Art historical analysis with Goya’s Third of May, 1808

Francisco de Goya, Third of May, 1808, 1814, oil on canvas, 266 x 345.1 cm (Museo del Prado. Madrid)

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:04] There are different methods that art historians use to get at meaning in a historical sense. What did the work of art mean to the artist? What did it mean to the culture for which it was originally made? How did that meaning change up to the present moment?

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:18] One of the first things you can do when you approach a work of art is to begin describing it. Normally, we walk past a work of art quickly, but if you stay with it and interrogate it just on what art historians call its formal properties, you can learn a lot.

Dr. Zucker: [0:32] Formal properties refers just to the physical object itself, and formal analysis is based on a simple act: that is, looking closely.

Dr. Harris: [0:41] Another thing you can start thinking about is the subject matter, the content of the work of art. Is it telling a story from mythology, from history, from the Bible?

Dr. Zucker: [0:50] Then when it comes to modern art, sometimes that’s a little more difficult because sometimes there is no overt story. Then the last and perhaps even most important way that art historians try to understand a work of art is to think about the context in which that work of art was originally embedded.

[1:08] What was the world like when this work of art was made? What was it made for? Who asked to have it made? What was happening politically, economically, socially, at that moment?

Dr. Harris: [1:18] Let’s begin with Goya’s “Third of May, 1808.”

Dr. Zucker: [1:22] Now, when I walk up to a painting, very often the first thing I’ll try to do is understand the painting formally. What decisions did the artist make? For one thing, the artist decided to make a large painting.

Dr. Harris: [1:33] That says something about the artist’s ambition for the work of art. It’s important to note that this is oil paint on canvas.

Dr. Zucker: [1:42] Substantial works of art were oil on canvas. This is not watercolor, it’s not a sketch.

Dr. Harris: [1:47] The next thing that I notice is the extreme contrast of light and dark and the way that the artist has almost divided the canvas into these zones of light and dark.

Dr. Zucker: [1:59] Scale, material, and value — that is, the use of light and dark — are all formal qualities, but so is composition.

Dr. Harris: [2:07] I think about it as stage direction. Where is the artist placing his actors? What is their relationship to the landscape? What is their relationship to one another? What is the artist asking me to look at? What is he drawing my eye to? Clearly, in this painting, it’s that figure in white with his hands outstretched above him.

Dr. Zucker: [2:28] Goya makes it very clear that we’re looking at that man who’s about to be shot. Those guns are pointing right to him. The composition also reinforces that by the artist placing that figure against a hillside so that he is entrapped there. Our eye is led down to the gunman by the horizon of the hill, then our eye shoots back to the left, right back to that bright white shirt.

Dr. Harris: [2:52] The gunmen form a receding diagonal line, creating an illusion of depth. When we talk about paintings, we’re looking at works of art that are flat. One of the key questions we can ask is, is the artist creating an illusion of space on that flat surface? One of the ways that Goya is doing that is by using this diagonal line that appears to recede into space.

Dr. Zucker: [3:16] He also reinforces depth in a number of other ways. He does it with light. The brightest elements are forward. Things become dimmer as we move back. The level of detail diminishes as we move into the distance. Finally, the artist also uses scale. The buildings in the distance are small in comparison to the men in the foreground.

Dr. Harris: [3:36] He’s also using light and dark as modeling, or chiaroscuro, to create a sense that the forms, the figures in this case, are themselves three-dimensional.

Dr. Zucker: [3:47] You can see that really well, for instance, in the man’s right hand. There you can see the fleshy quality of his thumb where there’s a white highlight. You can see a shadow that is used to trace the contours of that thumb. You have this rounding in space, this volume. All of these are formal elements.

Dr. Harris: [4:07] If we want to stay on this topic of creating an illusion of space, an artist can also do that by using foreshortening, that is, creating the illusion that forms are coming directly out towards us or receding back into the space of the painting.

[4:21] A great example of that is the dead figure in the foreground, who’s fallen toward us after being shot, his arms outstretched. You can see his body move back into space.

Dr. Zucker: [4:33] The artist has distorted the body, made it too short, but we see that accurately in the illusionistic depth that the artist has created.

Dr. Harris: [4:41] We see that Goya is using a lot of earth tones — browns and golds — and it’s nighttime.

Dr. Zucker: [4:47] You talked about the radical contrast between light and darkness. The real reduction of color in this painting helps to reinforce that.

Dr. Harris: [4:56] Another important thing to think about is the brushwork. Seeing the hand of the artist pushing paint across the canvas is possible because of oil paint.

Dr. Zucker: [5:07] The energy of the brushwork can activate the surface of the canvas and give it a sense of power and motion.

[5:13] For example, if we look at the white shirt, the brushstrokes are not careful. It looks sketchy. It looks quick. It gives us a sense that the man has just raised his arms, that that shirt is still in motion. Look at the facial features of the man. His eyebrows are raised up, almost too much, but because the brushwork is so loose, we forgive that. It becomes a kind of gesture.

Dr. Harris: [5:36] That speaks to yet another decision the artist is making. The simplified forms of the face, the simplified forms of the neck, and then the hair. The artist is not spending a huge amount of time finishing this, making it perfect.

Dr. Zucker: [5:48] There’s a different quality that results from that kind of brushy sense of spontaneity.

Dr. Harris: [5:54] For me, that visible brushwork makes me feel the presence of the artist in front of the canvas.

Dr. Zucker: [6:01] There is a sense of immediacy, as opposed to an artist who might create a very finished line which we might see, for instance, in the neoclassical tradition, where the figures seem sculptural and they seem timeless. This is very much of a particular moment and how appropriate this is of a particular day, the 3rd of May, 1808.

Dr. Harris: [6:21] We have a man about to be shot, figures on the ground in front of him who have just been murdered, and I see another figure holding his head who’s next in this line of fire.

Dr. Zucker: [6:33] Goya has taken this static, flat object, this oil painting, and he has suggested depth and the passage of time.

Dr. Harris: [6:40] We could also notice that the figure in white and many of the other figures, we see their faces. They’re human. We have empathy for them.

[6:49] Whereas the soldiers are lined up with their backs toward us and we have this sense of a machine-like firing squad confronting these deeply human figures.

Dr. Zucker: [6:59] We’ve now entered into the subject matter, into the content of the painting.

Dr. Harris: [7:04] It’s hard to keep those things entirely separate, because as we’re talking about the formal elements, we can see figures who are victims and figures who are the perpetrators of the violence.

Dr. Zucker: [7:13] What is the painting about, the narrative, and what’s actually being conveyed in terms of the unfolding of an action? Subject matter can be very closely tied to the historical context, and this is a perfect example.

[7:27] Napoleon Bonaparte is on the throne in France and is asserting his power throughout Europe, including Spain. Now, Napoleon, through some complex machinations, is able to march into Spain, is able to depose the king of Spain, Charles IV, and is ultimately able to make his brother the king of Spain.

Dr. Harris: [7:45] But the people of Spain don’t take this sitting down. There’s a popular uprising against the French occupation of Spain.

Dr. Zucker: [7:53] That event is just the day before, May 2, 1808. In retribution, the French then take a series of innocent people from the city of Madrid, line them up outside the city, and shoot them. That’s what this painting commemorates.

Dr. Harris: [8:06] A group of innocent Spanish people being brutally murdered by Napoleon’s army. Goya has given us an innocent figure with his arms raised in a position that is reminiscent of Christ on the cross. An innocent murder — brutally murdered. The formal elements are here in support of Goya’s position regarding this event.

Dr. Zucker: [8:31] This is one of the great examples of Romanticism, this moment in literature, in music, and in painting when emotional expression came to the fore. When painting was no longer about abstract ideas but very much about an emotional response.

Dr. Harris: [8:48] And a more individualized response. Here, we have someone being killed for no good reason. The brutal facts of how inhumane human beings can be to one another.

Dr. Zucker: [9:03] One of the ways he conveys that message — that is, that content — is through the use of symbolism. Goya has appropriated historical symbolic language. If we look for instance at the man in the white shirt, he is a martyr, a martyr to Spain, and in fact his arms are raised up as if he’s hanging from the cross.

[9:22] If we look very closely, we can see small indentations in his palms that are a reference to the holes that Christ received on the cross, known as the stigmata. Goya is using this historical tradition in painting for the representation of this modern event.

Dr. Harris: [9:41] And painting that event from this subjective modern viewpoint. This isn’t a message from the state, or the pope, or a person in position of power. This is very much Goya’s point of view.

Dr. Zucker: [9:56] That speaks to the economic environment in which this painting was made. This was not a painting that was made for a patron. Somebody did not commission this painting, but this was a painting that Goya felt was important to paint, and so he did.

Dr. Harris: [10:09] It is so clearly about the horrors and the brutality of war. The painting and our understanding of it is so much more enriched by understanding its original historical context and the meaning that it had for the artist and for his world in the early 19th century.

[10:28] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris, "Art historical analysis with Goya’s Third of May, 1808," in Smarthistory, August 9, 2015, accessed May 27, 2024,