When we think of Goya, we think of his iconic Black Paintings and his clothed and naked “Maja”s, but a giant anteater is the last thing we’d associate with the Spanish painter. However, a recently published article by Javier Jordán de Urríes y de la Colina looks to change all that.
In the curator’s office in the Natural Science Museum of Madrid, among the mahogany bookshelves, an antique round table and various scientific instruments dating back to the 17th century, hangs a curious painting. “His Majesty’s Giant Anteater” is an oil painting measuring approximately one metre by two and depicts this unusual creature from its left profile with its protruding tongue. This painting is an anatomically correct study of the animal; posed with its front feet forward it fits in well with contemporary drawings of zoological studies of its time. Looking beyond the canvas’ foreground and its protagonist, one can see countryside with soft rolling hills and delicate trees. In the background, a ruined castle peaks from behind a pyramidal monolith, where your attention is then directed towards the sleeping anteater at its base. The painting has raised a few questions to local art historians of late – why did King Charles III commission such a project, and the most recent hot topic of discussion – who painted it?
Francisco Goya: His Majesty’s Giant Anteater, 1776.
Museo Nacional de Ciencias Naturales, Madrid.
To understand “His Majesty’s Giant Anteater,” I must draw you back to July 1776, when this famous animal was presented to the King himself. King Charles III was interested, not only antiquities, but also in avant-garde art of his time. He also became an avid collector of painting, sculpture, books and decorative objects, and among his collection were also animals, minerals, fossils and plants. The New World was exciting for Spain and its monarch during this time, and many ships would bring back various antiquities and curiosities from new and exotic countries – including animals. The giant anteater was brought from Buenos Aires, Argentina, to the court of the Spanish king and was the first of its kind to be seen in Europe. The king, fascinated with this giant animal, transferred it to the royal gardens of Buen Retiro. In addition, he also commissioned that a portrait be painted of the creature, under the direction of court painter, Antonio Rafael Mengs.
However, whether due to climate conditions or a poor diet of minced meat and bread, the animal died seven months after its arrival in Madrid. The portrait had already been completed by this time and soon it passed to the Real Gabinete de Historia Natural. Now it resides in the curator’s office in the Museo de Ciencias Naturales: The Natural Science Museum.
The painting itself is a zoological statement, showcasing the animal in both awake and sleeping positions; from the inscription on the monolith’s base we can see some information about this giant anteater. The inscription, written in Spanish, tells us that in its natural habitat the anteater survives on a diet of ants; how it had been painted from life in the House of Wild Animals in Retiro park; how in July 1776 it came from Buenos Aires where more of its kind can be found; and finally, that the present anteater is 30 months old and is expected to grow to six or seven years of age.
While the painting’s commission was given to Antonio Rafael Mengs, he did not paint “His Majesty’s Giant Anteater” himself. Since the painting was under his direction, the work would have been assigned to one of the painters in his studio. During 1776, Mengs had undertaken an intense project and also desired to finish his outstanding commissions that year before leaving Spain for Rome, on the account of ill health. It is for these very reasons it is highly unlikely that Mengs would have personally accepted a new project such as the Giant Anteater. In fact, an unsigned document confirms this notion: dated the 17th of September 1776, it decreed that the first court painter, Antonio Rafael Mengs, was paid for the commission of the Giant Anteater and an amount was to be given to the anonymous painter who completed this work under Mengs’s direction. Until recently, all the available information on this painting has failed to reveal the identity of who actually painted the picture, nor has given any insight as to how much influence Mengs had asserted on its production. The painting is, unarguably, excellent in quality and beauty, concluded a paper on “His Majesty’s Giant Anteater,” published by Ana Victoria Mazo Pérez in 2006.