Francisco Goya: 9 The dangerous Majas

Francisco Goya (1746–1828), La maja vestida (The Clothed Maja) (c 1800), oil on canvas, 95 x 190 cm, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, Spain. Wikimedia Commons.

At the end of 1799, Napoleon Bonaparte came to power in France, and there was a thaw in the previously tense relationship between Spain and France. Francisco Goya (1746–1828) was at the height of his influence and position at court, and was kept busy with numerous portraits.

Francisco Goya (1746–1828), La Tirana (1799), oil on canvas, 206 x 130 cm, Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando, Madrid, Spain. Wikimedia Commons.

His full-length portrait of La Tirana (1799) shows the most famous actress of the day, in real life María del Rosario Fernández (1755-1803), who was in her mid-forties when this was painted. Goya had also painted her previously, when she was significantly younger.

Francisco Goya (1746–1828), Carlos IV of Spain and His Family (1800-01), oil on canvas, 280 x 336 cm, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, Spain. Wikimedia Commons.

In April 1800, Goya was commissioned by King Carlos IV to paint a family portrait, which proved to be the last of his royal commissions before the war with France, and his most important. To do this, the artist travelled to Aranjuez, where the king was occupied with his new expansion project, and during late May and June he painted a series of oil studies of each of his sitters individually; several have survived. With those complete, he started work on the large canvas of Carlos IV of Spain and His Family (1800-01).

It’s often said that Goya’s inspiration here was Velázquez’ Las Meninas, but what he has painted is different in almost every respect other than the fact that the artist has taken the opportunity to include a self-portrait of himself painting the painting, as it were. Goya captures a moment of optimism when Spain and France were allies, and portrays his royal figures in stark reality.

The figures shown are, from left to right: the artist in the background; Carlos Maria Isidro (1788-1855); the Prince of Asturias and future Fernando VII (1784-1833); Maria Josefa (1744-1801), sister of Carlos IV; a princess unknown at the time who was to be Ferdinand’s future wife; María Isabel (1789-1848), who later married Francis I; Queen Maria Luisa (1751-1819); Francisco de Paula (1794-1848); King Carlos IV (1748-1819); Don Antonio Pascual (1755-1817), the King’s brother; Carlota Joaquina (1775-1830), oldest daughter of Carlos IV and Queen of Portugal; Don Luis de Borbón, the Prince of Parma (1773-1803) and his wife Maria Luisa (1782-1824), who is holding her baby Carlos Luis (1799-1883), the future King of Etruria. They are carefully arranged so that the most senior in pecking order are at the centre and to the front, as you might expect.

Francisco Goya (1746–1828), Cannibals Chopping up Victims (c 1800), oil on panel, 31 x 45 cm, Musée des beaux-arts et d’archéologie de Besançon, Besançon, France. Wikimedia Commons.

Goya continued to paint occasional works showing the grim realities of life and death. Among them is this sketchy macabre view of Cannibals Chopping up Victims, which is thought to date from about 1800, although it could be from a few years later. This is believed to show the martyrdom of two French missionaries by Iroquois peoples, and is presumably based on a story from the American colonies.

Beside his portrait of the royal family, Goya’s two most famous paintings of this period are as atypical as Velázquez’ Venus, and more mysterious in origin.

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Francisco Goya (1746–1828), La maja vestida (The Clothed Maja) (c 1800), oil on canvas, 95 x 190 cm, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, Spain. Wikimedia Commons.

The less controversial of these two is La maja vestida, The Clothed Maja, which some hold to have been painted later than its sister below. It’s also claimed that it shows María Teresa de Silva, the Duchess of Alba, or Josefa de Tudó, 1st Countess of Castillo Fiel, both of which are almost certainly incorrect.

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Francisco Goya (1746–1828), La maja desnuda (The Nude Maja) (c 1800), oil on canvas, 98 x 191 cm, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, Spain. Wikimedia Commons.

Her dangerous sister is La maja desnuda, The Nude Maja, whose origins are equally unknown. They were both probably painted around 1800, or possibly as late as 1805, and for Prime Minister Manuel de Godoy, the Duke of Alcúdia. He seems to have hung them in a private room which was reserved for such works, alongside Velázquez’ Venus.

These didn’t come to light until 1808, when investigators of the Inquisition discovered them being curated by one Don Francisco de Garivay. Both were summoned before a tribunal and called to account for their possession of the confiscated paintings, which were clearly “so indecent and prejudicial to the public good.”

They were forced to reveal that it had been Goya who had painted them, which resulted in the artist being summoned to the tribunal on a charge of moral depravity. Unfortunately, Goya’s account of the commissioning of the paintings hasn’t survived. He was cleared of all responsibility, largely on the grounds that the court and church admired the nudes of Velázquez and Titian, so Goya had only been following instructions and tradition. Godoy was also cleared, and the two should have been grateful that by this time the Inquisition was waning in power and influence.

The outcome was that Goya painted one of the first non-classical nude women in European art, even to depicting her pubic hair, which didn’t reappear until the end of the nineteenth century, when it was still hugely controversial. Both paintings are also unusual in their elevated view, and their thoroughly provocative pose which makes even the clothed version shamelessly erotic in a way which confirms their purpose.


Spanish painting in the late eighteenth century: before David (this blog)
Spanish painting in the late eighteenth century: after David (this blog)


Janis A Tomlinson (2020) Goya, A Portrait of the Artist, Princeton UP. ISBN 978 0 691 19204 8.
Pierre Gassier and Juliet Wilson (1981) The Life and Complete Work of Francisco Goya, 2nd English edition, Harrison House. ISBN 0 517 353903.