By Kandice Rawlings
For anyone who’s taken (and remembers) a survey course in Western art, today’s date surely brings to mind a canonical work – Spanish painter Francisco de Goya’s Third of May, 1808. The picture’s fame can be traced both to Goya’s masterful portrayal of drama and political martyrdom, and to its position as one of the first modern depictions of war. Painted some six years after the events it commemorates, this picture, and the circumstances under which Goya painted it, speak to the political instabilities of 19th-century Europe and the resulting tensions these instabilities raised for many of its artists.
By 1814, when Goya painted Third of May, he had been working at the Spanish royal court for decades as a designer of tapestries and a portrait painter. He had cultivated profitable relationships with the nobility and the clergy, but found himself in a tough spot as a liberal and supporter of the new French Republic’s founding principles. As relations between France and Spain became more precarious, particularly following the beheading of deposed French King Louis XVI – the cousin of Spain’s King Charles IV – Goya split his output largely between royal portraits of the family of Charles IV and the satirical prints Los Caprichos (1799) that undermined the social and religious institutions that the Revolution sought to eradicate.
A complex chain of events led to the episode represented in Third of May. In 1807 Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Spain and forced the weak Charles IV and then his son Ferdinand VII to abdicate the throne. Spaniards revolted when they learned of plans to send members of the Spanish royal family to France, which many feared would mean execution rather than exile. On 2 May 1808, French troops fired on crowds gathered in protest at the royal palace in Madrid, leading to street fighting throughout the city. Hundreds of rebels were rounded up and executed the following day. Despite the successful crushing of this initial rebellion, the outbreak of the five-year Peninsular War plagued the rule of Napoleon’s brother Joseph.
Throughout these upheavals, Goya painted official commissions for each ruler in turn. With Napoleon’s defeat in 1814, the Spanish monarchy under Ferdinand VII was restored. Ferdinand abandoned progressive reforms and reinstated the Inquisition, to which Goya had to answer for his perceived French sympathies. It was perhaps for this reason (probably coinciding with financial need) that Goya offered to paint two scenes of the 1808 revolt, as Priscilla E. Muller (Curator Emeritus, Hispanic Society of America) suggests in her Grove Art Online entry on the artist:
“With Ferdinand’s return to the throne in 1814, Goya again fulfilled royal commissions (e.g. Ferdinand VII in a Royal Cape, 1814–15; Madrid, Prado). That year he was challenged about his sympathies during the French occupation, and in March he astutely requested official permission to immortalize Spain’s ‘glorious insurrection’ against Napoleon, the ‘tyrant’ of Europe. Six years after the events he painted two large canvases, the Second of May 1808 and the Third of May 1808 (both 1814; Madrid, Prado). In the former, which depicts an event he may have witnessed and which predates by a decade Eugène Delacroix’s similar paintings of combat, he vividly portrayed the maelstrom of colour and violent action erupting as knife-wielding Spaniards on foot attacked Mameluke horsemen brandishing swords in the Puerta del Sol in the centre of Madrid. The terrifyingly stark Third of May illustrates the execution of captured Spaniards by firing squad that took place the following night on the Príncipe Pío hill, then on the outskirts of the city. Though the composition recalls prints by others (including one by Miguel Gamborino published in 1813), Goya’s Third of May creates a potent image in which the group is dramatically lit within the overwhelming dark of night, contrasting the terror of the victims with the facelessness of the executioners, an image which was to inspire several later artists including Edouard Manet.”
In the Third of May, Goya deployed traditional Christian imagery of Crucifixion — well understood in Catholic Spain — in the central figure of the composition. Depicting a martyr to Spain, with outstretched arms, flanked by weeping observers and bloody corpses, Goya’s intention is to evoke both sympathy and disgust. A counterpoint to the more heroic representation in the Second of May, this image in some ways echoes the tragic themes Goya explored in the Disasters of War series (1810-1820). As in his earlier career, Goya walked the line between official works, painted for the edification of his royal patrons, and subject matter that was more personal and politically volatile in his inventive prints.
But despite its official sanction, Third of May represents an important pivot toward tragic, rather than heroic representations of war in the history of Western art. Not lacking for inspiration during the chaos of the 19th and 20th centuries, many artists — Edouard Manet, Picasso, Otto Dix, and Robert Capa, to name a few — followed suit in taking up Goya’s theme, one that still resonates today.
Kandice Rawlings is Associate Editor of Oxford Art Online and former adjunct professor of art history at Rutgers University and Rider University. This is her debut OUP blog post.