Romanticism in Spain
Goya's Third of May, 1808
Goya's dark vision
This painting offers an excellent example of the radical stylistic shift that rejects Neo-Classicism. Goya presents us with a dark vision of innocent Spaniards executed by a Napoleonic firing squad. In order to offer an explanation of what this event meant to Goya, we first need to introduce a little history.
The Napoleonic Empire
Napoleon Bonaparte, who, in a coup d'etat in 1799 seized control of post-revolutionary France from the weak governing body, the Directory. Napoleon eventually consolidated his power, and with a nod to Charlmagne and the Caesars declared himself Emperor. At the height of his power, Napoleon's empire included France, the low countries (Belgium, Luxembourg, and The Netherlands), Germany, Italy, Spain, and much of north Africa and the Near East. It is, of course, Spain that we need to focus on here.
By the end of the 18th century, Goya's talents had been rewarded and he had attained the post of First Painter to the Spanish monarch, King Charles IV. This enviable position was to be short lived, due to the poor judgment of the King. Early in the new century, Charles became convinced that Great Britain, which had previously wrest control of the world's seas from Spain, intended to invade its historical enemy.
The Crown's defensive response was catastrophic. Charles invited Napoleon Bonaparte to bring troops onto Spanish soil in order to defend against Great Britain, their great mutual enemy. The French recognized King Charles's fateful request as an admission of weakness and seized Spain. Eventually, Napoleon's brother, not the English, would replace Charles on the Spanish throne.
Initially, Goya, like many Spanish intellectuals, welcomed the French. Spain had been declining in wealth and power since the 16th century and had managed to avoid the beneficial revolutions in science, philosophy and industry that were then transforming Northwestern Europe. Intellectuals hoped that France would impose its modern Enlightenment culture on an increasingly reactionary Spain.
The Third of May, 1808
Goya's 1814 painting, The Third of May, 1808, The Shootings at Mount Principio Outside Madrid, expresses Goya's bitter disappointment. On May 2, 1808, a French soldier was shoot dead in Madrid. A Spanish sniper was blamed for the murder, ostensibly an act in defense of Spanish autonomy. The French response was swift, brutal and wildly disproportionate.
On May Third, the following day, Napoleonic troops rounded up a large number of innocent civilians, marched them beyond the city's walls, and shot each of them. Goya depicts this grim scene by brilliantly twining form and content. In other words he finds ways to support the narrative through his choices in the actual construction of the canvas. For example:
This is a large canvas of a contemporary tragedy (the painting could be safely made only after Napoleon was deposed in 1814). It consciously refers to the historical use of large-scale history and religious painting (ex. David's Oath of the Horatii, 1784-85), asserting the Romantic claim that the present should reclaim its primacy over an idealized past. Large scale both implies significance and makes the scene both proximate and immediate for the viewer. Goya's scale places us not so much outside the canvas, looking in, but rather so that it seems that we are enveloped into the space, we are not so much observer as direct witnesses.
Rather than the more obvious solution where both the French and the Spanish face off in perfect and equal profile, Goya has shifted our vantage so that we more directly face the victims while the faces of the Napoleonic guard are obscured. This successful strategy increases our sympathy on the one hand while reducing the soldiers individuality and perhaps even equating them with the guns that become their faces on the other.
Similarly expressive is Goya's decision to trap the persecuted against the rising mountain and the heavy and forbidding blackness of the night sky. Finally, Goya multiplies the terror of the immediate ordeal by trailing the line of unfortunate captives into the distance, suggesting the that this action will by repeated throughout the night. Line, Brushwork and Color: In sharp contrast to the smooth surfaces and modulation of tone seen in Neo-Classicism, French and Spanish Romanticism tended to strive instead for a more impulsive, more physical mark.
In Goya's painting the figures are rendered in comparatively broad and rough strokes of the brush. Like the mature work of the Great Spanish Baroque painter Diego Velasquez whom Goya so much admired, there is in the Third of May... an effort to invigorate and humanize the frozen compositions of the previously dominant styles (the High Renaissance and Neo-Classicism respectively). This newly recovered aggressiveness is also expressed through light and color. Goya intensifies the painting's emotional pitch by the interaction of sharp contrasts; light collides with expansive darks; white and yellow are sharp and vivid against the deep blacks, browns and reds.
Light is central to Goya's image. Like the Baroque masters, Gentileschi and de la Tour, the picture's sole source of light, the papered oil lantern controlled by the French, is contained within the frame of the canvas. Some art historians that specialize in Goya have suggested that this lantern functions as the bitter core of the painting. It symbolizes the Enlightenment that Goya had once hoped the French would bring to Spain but is here used to further their campaign of terror, the enlightenment turned to evil purpose. Certainly, the lantern focuses our attention on the spectrum of emotions on the face of those being shot.
Our eyes are drawn to the young man in white and yellow. In contrast to the pleading and terrified faces that surround him, he stands with arms up facing his enemy. It is in the mighty yet fragile bravery expressed in this man's face that Goya's deep humanity becomes apparent. But Goya invests this figure with even greater importance. While at first the figure's raised arms might be read as a sort of active surrender, Goya is in fact mimicking Christ upon the cross. Note the stigmata that appears in the figure's right hand. Goya has cast this massacre as a martyrdom borrowing more than scale from the history of art. Click here to watch the larger video.