Francisco de Goya's extraordinary portrait The Family of Charles IV (1800) was received with bewilderment by some of its first viewers. French visitors to the Prado Museum thought it was a disrespectful, if not humorous, depiction of the members of the royal family, and the portrait has since then challenged art historians’ interpretation of Goya's true intentions. Discussions have delved into whether the painting was meant to be a “caricature” of its subjects. This article revisits this problem by historicizing the debate on caricature in relation to the revival of physiognomy at the end of the eighteenth century, particularly the opposing positions of Johan Caspar Lavater and the Count of Buffon on the science of reading humans’ personality traits by the features of their faces. Not only was Goya well informed on the ongoing debate, but he also responded critically to it with his drawings and, of course, with his portraits.

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