Candid: Goya’s “Family of Charles IV”

Ah, the Spanish royal family portrait! Such a fine, well bred, distinguished lot, of immaculate sensibilities and refined countenance. Or…um, maybe not:

Goya's Portrait of the Family of Charles IV

No one in this family seems happy. And while the ginormous paintings on the wall and the clothing and jewels certainly indicate royalty, the expressions don’t really read that way to me.

detail from Goya's Portrait of the Family of Charles IV

Queen mum, dear oh dear, what are you thinking about? Why the sour twisted mouth? Are you not aware that you are having your picture painted? Ah! Or are you so disgusted at looking at yourself in the mirror that you try and turn your face and grimace? Cheer up! Your daughter looks lovely, even if in a daze, staring off into nowhere.

detail from Goya's Portrait of the Family of Charles IV

Perhaps she is thinking of fairies in a magic wood, the kind of place where the golden arrow in her hair would be imbued with magical properties. I bet she likes books. Escapism, yes, that’s the thing!

detail from Goya's Portrait of the Family of Charles IV

Senora, your son even manages to look straight ahead and not throw any tantrums. Um, at least, not tantrums our man Goya chooses to show. This remote heir to the throne does look quite timid, though, if I may say so. I’m glad he isn’t the next in line.detail from Goya's Portrait of the Family of Charles IV

Your Highness, your eyes are bit wonky. Is that an accurate depiction of you, or is the artist’s head about to roll? Oh, no guillotine in Spain? Just the torture chamber then? Hmm…maybe not. You seem a bit soft. More like a grandfather tuning out the hullaballoo than a powerful ruler contemplating his next strategic victory.

detail from Goya's Portrait of the Family of Charles IV

Ah! An admirable face, at last! It seems  you are trying to impress me—are you hoping to come across as the best candidate for the job? Would you like to be king? I thought so. detail from Goya's Portrait of the Family of Charles IV

You are too busy looking at the art to be captured in the art. And I love the dress, by the way. detail from Goya's Portrait of the Family of Charles IV

Uh, ma’am? What is that hideous brown smudge on your face? Is it the reason you look so cross? Or is it because you were positioned in the back, behind three people. Don’t they know in your venerable old age that you have great wisdom? No respect, I tell you!detail from Goya's Portrait of the Family of Charles IV

Morning, sir, are you alright? The woman next to you does seem concerned about something,is that is what is troubling you? Ah, now I see, you must be the king’s younger brother! You and that haggardly woman on the other side have a bit in common, it would seem, based on your spot in the back of the room. You do get to have your head right next to the King’s, though. It would be quite difficult to crop you out of his portrait. There’s some consolation, no?detail from Goya's Portrait of the Family of Charles IV

See, now? Not so bad after all, is it? detail from Goya's Portrait of the Family of Charles IV

Hiya. Nice to meet you. You seem present, upright, with it. You’re hoping to be king someday, too, eh? That’s what I thought. You have a lovely wife and child. detail from Goya's Portrait of the Family of Charles IV

Momma, did you not get much sleep last night? Who on earth decided that it would be a good idea to make you stand there for hours on end, on no sleep at all, and hold that baby. Especially while wearing your finest clothes. Don’t they understand spit up? And that one good pudgy-fingered yank on those pearls and they will scatter all across the floor? Sigh. No, no. Oh sure, the baby looks happy now. You weren’t the one up at two am, and three am, and five am…

detail from Goya's Portrait of the Family of Charles IV

You seem like a decent kid. Bravo on standing so still and straight to have your picture taken, er, I mean, painted.

Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes, really? You are going to insert yourself into the royal portrait, dear artist? And you may very well have the most flattering expression—confidence, focus, assuredness. Not bored or distracted or tired. You, though in shadows, are in control. Not the King. He is wishing he were elsewhere.

I like character I see in this group portrait; the people don’t all have the same heroically idealized look. I can see that these royals aren’t perfect: they have blemishes and ugly expressions and they daydream and get jealous. Yes, a true family likeness! A family portrait, not a royal portrait. This is a barefoot-chaos-oops-I-blinked candid snapshot, not the everyone-looks-like-a-magazine photoshopped composite.

I read several scholarly articles about this painting. It seems over time, art critics have differed in how to interpret this work by Francisco Goya. Many have looked at this and deemed Goya’s depictions of the royals to be unflattering, even going so far as to say that Goya was caricaturing the family of Charles the IV, and using his art to comment on their corruption and ineptitude, but that the royals were too ignorant to notice.

detail from Goya's Portrait of the Family of Charles IV

Elsewhere I read how Goya wasn’t commenting, he was just accurately depicting the way they looked. Our queen was ugly; her face just looked like that. Our hag had lupus, which causes facial lesions. Our mommy with baby is standing so stiff and straight because she has a spinal defect she is compensating for. (And they still made her pose holding that baby! Shame on them!)

In 1907, impressionist artist Pierre-Auguste Renoir said:

“Every artist puts something of himself into what he does, whether he wants to be a Realist or not. Look, take Velazquez and Goya, who were both of them Realists. But when Velazquez paints the members of the Royal family, they all become noblemen, because Velazquez himself was a nobleman. But Goya, when he painted the Royal Family-he made them look like a butcher’s family in their Sunday best, like savages, dressed up in gilded costumes with epaulettes. Everyone puts something of himself [into a painting]. What survives of the artist is the feeling which he gives by means of objects.”

detail from Goya's Portrait of the Family of Charles IV

Goya’s realism would have felt fresh and modern in 1800, with the family looking the way they actually appeared in real life. In fact, Goya performed ten individual portraits that were each separately approved in preparation for this group portrait, he then combined them into this frieze style arrangement on a massive canvas in his studio.

If you think about how Goya is part of the painting, standing in the back, where he can’t see the subject, looking straight at us, it is as if you and I are a mirror, the whole family standing there with Goya, looking at themselves in the mirror, as Goya paints the group from the reflection. Goya’s composition, the way he arranges the painting, practically says “I am giving you a reflection of the family of Charles IV, not an idealized interpretation.” He is showing us what is actually there. And there are blotches and sour expressions and daydreamers and real characters.

What unflattering truths have you seen in art? Which of these characters do you most relate to?

If you would like a breakdown of who everyone is, Wikipedia has a handy numbered image and links to each family member.

I highly recommend this article which may be available through your library: Exorcising Goya’s “The Family of Charles IV”. Edward J. Olszewski. Artibus et Historiae, Vol. 20, No. 40 (1999), pp. 169-185. Published by: IRSA s.c. Article DOI: 10.2307/1483673. Article Stable URL:

Further Light on the Critical Reception of Goya’s “Family of Charles IV” as Caricature. Alisa Luxenberg. Artibus et Historiae, Vol. 23, No. 46 (2002), pp. 179-182, Published by: IRSA s.c. Article DOI: 10.2307/1483705. Article Stable URL:

Goya’s Portrait of the Royal FamilyFred Licht. The Art Bulletin, Vol. 49, No. 2 (Jun., 1967), pp. 127-128. Published by: College Art AssociationArticle DOI: 10.2307/3048453. Article Stable URL:








One thought on “Candid: Goya’s “Family of Charles IV”

  1. I relate to the woman with her head turned, probably wishing she could escape into the pastoral scene of the painting behind.
    Yes, I daydream that I too can escape to the peaceful landscapes of Eagle Nest, New Mexico. Ahhhhh….
    My assumption is that Goya did not provide a stimulating space behind him that would inspire a decent daydream!! I wonder what was behind him?
    Thanks for sharing, Elysia.


Please share your thoughts! I read and approve each comment before it is posted to the site, primarily during my kids' nap time. Please be patient if it takes a bit of time for your contribution to the conversation to appear.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s