My Favourite Painting: Tim Parker

Tim Parker, chairman of the National Trust, chooses a right royal rarity: Goya's painting of the Spanish king and his family depicted as normal people, rather than leaders and figureheads.

Tim Parker on Charles IV of Spain and His Family by Goya

Charles IV of Spain and His Family, 1800–01, 9ft 2in by 11ft, by Francisco Goya (1746–1828), Prado, Madrid, Spain

As audiences, we are accustomed to seeing paintings of royals looking like the pinnacle of cherubic perfection, with flawless skin and angelic features. Even today, every pore is airbrushed and every blemish picked apart.

So how refreshing it is to come face to face with a bold and realistic depiction of a royal family as simply a family, with all their flaws on display. As Renoir famously noted, Goya made the family of Charles IV ‘look like a butcher’s family in their Sunday best’.

Tim Parker is chairman of the National Trust

John McEwen comments on Charles IV of Spain and His Family

This portrait was begun soon after Goya had been appointed court painter to Charles IV (1748–1819). Goya echoes his predecessor Velázquez’s masterpiece of the genre, Las Meninas (also in the Prado), showing himself painting the picture with the canvas propped at the same angle, its back to the viewer; the royal family are similarly paying him the compliment of posing in his studio. The portrait was also modelled on Louis-Michel van Loo’s 1743 Portrait of Felipe V and His Family (Prado), another large grouping, but in a palatial setting.

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As in the two earlier portraits, there is a touch of gentle informality, with Goya showing Charles IV’s wife, Queen Consort Maria Luisa of Parma (1751–1819), holding two of her children’s hands. Charles was a lazy king, who let his burly wife and the prime minister — Manuel Godoy, widely believed to be her lover — run the country while he went hunting.

The portrait ‘would be less disturbing if the face of the Queen did not rise above it like an owl’s head,’ wrote the writer/statesman André Malraux. The poet Theophile Gautier (1811–72) called it a ‘picture of the corner grocer who has just won the lottery’.

Malraux disputed the notion that Goya despised his royal patrons and so, more caustically, did the art historian Robert Hughes: ‘If anything it is an act of flattery. For instance, on the left, in the blue suit, is one of the most odious little toads in the entire history of Spanish politics, the future King Ferdinand VII [1784–1833], who Goya actually manages to make quite regal.’ Ferdinand (Fernando) deposed his father in 1808.

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