Napoleon puts his brother on the throne of Spain
In 1807, Napoleon, bent on conquering the world, brought Spain’s king, Charles IV, into alliance with him in order to conquer Portugal. Napoleon’s troops poured into Spain, supposedly just passing through. But Napoleon’s real intentions soon became clear: the alliance was a trick. The French were taking over. Joseph Bonaparte, Napoleon’s brother, was the new king of Spain.
The 2nd and 3rd of May, 1808
On May 2, 1808, hundreds of Spaniards rebelled. On May 3, these Spanish freedom fighters were rounded up and massacred by the French. Their blood literally ran through the streets of Madrid. Even though Goya had shown French sympathies in the past, the slaughter of his countrymen and the horrors of war made a profound impression on the artist. He commemorated both days of this gruesome uprising in paintings. Although Goya’s Second of May (above) is a tour de force of twisting bodies and charging horses reminiscent of Leonardo’s Battle of Anghiari, his The Third of May, 1808 in Madrid is acclaimed as one of the great paintings of all time, and has even been called the world’s first modern painting.
We see row of French soldiers aiming their guns at a Spanish man, who stretches out his arms in submission both to the men and to his fate. A country hill behind him takes the place of an executioner’s wall. A pile of dead bodies lies at his feet, streaming blood. To his other side, a line of Spanish rebels stretches endlessly into the landscape. They cover their eyes to avoid watching the death that they know awaits them. The city and civilization is far behind them. Even a monk, bowed in prayer, will soon be among the dead.
Transforming Christian iconography
Goya’s painting has been lauded for its brilliant transformation of Christian iconography and its poignant portrayal of man’s inhumanity to man. The central figure of the painting, who is clearly a poor laborer, takes the place of the crucified Christ; he is sacrificing himself for the good of his nation. The lantern that sits between him and the firing squad is the only source of light in the painting, and dazzlingly illuminates his body, bathing him in what can be perceived as spiritual light. His expressive face, which shows an emotion of anguish that is more sad than terrified, echoes Christ’s prayer on the cross, “Forgive them Father, they know not what they do.” Close inspection of the victim’s right hand also shows stigmata, referencing the marks made on Christ’s body during the Crucifixion.
The man’s pose not only equates him with Christ, but also acts as an assertion of his humanity. The French soldiers, by contrast, become mechanical or insect-like. They merge into one faceless, many-legged creature incapable of feeling human emotion. Nothing is going to stop them from murdering this man. The deep recession into space seems to imply that this type of brutality will never end.
Not heroism in battle
This depiction of warfare was a drastic departure from convention. In 18th century art, battle and death was represented as a bloodless affair with little emotional impact. Even the great French Romanticists were more concerned with producing a beautiful canvas in the tradition of history paintings, showing the hero in the heroic act, than with creating emotional impact. Goya’s painting, by contrast, presents us with an anti-hero, imbued with true pathos that had not been seen since, perhaps, the ancient Roman sculpture of The Dying Gaul. Goya’s central figure is not perishing heroically in battle, but rather being killed on the side of the road like an animal. Both the landscape and the dress of the men are nondescript, making the painting timeless. This is certainly why the work remains emotionally charged today.
Future artists also admired The Third of May, 1808 in Madrid, and both Manet and Picasso used it for inspiration in their own portrayals of political murders (Manet’s Execution of Emperor Maximilian and Picasso’s Massacre in Korea). Along with Picasso’s Guernica, Goya’s Third of May remains one of the most chilling images ever created of the atrocities of war, and it is difficult to imagine how much more powerful it must have been in the pre-photographic era, before people were bombarded with images of warfare in the media. A powerful anti-war statement, Goya is not only criticizing the nations that wage war on one another, but is also admonishing us, the viewers, for being complicit in acts of violence, which occur not between abstract entities like “countries,” but between human beings standing a few feet away from one another.
This painting at the Prado Museum
Goya and the Spanish Enlightenment at the Timeline of Art History, Metropolitan Museum of Art
A brief biography of the artist at the Getty Museum