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Friday, April 17, 2020

"The Boy on a Ram in Context"

The Boy on a Ram, painted by the Spanish artist Francisco de Goya y Lucientes (1746-1828), represents the artist’s early work, as a painter of designs, known as cartoons, for the Royal Tapestry Factory of Santa Barbara in Madrid. This was Goya’s first position at the court of Madrid, where he would eventually attain the highest possible rank of first court painter in 1799. The painting is currently on loan to WAM from the Art Institute of Chicago.

Francisco de Goya, Boy on a Ram, 1786/87,
oil on canvas, the Art Institute of Chicago,
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Brooks McCormick, 1979.479.
The tapestries woven after Goya’s cartoon decorated the private rooms of the crown prince and princess (known in Spain as the Prince and Princess of Asturias) in royal palaces outside of Madrid, at El Pardo and El Escorial. After they were copied by the weavers, the cartoons went into storage, and it was thus that Goya’s designs were lost until their rediscovery, rolled up in the basement of the royal palace of Madrid, in 1868. All but seven of the cartoons are today in the Museo del Prado, Madrid.

Goya’s work began when he received measurements for the room the tapestries woven after his cartoons would decorate. If you look around the room where you are sitting, you better understand the variety of formats demanded:  large cartoons decorated the walls, smaller overdoor cartoons—as the name suggests—were painted to fill spaces over doors or balconies, and narrow corner pieces would fill small spaces between doors and corners. Goya then submitted small sketches of his designs to be approved by his royal patrons, before he began painting the cartoon, equal in size to the tapestry to be woven after it.

The Boy on a Ram, painted in 1786, or perhaps early 1787, served as an overdoor for a series of cartoons for tapestries to decorate what was either a dining room or a sitting room in the palace at El Pardo. Who is this boy, and why is he riding a ram? As in his other series of cartoons, Goya used the overdoors to expand the theme introduced in the larger scenes, in this case, the seasons.

Goya calls on tradition in visualizing the seasons, in which aristocrats and the well-to-do enjoy the temperate weather of spring and fall, and peasants endure the harsher elements of summer and winter. In Spring, a woman kneels to offer a flower to another woman—clearly, her social superior—in a spring landscape: behind the standing woman, a male peasant shows us a rabbit, a symbol of fertility and renewed life. In Autumn, a woman--perhaps the same woman—sits with her husband and child, as behind them laborers toil in the fields at the seasonal vintage.

The well-to-do are absent from summer’s harvest, a theme familiar to many through its representation by Breughel the Elder in The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Like Breughel, Goya depicts peasants relaxing after their labors, seated around a hay wain, talking and drinking, as women care for the children. In Winter, he depicts men bringing in a slaughtered pig. In fact, the slaughter of pigs and production of meats and sausages took place every February at the palace of El Pardo, and we might guess that the workers depicted by Goya are servants of the royal household.

Having portrayed the passage of time in nature in his larger cartoons in four overdoors, Goya turned to the theme of the passage of time reflected as the ages of man, bringing us to the Boy on a Ram. Goya’s charming little boy wears a one-piece skeleton suit, the preferred dress of noble children in Goya’s portraits. He rides before a fresh and verdant landscape. But the identification of this scene with spring is only confirmed by the ram, a symbol of Aries, the first astrological sign of the year, transited by the sun from about March 20 to April 21—the first full month of spring.

Three other overdoors for this series corroborate the meaning of the Boy on a Ram as a representation of childhood. In the second overdoor, youths, older and poorer than the Boy on a Ram, stand before an arid, summer landscape. Like the men in Winter, theses boys are probably servants in a wealthy household, for they hold prize hunting dogs wearing the engraved collars of their owners.

Youth gives way to maturity in the third overdoor cartoon, in which a well-dressed hunter, with rifle in his lap, pauses for refreshment a brook. Hunting was a sport, identified with autumn, and enjoyed by the land-owning rich, or by the fortunate who had permissions to hunt on those lands.

Finally, the winter of man’s life is represented by a shepherd who sits alone on a hillock, before a single, almost leafless tree, and plays his flute, leaving us to imagine his melancholy tune. His posture, borrowed from the classical sculpture of the Dying Gaul, implies his imminent death.

Only when we see the Boy on a Ram within the context of the other cartoons created for the same room, can we understand its meaning. But we also appreciate that the tapestry cartoons, like Goya’s later series of etchings, including Los Caprichos, invites the viewer to participate, to draw together images to create a meaning greater than the sum of the parts.

The Museo del Prado in Madrid offers a wonderful website dedicated to Goya, Goya en el Web. It offers high-quality images of his tapestry cartoons:


For the series of the seasons and the ages of man, visit:


—Janis A. Tomlinson, PhD, Director of Special Collections and Museums, University of Delaware, was scheduled to present an Art Talk on “The Boy on a Ram in Context" at WAM’s Master Series Third Thursdays on March 19, which was cancelled.

She is the author of seven books on Goya and on Spanish painting, which have been translated into six languages. Her biography, Goya: A Portrait of the Artist, will be published this fall by Princeton University Press.
Goya: A Portrait of the Artist
By Janis A. Tomlinson 

April 17, 2020

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