Nick Hackworth

The Family of the Infante Don Luis, National Gallery

Essays & Reviews Evening Standard

The Family of the Infante Don Luis is one of Goya’s largest but least known paintings, and it is hanging, in splendid isolation, in Room I of the National Gallery, on temporary loan from a museum in Parma.

Painted in 1784, it was Goya’s first major royal portrait and depicts the Infante (prince) Don Luis, brother of Carlos III, King of Spain, with his young wife María Teresa de Vallabriga, their children and their attendants.

Although the painting was reputedly a great success with Don Luis, it is an unusual family portrait, almost impertinent in its refusal to flatter its subjects. That however was typical of Goya. He saw himself as an inheritor of Velázquez’s fluid brushwork and Rembrandt’s ability to capture human character on canvas. Thus he painted what he saw and refused to idealise.

Sitting at the centre of the painting is María Teresa, and Goya has done everything in his power to fix our attention upon her. Pale-faced and melancholy, she stares right at us dressed in a bright, white robe while most of those around are garbed in muted browns. Emphasising her further are two diagonal “lines” that slope towards her from either side, formed by the varying heights of surrounding figures and subtly strengthened by a green curtain in the background.

María Teresa had good reason to look melancholy. A minor aristocrat, she was forced by the King to marry Don Luis, 32 years her senior and a notorious womaniser, to stop him creating scandals. Carlos also specifically excluded their offspring from royal succession.

To add insult to injury, Don Luis wasn’t a looker. Giacomo Casanova described him as “terrifically ugly” and he sits beside her looking old and vacant, engaged in a game of cards.

The young man smiling at us from beneath a white cap, second from right, however, is neither melancholy nor ugly and might be Francisco del Campo, personal secretary to María Teresa and possibly her lover as well.

It is a painting full of ambiguity and mystery.

Until 3 March. Tel: 020 7747 2885