Friday, February 12, 2016

The Third of May 1808

Title: El 3 de mayo de 1808 en Madrid (The Third of May 1808 in Madrid)
Artist: Francisco Goya
Date: 1814

The Third of May 1808 (also known as El tres de mayo de 1808 en Madrid or Los fusilamientos de la montaña del Príncipe Pío, or Los fusilamientos del tres de mayo) is a painting completed in 1814 by the Spanish painter Francisco Goya, now in the Museo del Prado, Madrid. In the work, Goya sought to commemorate Spanish resistance to Napoleon's armies during the occupation of 1808 in the Peninsular War. Along with its companion piece of the same size, The Second of May 1808 (or The Charge of the Mamelukes), it was commissioned by the provisional government of Spain at Goya's suggestion. The painting's content, presentation, and emotional force secure its status as a groundbreaking, archetypal image of the horrors of war. Although it draws on many sources from both high and popular art, The Third of May 1808 marks a clear break from convention. Diverging from the traditions of Christian art and traditional depictions of war, it has no distinct precedent, and is acknowledged as one of the first paintings of the modern era. According to the art historian Kenneth Clark, The Third of May 1808 is "the first great picture which can be called revolutionary in every sense of the word, in style, in subject, and in intention". The Third of May 1808 has inspired a number of other major paintings, including a series by Édouard Manet, and Pablo Picasso's Massacre in Korea and Guernica. 

The Third of May 1808 is set in the early hours of the morning following the uprising and centers on two masses of men: one a rigidly poised firing squad, the other a disorganized group of captives held at gun point. Executioners and victims face each other abruptly across a narrow space; according to Kenneth Clark, "by a stroke of genius has contrasted the fierce repetition of the soldiers' attitudes and the steely line of their rifles, with the crumbling irregularity of their target." A square lantern situated on the ground between the two groups throws a dramatic light on the scene. The brightest illumination falls on the huddled victims to the left, whose numbers include a monk or friar in prayer. To the immediate right and at the center of the canvas, other condemned figures stand next in line to be shot. The central figure is the brilliantly lit man kneeling amid the bloodied corpses of those already executed, his arms flung wide in either appeal or defiance. His yellow and white clothing repeats the colors of the lantern. His plain white shirt and sun-burnt face show he is a simple laborer.

On the right side stands the firing squad, engulfed in shadow and painted as a monolithic unit. Seen nearly from behind, their bayonets and their shako headgear form a relentless and immutable column. Most of the faces of the figures cannot be seen, but the face of the man to the right of the main victim, peeping fearfully towards the soldiers, acts as a repoussoir at the back of the central group. Without distracting from the intensity of the foreground drama, a townscape with a steeple looms in the nocturnal distance, probably including the barracks used by the French. In the background between the hillside and the shakos is a crowd with torches: perhaps onlookers, perhaps more soldiers or victims.

The Second and Third of May 1808 are thought to have been intended as parts of a larger series. Written commentary and circumstantial evidence suggest that Goya painted four large canvases memorializing the rebellion of May 1808. In his memoirs of the Royal Academy in 1867, José Caveda wrote of four paintings by Goya of the second of May, and Cristóbal Ferriz—an artist and a collector of Goya—mentioned two other paintings on the theme: a revolt at the royal palace and a defense of artillery barracks. Contemporary prints stand as precedents for such a series. The disappearance of two paintings may indicate official displeasure with the depiction of popular insurrection.

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