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The Last King of Texas: Charles IV at the Meadows Museum

by Jerome Weeks 16 Mar 2010 7:35 AM

Charles IV of Spain was not a great king — he got whipsawed by the French Revolution and Napoleon. But he knew his high-grade luxury goods — from Strad violins to Goya portraits. The Meadows presents a first-time assessment of the last Enlightenment ruler, the last outburst of neo-classical artifice and finery and, apparently, the last, uncontested, absolute, divinely ordained monarch Texas ever had.


smaller greyer chuck

Francisco de Goya, Charles IV (0il on canvas), 1789.

Southern Methodist University’s Meadows Museum of Art has one of the largest collections of Spanish art outside of Europe. It also has well-established ties with major museums in Spain. But KERA’s Jerome Weeks says that the Meadows’ new exhibition draws on another, older tie.

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If you’ve heard of Charles IV at all, it was probably as a footnote in art history. Charles ruled Spain from 1788 to 1808. And for his court painter, he appointed Francisco de Goya,  Spain’s greatest artist. But it’s a sign of Charles IV’s general lack of esteem that the Meadows exhibition, called Royal Splendor in the Enlightenment, is the first major one to take stock of him — as a patron of the arts.

Mark Roglan, the director of the Meadows Museum, explains.

ROGLAN: “Charles IV was not the greatest administrator – as a king. But he was one of the greatest collectors that Spain ever had.”

Royal Splendor has more than 80 items – including a portrait of the king by Goya (above). But more than paintings, the exhibition features domestic décor of a high order: clocks, furniture, ivories. The music you’re hearing was played on the king’s collection of Stradivarius violins. There’s even an elaborate, enclosed salon chair. The queen sat in it while two stewards hauled her around the palace. Think of it less as a substitute carriage and more as a sideways luxury elevator — for the home.

27 Royal Workshops, Sedan chair of Queen María Luisa (wood, gilded metal, bronze, velvet and silver), 1795

Most of these works have never appeared in the United States before, and most came from the Patrimonio Nacional, Spain’s National Heritage Trust. The Patrimonio manages nine royal palaces, more than a dozen monasteries and convents and some 50,000 acres of parks.  The current king, Juan Carlos, uses them for state occasions; otherwise, they serve as gardens, research archives and museums for the people of Spain.

And for the people who were once ruled by Spain. Yago Pico de Coana is president of the Patrimonio. He explains why it’s significant that the Meadows in Texas is the only museum outside of Spain to host Royal Splendor.

De COANA: “We share great moments in history with your state. And we have a special relationship to Charles IV in Madrid.”

That’s because Charles IV was the last, uncontested King of Texas. The Meadows Museum underscores this with a related display of historic maps from SMU’s DeGolyer Library. The words Nueva Espagna often appear spanning the entire western United States – we were the Colony of New Spain.

But in 1808, Charles IV was exiled by Napoleon. Charles’ son, Ferdinand, did eventually regain control of the crown — but only as a divisive, constitutional monarch. As part of those divisions, Mexico broke away from Spain in 1821. And of course, 15 years later, Texas broke from Mexico.

So here we are at the Meadows – looking at a throne that once ruled Texas.

ROGLAN: “It’s the throne of the queen, Maria Luisa, the wife of Charles IV. It’s a beautiful chair, and what it comes with is this incredible 16-feet canopy that’s made with silk and gold and silver threads. Some of the silver has been oxidized because of time, but yet it’s just a monumental work of art.”

Royal Splendor is an exhibition about court life as a last flowering of neoclassical artifice. It marks the end of the road for this kind of absolute monarchy — in fact, when Charles was crowned King of Spain, his family, the Bourbons, ruled most of Europe. In his lifetime, they lost France, Spain and Italy.


Luigi Valadier, Dessert Service (gilded bronze, marble, semi-precious stones), 1778.

So everything here evokes traditional Renaissance and Church authorities – but only if it can be covered in silk or jewels or gold. Minimalism, this isn’t. There’s a grand banquet centerpiece — a dessert service, no less — that compiles every Roman cliche of arch or column or obelisk. But these toylike temples are made of ivory, amber, marble and gilded bronze, and together, the whole thing is nearly nine feet long.

ROGLAN: “It goes back to Charles IV and his interest to collect small things – yet of really good quality.”

82Charles did love miniatures and clocks – as if he could reduce the universe to decoration and ornate machinery. Over the course of this show, the king actually becomes a poignant figure, a relic in his own life. The traditions Charles stood for were swept away by the forces of the French Revolution: liberty, equality and military dictatorship. One of the last images we see of Charles is an enigmatic, almost comical portrait by Juan Bazil of the back of the former king’s head – as if he were exiting (below, left).

Or turning his back on us.


In all this, there is one moment in Royal Splendor when we might recognize Charles’ ties to us in Texas. The king was an avid hunter. And the exhibition features his shotgun, a gift, ironically enough, from Napoleon.

It’s a gorgeous shotgun.

ROGLAN: “All of that is gold. I mean, all of that is inlaid in gold. And it still works.”

Fatou, detail of Charles IV’s Shotgun (wood, gold, steel and silver), c. 1800