How Goya’s “Third of May” Forever Changed the Way We Look at War
The Third of May 1808—sometimes described as the greatest anti-war painting, the first modern work of art, and the artist’s unquestioned masterpiece—spent most of its first 40 years in storage. Commissioned in 1814 by the provisional Spanish government, it was coolly received and later transferred to the Prado Museum in Madrid. It wasn’t until 1872 that the museum bothered to list the painting in its catalogue. By that time, the horrors Goya had depicted were almost beyond living memory. But in 1814, they were as fresh for the people of Spain as the slaughter of protesters in Cairo, the gassing of Damascus, or the Boston bombing are for us today.
Goya assured the government authorities that his painting would “perpetuate…the most notable and heroic actions of our glorious insurrection against the Tyrant of Europe.” The tyrant in question was Napoleon, who had seized control of Spain in early 1808 and forced the abdication of King Charles IV. On May 2nd, a band of Spanish loyalists tried to regain power in Madrid. But the uprising proved to be a total, bloody failure, and the next morning, French troops marched hundreds of confirmed and suspected rebels out of the city and shot them. Six years later, with Napoleon’s empire in ruins and Charles’s son on the Spanish throne, Goya completed two large canvases depicting the events of the rebellion: one of the May 2nd uprising and the other—the more iconic and disturbing—of the May 3rd executions.
Throughout his career, Goya was a master at convincing his patrons to sign off on one thing, and then delivering something else. It’s certainly true that The Third of May kept the memory of the Spanish insurrection alive, but whether Goya intended this event to appear glorious or heroic is, to put it mildly, questionable. In the early industrial era, a typical European war painting looked less like The Third of May than like The Battle of Blenheim (1743): tastefully balanced, panoramic, enamored with the dance-like beauty of combat. It took all of Goya’s inventiveness to stretch the conventions of academic painting to match the harsh realities of modern warfare. The results were—and are—unsettling, with little room left for heroism.
In a 1957 essay, the novelist André Malraux argued that “modern painting begins” with the Black Paintings—the images of leering, cackling monsters that Goya completed in the early 1820s. In The Third of May, however, Goya depicts another, equally terrifying modernity—emotionless, efficient, and faceless. The shadowy column of French soldiers that dominates the right half of the painting cannot be bargained or reasoned with. Because we can’t see their expressions, we have no way of knowing what’s going on in their heads—our eyes linger instead on their black, mask-like hats and identical, robotic poses. Hours removed from the passions of the battlefield, they’ve marched here to complete an assignment for which thoughts and emotions are irrelevant. Like the guards at Dachau or the participants in Milgram’s experiment, they’re just following orders.
If The Third of May’s executioners are terrifying because Goya shows us very little of them, its victims are unforgettable because we see so much. Art historians have spilled oceans of ink analyzing the painting’s white-shirted, wide-eyed “martyr figure,” as he is often (and somewhat misleadingly) known. In his superb biography of Goya, the critic Robert Hughes describes this figure as “one of the most vivid human ‘presences’ in all art,” while others have likened his pose to that of Christ on the cross. Look closely, in fact, and you’ll find wounds on the man’s hands, an unmistakable allusion to Christ’s stigmata. Yet Goya never lets these allusions drag his painting into sentimentality. This man is a victim, but not quite a martyr. He hasn’t chosen to die, let alone die for a cause; as he throws out his hands, brow contracted in terror, he stands for nothing more or less than himself. His death is raw, incomprehensible, enraging—no amount of religion or corny patriotism can explain it away. As Hughes put it, “There is no higher design: only tyranny replicating itself in the night.”
It’s possible to go on for hundreds of pages about the martyr figure’s pose and expression (and more than a few art historians have), but The Third of May is one of the rare paintings in which almost every square inch contains multitudes. Notice, for instance, the glittering curve of one French soldier’s saber—a minor detail of this vast canvas that nonetheless, in Hughes’s view, outclasses virtually everything in European painting of the time with its “inspired spontaneity.” Beautiful but obsolete, the weapon dangles uselessly from its owner’s hip, a symbol of the phony romanticism of war, to which The Third of May is itself the ultimate rebuttal. Malraux, for his part, lavished attention on the painting’s distant, forlorn cityscape, linked to the foreground by a long chain of prisoners barely visible over the French soldiers’ heads. “Without painting ruins,” he wrote, Goya “evoked ghosts of towns; no one else has achieved that.”
“No one else has achieved that”—the phrase could be applied to any number of Goya’s accomplishments. This isn’t to say that other painters haven’t tried to achieve what Goya did— The Execution of Maximilian (1867–68) scarcely bothers to hide its indebtedness to The Third of May, while Guernica (1937) is The Third of May for the 20th century, right down to the martyr figure’s outstretched arms.
Seen one way, these homages are a sign of The Third of May’s enormous success as an anti-war statement. The Spanish government officials who hired Goya must have thought they were commissioning a memorialization and, by the same token, a celebration of Spain and Spain alone. What they got instead celebrated nothing and condemned war, no matter who waged it or why. As the Napoleonic Wars faded into history, the painting’s universality became clearer. To 21st-century eyes, the figures in The Third of May don’t seem particularly French or Spanish. It is simple enough to imagine this shadowy, pared-down scene playing out in Germany in 1942, in Chile in 1973, or in Iraq in 2006. Small wonder, then, that artists from around the world continue to turn to Goya when realizing their own anti-war visions.
In a different sense, The Third of May’s universality—the fact that it’s all too easy for painters to update Goya for their current moments—can be interpreted as a failure. It’s a reminder that two centuries’ worth of artists, by portraying the horrors of combat so vividly, haven’t been able to stop them from happening over and over again. Artists are, of course, under no obligation to prevent wars. Still, it’s hard not to look back on the dozens of striking, politically oriented images inspired by The Third of May without wondering, a little bitterly: What were they for? What did they do? You can feel a similar kind of bitterness, of too-late-ness, in The Third of May. Goya—whose motto, “Yo lo vi,” means “I saw it”—lived through some of the most violent decades in modern European history. His ambiguous gift was to see, more clearly than almost anyone else at the time, what was happening to his country, and to be unable to do anything about it but paint.