Anything can be expected from a court portrait painter, except for a caricature inside an official painting. And yet this is exactly what is achieved by Francisco Goya, Pintor de Cámera of the king under the reign of Carlo IV, beginning in 1789.

Goya depicts the entire royal family, distancing himself however from the classic prototype of court paintings that tended to give their subjects a certain aura of beauty and dignity where, at times, it was completely absent. The painter does not force himself to beautify, but rather leans in the opposite direction, turning faces into caricatures, adding grotesque connotations and monkey-like features.

In the same spirit, he covers the characters with medals and drapes them in sumptuous garments, revealing all the superficiality of which this court was guilty. The only ones safe from Goya’s satirical brush are the children, portrayed faithfully because he considered them innocent and still uncorrupted by the world and by the royal label. 

Going beyond the satirical gaze that Goya turned on the family of Carlo IV, one can notice how his work of bitter revision involved the painting itself, which is revealed to be the caricature of another masterpiece realized a century and a half earlier for the Spanish court. In fact, continuing his prank, Goya doesn’t hide the homage to Las Meninas by Diego Velazquez. Confirming it is the self-portrait of the painter himself in the act of painting, with the detail of the canvas seen from behind, just like in the piece by Velazquez.  

It’s surprising how, presented with these grotesque portraits, the clients didn’t object: a rare case in which political satire was accepted by the rulers themselves. This is because the royals were attracted and satisfied by the opulent, ostentatious clothes and shiny medals depicted in the painting, confirming the obtuseness Goya had seen in them. 

If this work were to be represented as a fable it would be, without a doubt, “The Emperor’s New Clothes”, the story of a king so vain that he doesn’t realize he’s been made the butt of a terrible joke by two trickster tailors. A current-day correspondence to this painting can be seen in the TV show The Great (the tagline of which is “an occasionally true story”), in which the story of Catherine the Great is reimagined through paradoxical and harsh parody.

Charles IV of Spain and His Family, Francisco Goya's painting
Charles IV of Spain and His Family, image courtesy of the Museo del Prado, Public Domain