Yesterday I wrote a post featuring this charming photo of the young and growing royal family:
What do I like about the photo? It’s not really the subject matter; I’m not so much into the royals, although I think this particular crew seems unusually likeable as well as photogenic. For me, it’s more about the picture: I like the framing in the window.
But the thing that I find most engaging about it is the interplay between the baby and the dog, in contrast with the usual formality of an official royal portrait. What is the dog thinking? Is it loyally and steadfastly standing guard? Is it ignoring the baby and looking past him to something interesting in the distance, a squirrel perhaps?
The baby’s fascination, though, is clearly with the dog itself.
And the whole thing reminded me of another, somewhat darker portrait, one by Goya. Goya was a court painter known for being remarkably unflattering to his royal sitters, but this portrait of the very young Manuel Osorio Manrique de Zuñiga is different, and far gentler:
Like many children of the time (late eighteenth century) the boy did not live to adulthood; he died around the age of eight. The portrait foreshadows this in the lower left of the picture, where the animals are carrying on their own drama:
The sitter is the son of the Count and Countess of Altamira. Outfitted in a splendid red costume, he is shown playing with a pet magpie (which holds the painter’s calling card in its beak), a cage full of finches, and three wide-eyed cats. In Christian art birds frequently symbolize the soul, and in Baroque art caged birds are symbolic of innocence. Goya may have intended this portrait as an illustration 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.
There’s also this:
…[Y]ou sense “Goya’s awareness of how contingent life is,” to quote the critic Robert Hughes.
That awareness is certainly heightened by…our knowledge of Goya’s own losses. (At least seven of his offspring died in infancy.) Although the dark mood of later Goya is much in evidence here, the painting has talismanic properties, as if the image of Manuel could somehow warn or protect other children.
Children and animals are cute, but they are much more than cute. They are extraordinarily precious and also vulnerable, and artists (be they painters or photographers) know that, as do parents.