Art Through Time: A Global View
Conflict and Resistance Art: The Third of May, 1808
The 1808 invasion of Spain by Napoleon’s army and the succeeding French occupation, which lasted until 1814, had a profound impact on Francisco Goya.
Goya had explored themes of irrationality, folly, and corruption in earlier works including the satiric Los Caprichos, but images he created during and after the war with France were much darker, both emotionally and visually, than anything he had done previously.
In the gruesome Disasters of War series begun in the 1808, but published decades later, Goya created images that were unambiguously anti-war. Rather than taking sides in these prints, Goya focused on how war brings out the basest human instincts. In two monumental paintings from 1814, Goya presented a more politically charged perspective. Created for a public audience, the two paintings—The Second of May, 1808 and The Third of May, 1808—commemorate events from the beginning of the war. The first image represents a bloody encounter that took place between the French army and the people of Madrid who rose up against them. The second depicts the execution of the rebels by the French on the following day.
With The Third of May, 1808, Goya has made an image of actual historical events, but enhanced them for maximum dramatic effect. The condemned men stand before a firing squad on the hill Príncipe Pío, one of several locations where such executions took place. The recognizable architecture of the city in the background lends immediacy to the scene. But it is the figures to the left of the composition that demand the viewer’s attention. The main figure, dressed in white, practically glows. Holding out his arms in an unmistakable reference to the crucified Christ, he appears as a heroic martyr. While the faceless French soldiers on the opposite side are rendered almost inhuman, the ill-fated Spanish rebels elicit both sympathy for their suffering and respect for their sacrifice.
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Tomlinson, Janice. Francisco Goya y Lucientes, 1746–1828. London: Phaidon, 1999.