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? artes fine arts magazine
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 (also known as a great ant-bear) 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 (above, right).
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.
The identity of the painting’s artist has remained a mystery – that is until recently. After the publication of the 2006 paper, Javier Jordán de Urríes y de la Colina, the curator of the Royal Palace in Aranjuez, was inspired to study this painting in more detail – his recent publication in the Goya art magazine had concluded that the painting was, in fact, painted by Francisco de Goya himself. The paper’s author, de Urriés, was initially interested in the painting due to its unusual subject matter as well as the involvement of Mengs its commission. Since it is already known that Mengs did not paint the picture, this mysterious artist must be found within his studio. Javier Jordán de Urríes y de la Colina conducted further research about Mengs and his disciples, narrowing down the possible candidates who could have untaken the painting, among the short list was a then unknown Goya. During his analysis of the painting, de Urríes drew his focus away from the painting’s main subject and focussed instead on the background. It was then it became clear that the mysterious painter contracted for this work was undeniably Goya.
While a giant anteater is not a subject normally associated with Goya, if we look to the trees and the hills of the painting and compare them to contemporary works of the Aragonese artist, the similarities in style start to emerge. Not only did Goya paint “His Majesty’s Giant Anteater,” but also nothing in the painting indicates any direct influence from Mengs himself, even in the painting’s protagonist. From the palette’s colours to the illumination projected from the left, casting elongated and horizontal shadows, one can see that this is a typical piece of work from Goya during this time period of his artistic life. The trees are particularly telling: where the illumination of the trunks, branches and leaves, not to mention the curved clumps of leaves, are almost identical to the trees depicted in Goya’s La Merienda (The Picnic), painted only a year before the “His Majesty’s Giant Anteater,” or even in his painting, Cazador con Perros (A Hunter and His Dogs), painted in 1775. Other pieces of evidence in Goya’s favour are the stones used in the foreground, the resemblance between these stone with those in the painting Partida de la Caza (A Hunting Party) from 1775 is clear; as are the rolling hills in the background from both “His Majesty’s Giant Anteater,” and Baile a Orillas del Manzanares (Dance on the Banks of the Manzanares). Additionally, if you direct your gaze behind the anteater to the hill in the background, you can see a small, quadrangular structure or a ruined castle. There are strong architectural parallels between this and a near identical structure found in the background of the painting, La Cometa (The Kite), painted only the year after. Essentially, the architecture and the countryside are all features consistent in Goya’s style found in his paintings from this time period. Even the brush strokes used on the animal itself reflect those used on the dog from the painting Caza con Reclamo (Hunting with a Decoy).
The stylistic arguments around Goya’s style are convincing to most, but sceptics may demand further evidence that Spain’s great painter is responsible for “His Majesty’s Giant Anteater.” Other artists in Mengs studio, short listed to less than a dozen, have very different styles concerning landscapes. Not to mention, some of the other artists were undertaking other large commissions at the time. Goya, on the other hand, had returned to Madrid in January 1775 on Mengs’s demand. The year 1776 was an inactive year for the Aragonese painter, meaning that he would have had the time to undertake the commission, unlike the other painters in Mengs’s studio.
While for now, the identity of its painter is believed to be Goya, it does remain to be seen if any further evidence supporting this theory will manifest in the future. Right now, the only true document is the painting itself, where the rolling hills, its ruined castle and trees, leave it hard to doubt Francisco de Goya’s authorship. Regardless of who painted it, “His Majesty’s Giant Anteater,” is a tremendous work of art, and while its zoological topic may not be the most interesting for many art lovers out there, its technique, palette and style ranks it equal to the early paintings of Francisco de Goya, however, its mystery and unconventional subject matter makes it stand above the rest. In all likelihood, “His Majesty’s Giant Anteater,” will be a conversation topic in the art world for years to come. Either way, Spain has just discovered a brand new and previously unknown Goya – and that alone is something to be excited about.
By Jennifer Walker, Contributing Writer
I would like to give a special thanks to Dr. Julio González Alcalde for his extensive help, knowledge and support about the painting and in writing this article, and also to Esteban Manrique Real for allowing me to have a private audience with the painting.
Editor’s Note: A big thank you to on-line arts site http://kunstpedia.com/ for permission to re-run this fascinating article on the ‘pages’ of ARTES.
 “Un Goya Exótico: La Osa Hormiguera de Su Majestad,” Javier Jordán de Urríes y de la Colina, Revista Goya 336 (2011)
 “El Oso Hormiguero de Su Majestad,” Ana Victoria Mazo Pérez, Ascelpio: Revista de Historia de la Medicina y de la Ciencia LVIII (2006)
 Dr. Julio González Alcalde, Private Communication (2011)
 http://museolazarogaldiano.wordpress.com/2011/10/03/nuevo-cuadro-goya-entrevista-javier-jordan-de-urries/ Accessed 2011