A short note on Goya’s “Red Boy”
Portraits of children accompanied by animals have a long tradition in Spanish painting. Outfitted in a splendid red costume, this young boy, the son of the Count and Countess of Altamira, is shown with a pet magpie (which holds the painter’s calling card in its beak) a cage full of finches, and three wide-eyed cats.
Although they add an engaging element for the viewer, the animals in the painting are not to be seen as purely decorative elements. Nothing is here by accident – but what the animals signify is not necessarily easy to gestate.
There have had many different interpretations of the “Red Boy”over the years. To the boy’s side, captive finches cluster near the bars of their green gazebo-like cage. Goya’s juxtaposition of cats and birds and of shadow and light creates a sense of latent unease and interjects an atmosphere of fidgeting discomfiture into the portrait. The black cat cloaked in shadows, nearly invisible save for its eyes, amplifies the undercurrent of menace.
Some people believed that the birds in the cage were a symbol of the soul while others thought that it symbolized the boy’s innocence. The cats are thought to be a representation of evil or an evil force. Some say Goya may have intended them as a reminder of the frail boundaries that separate the child’s world from the forces of evil, or as a commentary on the fleeting nature of innocence and youth.
And then there is the magpie, signify gossip, holding on to Goya’s calling card…
In a short text on Artsy, Jackson Arn ponders the following:
Historians love to argue about when the modern era began. Here’s a dark-horse theory: Modernity kicked off in 1788 in the form of three cats lurking in the lower left quadrant of Goya’s Manuel Osorio Manrique de Zúñiga, often called Red Boy. In the late 1780s, when Goya was the preferred portraitist in the court of King Charles III, the powerful Count of Altamira commissioned him to paint his youngest child, Manuel. Goya chose to depict the little boy in an adorable red suit, playing with a pet magpie. Look closer, however, and the sentimentality of the scene quickly sours. From the shadows, the trio of cats stares hungrily at the helpless bird, ready to pounce. Modern life, as Goya saw it, was a sick joke, equal parts scary and absurd—a bird always on the verge of being gobbled up. His work is adept at conveying a disturbingly contemporary-seeming point of view, exposing the horrors hidden in plain sight.
Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes (1746 – 1828) was a Spanish romantic painter and printmaker. He is considered the most important Spanish artist of the late 18th and early 19th centuries and throughout his long career was a commentator and chronicler of his era. Over the course of his long career, Goya moved from jolly and lighthearted to deeply pessimistic and searching in his paintings, drawings, etchings, and frescoes. Immensely successful in his lifetime, Goya is often referred to as both the last of the Old Masters and the first of the moderns.