The Third of May 1808 was painted in 1814 by the Spanish artist Francisco de Goya, the greatest representative of Spanish painting from the 18th -19th century. The dimensions of the work are 268 x 347 cm, and the medium used is oil on canvas. The artwork is on display at the Museo Nacional del Prado, in Madrid, Spain.
The Third of May 1808 was commissioned by the government of Spain in 1814, along with its companion piece, The Second of May 1808 (also referred to as The Charge of the Mamelukes), at Goya’s request to memorialize the events of the 2nd and 3rd of May. The paintings were not received favorably as they substantially deviated from the conventional painting principles of their time and were not displayed in public for decades. Today The Third of May 1808 is recognized as a masterpiece and has been characterized by scholars as the world’s first modern painting and modern representation of war due to its expressive brushstrokes and emotional charge.
This painting commemorates the Spanish resistance against the invasion of Napoleon’s army during the Peninsular War occupation in 1808. Goya depicts a massacre that took place in Madrid on the 3rd of May in 1808, by French soldiers who executed hundreds of Spaniard rebels who revolted against the French invasion. The Third of May 1808 displays a clear departure from the conventional Neoclassical art depictions of war and history paintings. Goya approaches the subject in a revolutionary manner in comparison to his contemporaries, who usually presented such subject matter with a prominent hero who bravely dies in heroic triumph, in a bloodless and beautifully presented composition. Goya, deeply affected by the slaughter of his compatriots, captures this event through a deeply honest perspective and emotional charge which presents us with the true futility and gruesome reality of war. The work is not meant to inspire awe but to present the tragic aftermath of the uprising in the most truthful and raw manner and bring the viewer face to face with the human drama.
The Third of May, 1808, was appreciated by future painters as well, such as Picasso who drew influence from this painting for his work Guernica and Massacre in Korea, and Manet for his work the Execution of Emperor Maximilian.
What is Depicted in the Artwork?
The scene in The Third of May 1808, takes place outdoors at night hours and captures the moment of a dramatic execution. We can distinguish four groups in the composition. In the foreground we observe a row of troops, French soldiers, dressed in clean and tidy uniforms, aiming with their guns to execute the men right opposite them who are awaiting their eminent death in anguish. The soldiers are standing in a straight line with their backs turned towards the viewer; they are presented as faceless mechanical beings, ready to follow orders with no sense of emotion. Their target, the men in the opposite group are presented in a highly emotional state and expressive gestures standing in front of the hill. The most prominent figure in the composition, a man with a white shirt, kneels on the ground and stretches his arm wide open, looking directly at the soldiers with an enigmatic expression of disbelief, courage, and complete surrender to the fate that awaits him. Right next to the French soldiers, there is a large square lantern that projects a dramatic light onto the central figure. Next to the central figure stands a man with an expression of utter terror and a monk bowing and clasping his hands in prayer, having just witnessed the execution of the men before them. Right by their feet, dead bodies are piled on top of one another in a pool of blood.
Behind them and on the right, we see a procession of desperate men in dramatic poses who appear like shadows cast onto the enclosing hill, covering their eyes or averting their gaze from the drama taking place with their heads down. The sky above them is depicted in pitch black emphasizing the drama taking place, while a large building in the distance and another group of unclear figures holding torches can be seen in the distant background.
Symbolism & Message
Goya’s Third of May 1808 has been described as illustrating the concepts of martyrdom and sacrifice, as well as the inhumanness of war. The main figure with arms outstretched is reminiscent of a crucified Christ, the ultimate symbol of divine power, although in this case, he is an ordinary laborer who is sacrificing himself for his country. At first glance, the viewer can detect a feeling of hopelessness, which is captured in the expression of the men about to be executed, who are perhaps wondering if all this was in vain. The expression and defiant gesture of the central figure, however, in comparison to the men around him, displays a courageous but also sad acceptance of his fate.
Furthermore, the figure’s white shirt may symbolize the purity of his desire for freedom, while the bright light emanating from the lantern illuminates the central figure in what can be perceived as divine light. The French soldiers are left in the shadows indicating the luck of humanity and obedience to orders, as well as the tragic irony of war where anyone can be in the position of either the perpetrator or the victim.
Goya’s representation of this event challenges the viewers to face the tragic truth of heroism and sometimes the futility of war and sacrifice. He presents it in a very expressive and emotional manner that was unusual in the art world at this time which was mostly preoccupied with elevating war scenes and heroic figures.
The color palette of the painting consists of a color palette of primarily earthly and neutral tones of black, white, brown, beige, taupe, gray, and cream. The palette is unified and balanced, with only a few contrasts, the red of the blood on the ground, as well as the bright white shirt and beige pants of the central character, and the olive-green pants of the monk. The hill in the background is painted with strong expressive thick brushstrokes of grey, beige, and cream, and the night sky is painted with highly saturated colors of black, grey, and dark blue producing a sense of depth.
Francisco Goya follows the principles of painting to indicate depth and space in the painting but in a much more expressive manner contrary to his contemporaries. The French soldiers in the foreground are depicted with much darker tones, saturated colors, greater detail, and contour lines, while the ones receding to the background are depicted more blurred, with mostly grey tones and with less definition, almost as ghostlike shadows. Similarly, the shapes of the figures are more clearly defined in the foreground, while the building and the crowd in the distant background are more abstract and with gestural brushstrokes.
The dramatic use of light and shadow adds pathos to the scene. Goya creates an illuminating effect on the central character’s white shirt through the use of chiaroscuro, which is the intense contrast between light and dark. The main source of light comes from the lantern which divides the composition into three main areas: the captives who are bathed in light, the soldiers who are standing in the shadow, and the black pitch sky above them.
The drama of this event is even more enhanced by the shadows of the feet of the French soldiers and the diving line cast on the ground by the lantern emphasizing, even more, the divide between the two groups of men. Light and shadow are used in a very symbolic manner to communicate and highlight both the cruel inhumanity and vulnerable humanity of the moment.
Gestural brushstrokes are used throughout the painting, but in some areas, they are thicker than others, as we see on the hill. Softer brushstrokes are applied on the ground and the soldiers’ clothes thus producing a more smooth textural quality compared to the rest of the painting. Finer details and gradients of shadows are added to all the figures to communicate a sense of volume.
The composition involves the use of a linear perspective. The forms of the figures become smaller in scale and more abstract as they recede into the background thus indicating a sense of space and depth in the painting. There is a complexity in the depiction of the figures overlapping in the foreground and middle ground, but the hill engulfing the figures simplifies the composition by creating a clear distinction from the building in the background and helps the viewer to focus their eyes on the central character.
In terms of movement and direction of lines, we see a clear linearity of diagonal direction created by the soldiers, as well as a horizontal linearity created by the riffles directed at the victims. This communicates a sense of organized rigidity on the right side of the composition, while on the left side the prisoners are depicted in a more disorganized and chaotic fashion which represents their emotional state. The raised arms of the central figure add a dynamic to the composition and interrupt all this movement around him, by attracting the focus back to him.
What happened on the third of May?
In 1808 Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Spain, under the pretext of sending reinforcements to the French army occupying Portugal. He depose the Spanish king, Charles IV, and replaced him with his brother, Joseph Bonaparte. On the 2nd of May, a crowd of Spaniards congregated near the royal palace in Madrid to rise against the reign of the French. The mob clashed with the French guards and reinforcements were called in, including the Mamelukes, who were despised Egyptian mercenaries. Francisco Goya depicts this scene in the painting, The Second of May, 1808, or The Insurrection against the Mamelukes. The following day, the 3rd of May, French troops executed all the Spaniards suspected to have participated in the revolt, at Príncipe Pío hill.
The Spanish war of Independence was sparked by these events in 1808 and lasted until 1814; it became the deadliest event in Spanish modern history leading to the death of 215,000 to 375,000 Spanish. During this period, Goya kept a position of neutrality and retained his position as a first court painter to the Spanish Crown. He was a man of great sensitivity and suffered from poor health and deafness, which made him turn inwards. Deeply concerned with the conflict and violence taking place, he also created in private a series of etchings The Disasters of War (Los desastres de la Guerra in Spanish), which was published 35 years after his death. Goya is considered one of the greatest painters of Spain and the precursor of modern art due to his revolutionary approach both in subject matter and expressive style.
Other Artwork by the Francisco Goya
- The Second of May 1808, or The Insurrection against the Mamelukes (1814)
- I saw it, (Yo Lo Vi) in The Disasters of War etchings (Los desastres de la guerra, plate 44, (c. 1810–1812)
- One cannot look at this, in The Disasters of War etchings (Los desastres de la guerra, plate 44, (c. 1810–1812)
- Saturn Devouring His Son, (1819–1823)