by Melinda Giordano
It has always been the case, this small frisson of irony and recognition. For before I can take in the qualities 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. In particular, I am reminded of a distant photograph of him, with a square of gauze on his bare arm from a recent polio vaccine. In both painting and photograph, there is a parallel that bridges all of time’s idiosyncrasies, joining these images of two young boys. 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. He is three years old. A light dusting of powder obscures his Mediterranean prettiness. He wears a short jacket buttoned to his trousers, for he has recently been “breeched”: the fashion ritual when the boy has graduated from a frock coat to a man’s sartorial estate. The wide collar, the silk sash wrapped around a nebulous waist, the rosettes on his slippers, the fey pleats of lace areas rich and nacreous as the belly of an oyster.
Francisco de Goya y Lucientes painted this portrait – also known as The Red Boy – in 1787. Bequeathed to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1944, was an orphan for 70 years – until it was finally reunited with its parents in the 2014 exhibit, Goya and the Altamira Family (Don Manuel’s father was the conde de Altamira).
In 1789 Goya became the official painter for Charles IV and his stilted, vacuous court. Goya’s brutal honesty found its appetite sated with such bland meat. He dared to portray the royal family as he saw them: stupid, bulky and foolish. But the nobility was blind to the insults, for the gowns of golden thread, the silk coats trimmed in silver and diamonds were painted with great accuracy, and both royalty and aristocracy were delighted with these portrayals of their affluence. Goya, therefore, would receive many commissions – encouraging the viper in their midst.
But when faced with this child – not to blame for his opulence – the coiled snake became subdued. My brother’s lookalike is depicted as an innocent staring into a lurking 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 birds are ogled by three cats with Cheshire-like intensity – well-fed and emerging from the depths like savage ghosts. And although my brother too has always loved cats, I have never seen a gathering of them at his feet, crouched tightly, and eyeing him with feral craving.
In previous centuries children were seen as undeveloped adults unavoidably tainted by original sin. If this portrait was painted one hundred years earlier, the leash Don Manuel holds would be significant: symbolizing the restraint needed to control his infant lusts and wicked giddiness. But by the late 18th century, John Locke’s “Some Thoughts Concerning Education” and Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s “Emile, ou de l’education” were in print, and widely read by the educated classes. Both treatises contributed to the change in the way in which childhood was perceived: no longer born swaddled in inequity, the child was now seen as unformed, blessed with – in Locke’s words – an “empty” mind.
Boys and girls born under the sun of the Enlightenment were not dressed and educated as unripe adults, having been given the right to youthful teaching and diversions. Later in life, my brother paid the price of this once innovative freedom whenhe broke his nose in a softball game, losing his delicate profile. However, I believe that Goya’s fragile boy, wearing his string of names like a harness, would never have been allowed the pleasure of such roughhousing, despite the illuminated thinking of his time
During this phase of his career – for during his life Goya flinched under a bombardment of influences – his art straddled two different ideals that became popular during this time: the sense and realism of the Enlightenment as well as the symbolism and rampant emotion of the Romantics. And the two artistic canons collided in the portrait of a naïve, unprepared boy who is surrounded by animals, possibly as cherished pets, or creatures whose dissolute freedoms represented the evil world that threatened an innocent child.
But neither reason nor dangerous sentiment would have the chance to form this boy – unlike my brother, he would be dead in five years. There is no philosophy that can stand up to the machinations of death.
Melinda Giordano is from Los Angeles, California. Her written pieces have appeared in the Lake Effect Magazine, Scheherazade’s Bequest, Vine Leaves Literary Journal and The Rabbit Hole among others. She was a contributor to CalamitiesPress.com with her column, “I Wandered and Listened” and was twice nominated for the Pushcart Prize.