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Francisco de Goya - The Straw Doll

by Julia Kynast

The portrait-format painting "El Pelele" is part of a series of tapestry designs painted by the Spanish painter Francisco de Goya in 1791/92 for the private rooms of King Carlos IV in Madrid. Today, the 267 cm x 160 cm canvas is in the Museo del Prado.

The board is divided into three sections. Almost the entire upper half of the painting is occupied by a cloud-covered sky. In the middle area of the picture are four women in Andalusian costume, so-called "majas". They are throwing a male figure, a masked straw doll, into the air on a stretched cloth. The figure holds itself upright, while its legs point away from the body in an unnatural way. The right foot is twisted outward and her arms hang straight down. With her head tilted on her shoulders and her eyes empty, she resembles a human stuffed shell. Her face is heavily painted. Cheeks, chin and lips stand out with intense red tones. The doll wears a dark blue simply cut tailcoat with a collar, as was fashionable in both England and France at the time, a reddish-brown culotte, and flat buckled shoes. Her long brown hair is braided into a French-style braid, revealing her to be a French fashionista. The straw doll serves for the amusement of the majas gathered around the brownish faded cloth.

Their facial expressions, however, seem unnaturally rigid to exaggeratedly cheerful, which gives the depicted game a tense atmosphere. In this painting, the painter Francisco de Goya referred on the one hand to the Spanish carnival customs, in which people - to this day - throw straw dolls of all kinds into the air every year on Ash Wednesday, first on blankets, and later burn them as the climax of the festivities. On the other hand, the painter dealt here critically with the social issues of his time. In doing so, he thematizes through the depiction of the French-dressed doll, the French-oriented fashion infatuation of the Spanish royal court, as well as the power of women over the male figure. Art critic Robert Hughes recognizes in this a "biting commentary" by the artist, which he interpreted as a concern about the loss of traditional Spanish masculinity. For women, who had been almost completely excluded from public life until the 18th century, were now beginning to emancipate themselves. An important role in this social change was played by the Spanish King Carlos III, who in the 1780s gave women access to school education as well as to the world of work, which can be seen as the basis of their newly emerging self-confidence. 

Francisco de Goya - The Straw Doll

Oil on canvas, 1791-92, 267 x 160 cm, Museo del Prado in Madrid


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