War Paint (Part 5): The Third of May 1808

Part 5 in a 10 part series.

Francisco Goya’s The Third of May 1808 is an iconic painting by one of the great masters. The image depicts the execution of prisoners following the Dos de Mayo Uprising in Madrid against Napoleon’s invading forces. The events form part of the Peninsular War. Napoleon was invited into Spain by the Spanish King Charles IV. The pretext was that the two nations would conquer and divide up Portugal. Napoleon had other ideas and the expeditionary force showed no signs of leaving.

On May 2nd, the population of Madrid took to arms. Oddly enough, this is the second painting in a row in this series to deal with an uprising against Napoleonic occupational forces. Once unrest was inevitable, the French gave the order that anyone involved was to be shot. Fighting broke out in the city and the French forces quickly put it down. Some hundred or so French soldiers were killed along with numerous Madrileños.

Self-Portrait with Tricorn. Francisco Goya, 1790's.

Self-Portrait with Tricorn. Francisco Goya, 1790’s.

The painting portrays the moment before a group of captured prisoners is executed. What stands out about the work are the three groups of prisoners in varying degrees of execution. The focal point is the huddled mass of bodies illuminated by the lantern on the ground, in the sights of the firing squad, just in front of them. To their right is a huddled mass of slain cohorts. To their left is a group of men watching on in horror. Some shield their eyes. Others cover their mouth, gasping. Their time will come soon.

Goya was born in Fuendetodos, Aragon, near Zaragoza, Spain. It is remarkably near Belchite, a ghost town destroyed during the Spanish Civil War, covered in a post here. Born in 1746, he would go on to a long, productive career, becoming Court Painter to King Charles IV. He became one of the most influential painters in Spain’s long, illustrious history of great painters.

He passed away in 1828 in France. His legacy is immense. His works Saturn Devouring His Son and Witches Sabbath are two of my favorite and can be viewed by clicking the links. The work hangs in The Prado in Madrid.

To view other entries into the War Paint Series, follow the link.

Further Reading

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11 thoughts on “War Paint (Part 5): The Third of May 1808

  1. Jenny says:

    Goya is perhaps my very favorite painter. For financial reasons he had to do portraits of the Spanish royal family, but he did many other paintings and drawings that must have offended the upper class. See in particular his vivid drawings from the Napoleonic wars, terrible and nightmarish but unforgettable, the best drawings of war anywhere.

    • The abovementioned Saturn Devouring His Son is one of the few pieces of art can actually disturbs me. Something in Saturn’s eyes, as though he doesn’t fully understand what he’s doing and is as disturbed by it as you are, gives me the creeps.

  2. Good post. A couple of years ago I visited the Goya Museum in Castres in France and at that time it had a temporary exhibition with the full set of prints of ‘Disasters of War’ which was a real stroke of good luck.

    • I lived in Spain for five years and was so broke the entire time I was there I hardly went anywhere. Hard to regret it because I didn’t have the means, but there was so much I wish I would have seen.

  3. roberthorvat says:

    I occasionally do blog’s on the great artists from time to time. I have Goya pencilled in for his birthday (on this day in history) for March. Stay tuned. Great post Aaron !

  4. jarretr says:

    Love Goya. I remember seeing one of his works for the first time at the Cleveland Museum of Art in Ohio, and I’ve been interested in him ever since. Great post and I’m enjoying this series.

  5. arsvox says:

    Your point of view about this painting is very interesting. I have a theory about it, though. I hope I would have some time to write about it soon. I would like you to read it 🙂

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