Spain's greatest artist, a
man who certainly must be considered in the company of El Greco, Velazquez, and Picasso.
Our idea today of the look of Carlos IV, Maria Luisa, and Godoy is almost entirely Goya's.
Our visual perception of Spain's nonroyal problems and potentials at the turn of the
eighteenth century is largely Goya's, too.
In 1799 Goya was appointed first court painter at a salary of 50,000 reales with a grant of 500 ducats for the maintenance of his carriage. The next year Goya made several trips to Aranjuez to do sketches from the life of the Bourbons there and soon after produced the huge canvas known as "The Family of Carlos IV." This group portrait is arresting and disquieting as random figures are "pinned like great insects to the neutral ground," suggesting "a closed world without escape and with just enough air to breathe." The assemblage is glittering in their medals, jewels, silks, and velvets, but they stand like puppets. "The faces are neither beautiful nor ugly, only 'real' which means terrifying in their intense reality." The straightforward characterization suggests degeneration.
The dominant, almost floodlit figure is that of Queen Maria Luisa, then forty-eight, who fixes the observer with a relentless gaze. Her face is wasted, her mouth agape, but her bosom almost seems to heave, and one can read into her brilliant eyes all one knows about her lusts. The figure of the king is slightly thrust forward, a George Washington type in white-wigged, stoutish dignity, a Louis XVI type in his benign bewilderment.
Other than the centrally placed monarchs, the group includes from left to right Bourbons of varying notoriety or colorlessness. The hard-looking Infante Don Carlos, aged twelve, was to be responsible for plunging Spain into three civil wars over the succession in the next century. His sixteen-year-old brother, the Prince of the Asturias, stands foremost in the picture, his posture ungainly, his look intense and moody; his destiny is to be the cruelest of the Bourbons as Fernando VII. In the background peers out the misshapen, befuddled face of the Infanta Maria Josefa, the deformed daughter of Carlos III. Next appears a young woman's figure with her face turned away: she was probably a Neapolitan Bourbon, Fernando's bride-to-be, whose looks were unknown in Spain. The most appealing personalities are the two delicate-looking children held by the queen on either side of her: the Infanta Maria Isabel, aged eleven, a future Queen of the Two Sicilies; and the Infante Francisco de Paula, six, father of a future King-Consort of Spain. These two children were commonly believed to have been fathered by Godoy.
Behind the king is his uncle the Infante Don Antonio, flabby, cunning-looking, but actually a silly-minded bigot. Next peeps out the bloated face only of Carlos IV's eldest daughter, the Infanta Carlota Joaquina, twenty-five and already Queen of Portugal. Hunchbacked as a result of a hunting accident, this infanta was described as a "riot of malformation" and disgusting hideousness, all of which did not prevent her from being even more brazenly oversexed than her mother. The tallest figure in the group is that of a cousin, Don Luis, Prince of Parma, blond and dazed-looking, dead in a few years at the age of thirty. Next to him, the last person portrayed is his wife, the Infanta Maria Luisa Josefa, who holds in her arms the infant Don Carlos Luis, briefly to reign as King of Etruria and lengthily to ponder it, dying only in 1883.
Much has been written to suggest that "The Family of Carlos IV" is some sort of caricature of the Bourbon family or at least some sort of devastating prediction. "It seems in this picture" that Goya "is making his own pitiless appraisal and behind the puppets decked in gold has an intuition of the final catastrophe." Yet the queen in one of her letters to Godoy pronounced it "the best of all paintings," and the other Bourbons who posed for Goya were all pleased. Nonetheless, this was the last Royal commission for Goya from the king and queen. A possible explanation is that the monarchs became increasingly upset by the background wall painting which partially frames Maria Luisa's head. A recent cleaning of this area of Goya's canvas reveals a scene of lechery, perhaps the Biblical story of Lot and his daughters, in which Goya could be saying something about Sodom and Gomorrah.
From John D. Bergamini, The Spanish Bourbons, pp.110-1, 113-4.