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“The Third of May 1808” by Francisco Goya

The Third of May 1808 by Francisco Goya

“The Third of May 1808” by Francisco Goya

“The Third of May 1808” by Francisco Goya depicts the early hours of the morning after the uprising in May 1808 by the people of Madrid against the occupation of the city by French troops. Goya portrays the French as a rigidly firing squad, and the citizens are represented as a disorganised group of captives held at gunpoint. Executioners and victims face each other in a confined space. The Spanish uprising had provoked harsh repression by the French forces.

Goya has contrasted the disciplined line of rifles, with the chaotic individual reactions of the citizens. A square lantern sits on the ground between the two groups throwing a dramatic light on the scene. The light highlights the fallen victims to the left where a monk is praying. The central figure is lit brightly by the lantern and is man kneeling amid the corpses of those already executed; his arms flung wide in defiance. His yellow and white clothing mirrors the colours of the lantern. His plain white shirt and sun-burnt face show he is a labourer. The firing squad, engulfed in shadow are portrayed as an integrated unit, their bayonets and headgear forming a solid line.

Goya sought to commemorate Spanish resistance to Napoleon’s armies during the occupation of 1808 and this painting plus the painting titled “The Second of May 1808” were intended as part of a more extensive series. Evidence suggests that Goya painted four large canvases to memorialise the rebellion of May 1808. The disappearance of the other two paintings may show official displeasure with the depiction of popular uprisings.

The painting’s emotional force made this image a groundbreaking, archetypal picture of the horrors of war. The “Third of May 1808” is a break from convention, diverging from the traditions of Christian art and traditional depictions of war. This painting has gained the reputation of being one of the earliest paintings of the modern era and has inspired some other significant pictures, including Pablo Picasso’s Guernica and many other paintings seeking to depict the ugliness of war.

“With Goya, we do not think of the studio or even of the artist at work. We think only of the event.”
– Kenneth Clark 

Francisco Goya is considered the most important Spanish artist of late 18th and early 19th centuries and was a commentator and chronicler of his era. Goya is often referred to as both the last of the Old Masters and the first of the Moderns.

Francisco Goya

Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes (1746 – 1828) was a Spanish painter and printmaker. He was the most important Spanish artist of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Goya was famously successful in his lifetime, the last of the Old Masters and the first of the moderns.

He was born to a modest family in Aragon, Spain and started the studied of painting from the age of 14. He married at the age of 27 and after a series of pregnancies and miscarriages, only one child, a son, survived into adulthood. Goya became the court painter to the Spanish Crown in 1786, and this early part of his career is marked by portraits of the Spanish aristocracy and royalty and Rococo style tapestry cartoons designed for the royal palace.

Goya suffered a severe illness in 1793 which left him deaf. Sick and disillusioned, his work became progressively darker and pessimistic. His later paintings, prints and drawings seem to reflect a bleaker outlook. In 1807 Napoleon led the French army into war against Spain. Goya remained in Madrid during the war which seems to have affected him deeply. Other works from this mid-period of his life and work include a variety of paintings concerned with insanity, mental asylums, witches, fantastical creatures and religious and political corruption, all of which suggest that he feared for both his country’s fate and his own psychological and physical health.

In Goya’s late period he was disillusioned by the political and social developments in Spain, and he lived in near isolation. Goya eventually abandoned Spain in 1824 to retire to the French city of Bordeaux, accompanied by his younger maid and his companion. Following a stroke which left him paralysed on his right side, and suffering failing eyesight, he died and was buried in 1828 aged 82. His body was later re-interred in Madrid. Famously, however, Goya’s skull went missing, a detail the Spanish consul in France immediately communicated to his superiors in Madrid. The Spanish authorities wired back, “Send Goya, with or without head.”

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  • Was this painting a key influence on future depictions of the indiscriminate killing of civilians?
  • Is this the image we have when thinking of the indiscriminate killing of civilians?
  • Is this a painting an image that will ever disappear from our world?

The Third of May 1808

  • Title:                        The Third of May 1808
  • Spanish:                  El tres de mayo de 1808 en Madrid
  • Artist:                      Francisco Goya
  • Year:                        1814
  • Medium:                 Oil on panel
  • Dimensions:          2.66 × 3.451 m
  • Museum:                Prado Museum, Museo del Prado

Francisco Goya


“The habit doesn’t make the monk.“
– Spanish Proverb


Photo Credit: Francisco de Goya [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons