In 1808, Napoleon Bonaparte was conquering Europe. By March of that year, Madrid was occupied by French forces, and the Spanish monarchy had collapsed. On May 2, the people of Madrid rebelled against the French. The uprising was ruthlessly taken under control, and on May 3, The French firing squads executed hundreds of innocent Spaniards.
The artist Francisco Goya was living in Madrid at the time that these horrifying events took place. Six years later, with the images still burning in his mind, he painted his masterpiece, 'The Third of May, 1808'. This painting is an awesome expression of man's capacity for cruelty and inhumanity.
Goya used the events of May 3 as an excuse for a painting about human crime and madness. His powerful visual expression goes beyond the historical incident represented, and assumes universal human value. This is a painting by a man who has known the absurdity of life. This is a painting which expresses an extraordinary mingling of hatred and compassion, despair and ironic humor, realism and fantasy.
The picture is huge more than eleven feet wide and very different in tone from the previous artistic style of Neoclassical history painting, which emphasized the themes of nobleness, morality, and strength. Goya’s Third of May, 1808 introduced the world to the spontaneous, highly emotional style of Romanticism and illustrated the themes of violent punishment, death, and the senseless brutality of war.
Rather than the more typical view where both the French and the Spanish would have faced off, Goya has shifted our view so that we more directly face the victims while the faces of the soldiers are obscured. This successfully...