One of my favorite paintings is The Third of May by Spanish artist Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes (1746-1828), better known as Francisco Goya, which documents a tragic event in history.
Before the discussion of the painting, I want to provide some historical context, as it is crucial to understanding works of art for the purpose of art history. During the early nineteenth century, Spaniards became increasingly dissatisfied with the rule of Charles IV and Maria Luisa and threw their support behind Ferdinand VII, the son of the king and queen. To overthrow his parents, Ferdinand VII called for the help of Napoleon Bonaparte, without knowing that Napoleon had plans to rule Spain himself by installing his brother as king. After a victorious overthrow of the king and queen, Napoleon revealed his plans of domination.
When the Spanish realized Napoleon ulterior motives, they responded by attacking the French soldiers in France on May 2, 1808. To assert their authority and military superiority, French soldiers mercilessly killed countless Spaniards the following day, on May 3, 1808. This is the day that Goya documented in arguably his most famous work.
In this painting, Goya skillfully contrasted the French and the Spaniards in many ways. He depicted the French firing squad faceless, anonymous, merciless, and inhumane. On the other hand, he painted the face of the Spaniard in white with great detail, particularly his expression of anguish. The two are also contrasted with light and dark. The Spaniard in white raises his arms in a manner that is reminiscent of Jesus’ crucifixion. In addition to depicting a Spaniard who is about to be executed, Goya also included a pile of dead Spanish bodies and a group of Spaniards who are next in line.
I think this painting is a true masterpiece, and that it is often underrated. It is obvious that the painting was carefully planned. For instance, the bright light cast on the Spaniard and the direction of the rifles of the French firing squad clearly indicate that the Spaniard is the focal point (even though this realization may be completely subconscious to an oblivious viewer). I really like this painting because not only is it skillfully executed, but Goya also effectively used the formal qualities of painting and composition to heighten the dramatic effect of this painting and enhance the message he wanted to communicate.
To learn more about this painting, I highly recommend watching this video. It does a good job of providing more historical context, dissecting the formal aspects of the painting, and allowing the viewer to better understand and appreciate Goya’s work.