Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Goya's children

Goya not only liked children, he also had empathy for them. That, at least, is what the pictures and portraits of children he made throughout his long career firmly suggest. He seems to have had the ability to feel his way back into the world of childhood, instead (as is too often the case with child portraiture) of capturing merely the outside appearance of some enchanting little mother's darling, a sort of adult-sweet image of childhood that is really quite untrue to a child's own sense of things. Goya (however one feels confronted by his most doom-laden torments and nightmares in paint) was unquestionably not content to skim. He was determined to reach below mere surfaces. Numerous paintings of children, of which ''Boys Playing at See-Saw'' (c. 1777-85) is an earlyish example, show him delving under even their guileless appearance and harmless fun and games.

His child-portraits must have been mainly commissioned. The subjects were the offspring of the wealthy and courtly, brushed and washed for the occasion, and dolled up in their finest clothes. Nevertheless most of them, however charmingly packaged, still have a way of looking straight out at us with self-possessed assurance and distinct character. They are not particularly tame or meek; nor are they merely miniature adults. Goya manages not to see them sentimentally. They are very much at home in their own environment - children living in a child's world. One has a magpie on a string, and songbirds in a cage, eyed menacingly by three cats from the shadows. Another, in a gold braided uniform, stands imposingly, holding a book: He appraises the onlooker with large-eyed intelligence, coolly sizing him up. A two-year-old girl poses with an almost arrogant confidence, hand on hip, mistress of all she surveys - and probably of the entire range of mountains behind her as well. And there is a small boy with a large drum, his toy horse's bridle in one hand, a large hat in the other. He looks ready to command a thousand men, his expression one of competence and even bravado.

About these ads

''Boys Playing at See-Saw,'' however, is not a portrait, and the children in it are apparently ragamuffins. It comes from a series of six small and early paintings, all showing boys at play. In others they are leapfrogging, bird's-nesting, scrambling for chestnuts, and playing at soldiers or bullfighters. Goya had a persistent interest in children's games. He also liked to paint or etch groups of pictures on a theme. ''Boys Playing at See-Saw'' comes from his first series of this sort. All six pictures are quickly realized with a rich and confident use of brush and oil paint, and relate in type to preparatory works made by Goya for the Royal Tapestry Factory in Madrid.

Tradition has it that the artist had himself been a somewhat unruly boy, and certainly he painted the roughhousing wrestlers in the Glasgow picture with a relish and energy that hint a keen memory of such antics. The nearest two seem to have gone beyond the point of larking around and are in danger of combat in earnest. On the other hand the child at the top end of the seesaw is a delightful image of thrill and elation at being suddenly lifted into space.

The collector William Stirling brought this painting (and three others from the series) to Britain from Seville in 1842. It was among the earliest Goyas to come to the British Isles. He evidently felt that it was meant to be a kind of satire on ecclesiastical bickering. But most commentators since have disagreed, partly because Goya's really savage satire came much later. Also there is no evidence for any anticlerical stance in his early work; throughout his life he painted churchmen and religious pictures with sincerity and intensity.

All the same, the way children unwittingly or deliberately parody adult behavior was clearly not lost on the painter, and there is certainly a hint in the ''See-Saw'' painting - in the contrast between the monkish or clerical garb of some of the boys and their demeanor - that once a child gets carried away he may not always be entirelyangelic. And, indeed, the monkey tethered on top of the high wall displays - perforce - somewhat more decorum than a single member of the bunch of rapscallion youngsters whooping it up below its rather disapproving, and perhaps even envious, gaze.

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.