It has always been the case. Before I can take in the rest of the painting – the child’s scarlet suit, the zoological arrangement of pets at his feet, his lineage of names printed at the border – I can see only one thing: his fleeting yet arresting similarity to my brother. This simpatico of youth resides, I think, in the eyes: round and expansive; their gaze roaming like colts beneath a wide, pure forehead.
The child in this painting carries the weighty name of Don Manuel Rosario de Zuñiga. Pink cheeks and a face dusted with arsenic powder obscure his Mediterranean prettiness. He wears a short jacket buttoned to his trousers, for he has recently been “breeched”: graduating from the children’s frock coat to a man’s sartorial estate. The wide collars, the silk sash wrapped around a nebulous waist, the rosettes on his slippers are all the color of melting silver daubed with pleats of lace.
Francisco de Goya painted this portrait in 1787. He would shortly become the official painter for Charles IV and his stilted, vacuous court. Goya’s brutality and honesty found its appetites sated with such bland meat. In a portrait of Charles IV and his family, he fearlessly portrays the family as he saw them: stupid, bulky and foolish. But the gowns of golden thread, the coats embroidered in lace and diamonds were painted with great accuracy. They were delighted with the work and gave Goya many commissions – encouraging the viper in their midst.
But when faced with this unknowing child – not to blame for his aristocracy – the coiled snake became subdued, its fangs swallowed, choking on its venom. My brother’s lookalike is portrayed as an innocent staring into his future adulthood: confused and stunned, but not necessarily afraid. We’re unable to perceive the abyss he sees; but it is perhaps reflected in the vaguely frightening playroom in which he stands. Full of shadow, lacking furniture, it is a lonely equation of geometric planes and shapes. Even his pets are delicately disturbing: the magpie (holding a card bearing the artist’s name) is fettered by a leash; the trapped finches are ogled by three Cheshire cat lookalikes – well-fed and emerging from the depths like savage ghosts.
But perhaps Goya took pity on the child for another reason. He might have had an inkling that Don Manuel would shortly become a ghost himself – he would be dead in five years.