In “The Third of May 1808” painted by Francisco Goya, there is a fascinating visual play on the subject of war. Many artists throughout history have painted iconic images to uplift or terrify the viewer. Goya manages to expunge the viewer of these misconceptions of the Homeric desire to glorify combatants in armed conflicts, whether it be for social, political or even personal reasons. Instead of all the one-dimensional works done by previous artists, Goya is able to bring the connoisseur down from the clouds and back to hardscrabble reality. Here there is no means to escape is what Goya seems to suggest in “The Third of May.”
In a sense it would be right to say that the physical clash between the French and Spanish also entered the arena of Art, which streamlined ideological canvases. That is why in the etchings “The Disasters of War” the series not only represent the repulsive and terrifying acts of humans at their most barbaric, but also ideologies. Spain was Catholic. France was not. There are many reasons why Napoleon Bonaparte invaded the Iberian Peninsula, yet the ideology of Catholic Spain versus the Reason of France was certainly a factor, for Napoleon would not want to leave a sleeping giant in the backyard. Napoleon’s only choice was to overthrow Spain. So how did Goya react to this calamity? He reacted by displaying the full frontal attack of anger.
In the “Third of May” Goya reproaches the French Enlightenment. The soldiers are the carriers of the Age of Reason. They are the automated machines that make it run. Contrary to the popular belief of this painting being a fine example of the causes distilled by warmongering, this is a painting dismantling the notion of cultural movements trying to better society. Goya condemns the use of intellectualism as a facade for ulterior motives.
Goya once declared that his antipathy towards lines as, “Always lines never bodies! Where does one see lines in nature?” His attempt at renouncing the use of line in his canvas also captures his mindset on how there is “no reason why my brush should see more than I do.” In an Age where academic precision was the sought after ideal, and Romanticism or Neoclassicism the movement, and with Reason as the impulse, there was no room for outrage. In the “Third of May” there is that evident clash between Reason and Realism. And when one drops the title “Realism,” Realism at possibly its best and arguably its most pure. Yet, in the picture there is this swelling rise of antagonism towards the human race. The viewer is placed right at the moment where civilians are to be killed for little reason at all. Once the guns discharge at point blank range, the lantern of Reason will cease its internal flame. Humans will have been butchered like they were in No Man’s Land. The figure in white with his arms spread out like Christ is one of the most recognizable figures throughout all of Art History. One can only hope that he will be remembered to the same degree as the mythological Gods that many Romanticist poets waxed lyrical over.
Goya manages to render the painting with unmitigated skill. Given that he had to paint with speed, since they were intended to be exhibited at the restoration of King Ferdinand VII, the painting looks in some ways like it was not given that complete touch. From an academic standpoint, it is easy to see why “The Third of May” loitered in obscurity for over a century, because of the simple fact that it did not have that final look to it. It was too crude. But in this crudeness there are recognizable shapes that stand out. Note the hill. There is also contrast of light and shadow which is well executed by Goya. One can see the lantern dividing the soldiers from the civilians, the good from the evil. It is simple executions like these that make “The Third of May” not just a great painting, but a recognizable one. Traces of its forewarning of antagonistic power used against civilians can be seen in the 1960’s. Especially in the Democratic Convention of 1968, police were certainly mimicking the same brutal indifference that Goya had depicted. The police are just as mechanic and bland as the soldiers firing on the civilians. Some things never change.