A Tenuous Relationship

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.


6 responses to “A Tenuous Relationship

  1. I’ve always loved your way with words. The beauty and flow makes it seem effortless. This was a pleasure to read — and learn from in more ways than one.

  2. Great post; I really enjoyed it.

  3. The cats seem to be ogling the hapless magpie! I read in an art catalog years ago that Goya was deliberately mischievous in painting that little tableau, as a contrast to the little boy’s innocence. Having no way of asking Goya if that was true, I can only look and smile myself. Nice that you brought up this particular painting. It’s one of my favorites at the Met.

  4. This is such a great analysis–informative, readable, and insightful. It got me to go look at the family portrait you referred and to look back at the child’s image over and over!

  5. Sparks In Shadow – Hello; it’s been such a long time! Thanks for the compliment: I’ve always thought that paintings – and a child’s eyes – were made to be looked deeply into.

    Ashley Lily Scarlett – Thank you: we aim to please!

    Hangaku Gozen – The catalog is probably right. I read that Goya meant the cats and the gathering dark to represent the forces of evil threatening the innocence of the child. Goya never lets one relax, does he?

    KerryCan – I love writing speculative pieces on artwork – one’s thoughts just can’t help but roam, sometimes. I’m glad you’re encouraged to review your own portraits!

  6. Perhaps (just perhaps) there’s a connection between the boy in this painting and a famous old Texas mission: Nuestra Señora del Espiritu Santo de Zuñiga was named for a Texas bay, but also honored Báltasar de Zúñiga, viceroy of New Spain. Many Basques moved to Mexico, including man of the Zúñiga family. It’s not impossible.

    Even without that connection, your commentary is lyrical and interesting, and the painting always a delight. Thanks for your beautiful essay.

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