Los Fusilamientos del Tres de Mayo, 1814. Francisco de Goya Lucientes.


Goya was born in a village in northern Spain in 1746, his family then moved to Saragossa. He went to Italy to study art, returning to Spain when thirty one years old where he married the daughter of a painter. He painted frescoes in the local cathedral and went on to paint designs for royal tapestries in Madrid in the rococo (ornate) style prevalent at the time. This was an important time in his development as an artist. He soon was to become influenced by neoclassicism and studied the paintings of Velasquez, this led him to use a more spontaneous painting technique. Soon he was asked to paint portraits of the Spanish aristocracy. Following a serious illness he became deaf when forty-six which had the effect of making him less sociable.
These were turbulent times in Spain, Napolean had invaded Spain, Madrid was occupied by the French and then between 1808 and 1814 there raged the Spanish War of Independence, the population rebelled against their occupiers, which is when this painting was commissioned. Goya was a Spanish liberal who disliked Charles IV’s authority and was at first not against the French, he in fact became the court painter for French royalty and took an oath of loyalty to Jospeh Bonaparte. He was forgiven by the French authorities. He expresses his horror of armed conflict in etchings and in a series of paintings, he experienced dark visions. One of his paintings, The Naked Maja landed him before the Spanish Inquisition. He went into voluntary exile in France in 1824 and died there in 1828 aged eighty two,
In this painting Goya has portrayed his impression of an historical event which took place in 1808 in Madrid, when the French retaliated against the Spanish rebels. He used oil on canvas to paint this dramatic scene that is so real and vivid. Kenneth Clark wrote ‘Goya was not simply a high speed camera,’ he drew from memory ‘it took shape in his minds eye as a pattern of lights and darks.’ This is a work of Goya’s imagination. The impression on viewing the scene is one of shock, the action takes place right in front of us, there is little space between us and the men. We see the background colour of the sky, using black, sombre greys and browns are used to paint the cathedral and other buildings, while the foreground is lit by a square lantern placed near the feet of the firing squad, this area is full of colour, light covers the figures on the left, creating a stark contrast. The colours here are glowing whites, gold and blood red. We see the terrified faces of the rebels, onlookers cover their eyes in horror, the faces of the soldiers, on the other hand, are hidden from us. The essence of the brutality of war is embedded in the whole work, Goya does not hold back from expressing his abhorrence. Shot men are sprawled on the ground, the man dressed in white and yellow looks at the firing squad, he is next, his eyes are wide open, arms raised in the air, he has no escape.
Fifty years later Edward Manet , who had seen this painting, painted The Execution of Emperor Maxilmillian in 1867, similar in composition, but perhaps without the same impact on the viewer.

Barry kindly suggested this painting.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia commons

3 thoughts on “Los Fusilamientos del Tres de Mayo, 1814. Francisco de Goya Lucientes.

  1. I first saw this painting in the Prado Museum in Madrid a few years ago and it has made a lasting almost visceral impression on me. For me it has the power to somehow take me there, to perhaps sense some of the horror of what’s unfolding and make me think of how I would react in that situation. Would I be like the central character, adopting a seemingly heroic stance, appealing for reason and not stopping to engage with the world in the last seconds of one’s life, or would I be like the other characters, cowering in terror and covering my eyes to shut it out? I’ve absolutely no idea.

  2. Like Barry, I’m struck by the horror of this scene, and I too wonder how I might behave in front of a hastily convened death squad, with no time to prepare for death.

    The death squad is portrayed as a solid phalanx, like an armadillo, the soldiers fused, as it were, and showing very little by way of any humanising feature, save the left hand of the soldier at the left edge of the row. This small exposure magnifies and in some way redeems the squad, I can feel their own horror at what they must do, their own terror and fear temporarily subordinated to the oppressive discipline under which they serve.

    The prisoners are by contrast deeply human, vulnerable, open (despite their covered faces), soft, weak, damaged, and – in the case of the illuminated central figure – reaching out, engaging his persecutors. This man is strikingly non-Caucasian, with black, vigorously curly hair, thick eyebrows and moustaches.

    His ‘swarthy’ complexion suggests he may be of North African ethnicity. Several of the other prisoners look non-Caucasian. The ethnicity of the soldiers is not suggested, although the exposed hand of the single soldier is similar in complexion to that of the central prisoner.

    The dark city on the hill in the background of the picture gives mute testimony to the non-availability, the impotence, any of protections to those about to die. This picture, in a sense, illustrates the sleep of civilising values, and the faceless brutality that inhabits the dark night of humankind.

    1. Hi Barry and Peter, I too have no idea how I would react in a similar situation, I would probably be frozen to the spot with fear, I remember groundless fears I had during the war that I would be tortured by the SS! I think the monk on the left is seen performing the last rights, some comfort maybe. Goya did succeed in his mission in this work, but still wars go on. These days war photographers do the same work, Paul Nash and other painters, like the Picasso painting I chose earlier, have created paintings with a similar theme when covering wars in the 20th.century. No doubt photographers will be doing the same in this century.

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