Rethinking the Family of Charles IV

Like most people who study art, I was taught that Goya’s portrait, Family of Charles IV (1800-1801), is a caricature of the royal family. Most introductory art history textbooks discuss the ugly features of the family members and their awkward poses. In short, the painting was supposed to reveal the stupidity of the royal family. I further interpreted this picture to show the family in an unflattering light – who in the royal family would approve of having a young woman (on the left) painted with her face turned towards the wall?

In fact, I was going to write a post on this unflattering portrait until I began to do some more research this morning.

Recently (within the past decade), there have been new arguments regarding Goya’s portrait of Charles IV and his family. Edward J. Olszewski argued in 1999 that the Goya adds a sense of animation to this portrait because the sitters lack a common focal point. However, he also admits that there is a lack of unity that resulted because Goya sketched the members of the group individually, not collectively.1 He argues that the family members approved of the sketches that were taken for the portrait. Suggestions that a family member looks “foolish” or awkward are because the elderly Dona Maria Josefa was suffering from the effects of lupis (she died shortly after the portrait was completed) and Dona Maria Luisa Josefina (on the far right, holding a baby) suffered from a spinal defect.2 In addition, Olszewski finds the brilliant colors and pigments in the painting to be very favorable; they were quite modern for the period.

I also learned from Olszewski’s article that the woman on the left side of the canvas (with her face turned towards the wall) is the future bride of the prince regent, as yet unchosen. Of course she would be depicted with her face towards the wall, since the family wasn’t sure whose face to portray! Maria Antonia could have been painted in the portrait after she and Ferdinand married in 1802, but Goya was never asked to change the painting.

As for the infamous critic’s statement that the painting looks like a “grocer and his family who have just won the big lottery prize,” Alisa Luxenberg wrote in 2002 that this statement has been misquoted.3 Several historians have picked up on this quote and scattered it throughout art historical texts. She and Olszewski both point out that a similar quote was stated by Renoir in 1907. Renoir mentioned that the portrait looked “like a butcher’s family in their Sunday best.” However, the point of this comment was not to pinpoint the painting as caricature. Instead, this statement was an indication of Renoir’s belief that “an artist’s ‘true’ personality – meaning class to Renoir, who seemed acutely sensitive to his own working-class roots – manifests itself in art. In the recounting of this discussion, Renoir supposedly explained that Goya’s plebian background emerged in his rendering of artistocrats as shopkeepers.”4

These articles have made me rethink the Family of Charles IV portrait. I still don’t find many of the family members to be terribly attractive, but this doesn’t mean necessarily that the portrait is a caricature. Instead, perhaps this portrait is a paradigm for its age; with the ongoing Enlightenment in the 18th century, perhaps the stress on scientific, visual evidence affected the production of idealized portraiture? Maybe the members of the family wanted to be portrayed as how they really looked, whether attractive or unattractive.

If you want to read more, I would particularly recommend Olszewski’s article. It’s quite fascinating.

1 Edward J. Olszewski, “Exorcising Goya’s ‘The Family of Charles IV’,” Arbitus et Historiae 20, no. 40 (1999): 176-177.

2 Ibid., 178.

3 Alisa Luxenberg, “Further Light on the Critical Reception of Goya’s ‘Family of Charles IV’ as Caricature,” Arbitus et Historiae 23, no. 46 (2002): 179-180.

4 Ibid, 179. See also Olszewski, 182-183.

  • Zillah says:

    very interesting. honestly, i just assumed that they were ugly in that particularly hapsburgian kind of way, and he was painting them realistically. must think on this more…

  • M says:

    True, Zillah, inbreeding definitely didn’t improve their looks!

  • Emilee . . . says:

    Interesting. I like that there are other possibilities as to why the painting is the way it is.

    And I COMPLETELY agree with you two ladies … people back then were rather ugly.

  • Jan says:

    WOW! I love youe blog. I don’t remember much from the Art History classes I took or the Humanity classes, but wow, how great it was to read your posts. I plan to stop by and read often.

  • Patricia says:

    Here in Spain is rather weird to here about all that literature about the possible eventual hidden intentions of Goya.
    The fact is that he had just been chosen as Royal Chamber Artist, which was the highest honor and artist could aspire to in Spain (Velazquez, Goya’s most admire painter and the author of “the Meninas” in which he found inspirations for this canvas, holded the same charge).
    There are actually documents that prove that the Queen herself, at watching the development of the painting, said that “estaban quedando muy propios” meaning they were exactly as they looked like, and she also that was rather satisfied.
    Would the picture had been caricathuresque, and Goya would have fall in disgrace and the painting been destroyed.
    By watching “la Maja vestida” or “El retrato de la Duquesa de Alba” portraying the lady he was desperatly in love with and one of the most famous flirter of the time, we see that she is just as ugly as this poor family, part of the final result of the portraits come from the particular view of the artist, his incredibly modern technique and the fashions of the time.
    However, honestly speaking, us spaniards have never had a goodlooking royal family since… Felipe el Hermoso (that was 500years ago and he was german!)lol
    Way too much endogamy I guess…

  • M says:

    Patricia, thanks for your comment! It’s very fun to read a Spaniard’s perspective on Goya and the royal family.

    Many of the points that you made were also argued in this article by Olszewski. He also discussed how the queen was very happy with the preliminary sketches that Goya made.

    You mentioned a good point that both Goya and Velazquez were honored artists for the royal family. I like that Goya makes a reference to the famous painting “Las Meninas” in this royal portrait of Charles IV’s family. Both paintings include the artist on the left hand side of the painting, standing behind a large canvas. Like many scholars, I like to think that the canvases in the paintings represent the actual canvas that is in front of the viewer – Goya depicts himself actually working on “Family of Charles IV” and Velazquez is in the middle of painting “Las Meninas.”

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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.