The Third of May, 1808 (1814) by Goya
Meaning and Interpretation of Spanish Diptych History Painting

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Third of May, 1808
Detail of main figure.

Third of May, 1808
Detail of the stigmata on the
right hand of the main captive.

For analysis of paintings
by Romantic artists
like Goya, see:
How to Appreciate Paintings.

The Third of May, 1808 (1814)

The Third of May 1808 (1814) By Francisco de Goya.
One of the greatest modern paintings of the nineteenth century.


Explanation of Other Spanish Paintings

For an interpretation of other pictures from the nineteenth century, see: Analysis of Modern Paintings (1800-2000).


Name: The Third of May 1808 (1814) (El tres de mayo de 1808 en Madrid)
Artist: Goya (1746-1828)
Medium: Oil on canvas
Genre: History Painting
Style: Romanticism
Location: Prado Museum, Madrid

Analysis of The Third of May, 1808

One of the last Old Masters of Europe, Francisco Goya y Lucientes was the greatest representative of Spanish painting from the late-18th/early-19th century. In 1777, after an early involvement in religious frescoes and genre painting, he began to develop his talent for etching, with a series of prints including The Garrotted Man ("El agarrotado") (1779). In the early 1780s, as his name became known in court circles, he turned to portrait art, painting his first royal portraits, and in 1786 became court painter to Charles III. In 1790 he was reappointed First Court Painter by the newly crowned king Charles IV. By now his circle of patrons included the highest ranks of Spanish society. Unfortunately, in early 1793, he suffered a serious but unknown illness, which left him completely deaf, withdrawn and subject to the darkest of moods. His art now included a dark Romanticism - occasionally verging on paranoia - illustrated by his "Fantasy and Invention series" (11 small works, painted on tin, 1793); his "Caprices" (80 aquatint etchings, 1797-99); his "Disasters of War" (82 engravings, 1810-20), and "Black Paintings" (14 murals, 1819-23). All these works were intended as a personal chronicle of the absurdities and brutalities of the time, and were not for public display, quite unlike his official output of portraiture and religious paintings which became increasingly popular. In 1799 he was promoted to Primer Pintor de Camara, the highest position available to a court painter. In 1800 he completed one of his greatest portrait paintings - The Family of Charles IV of Spain (Prado, Madrid). The relatively enlightened monarchy of Charles IV was terminated by Napoleon's invasion of Spain in 1808, and the ensuing Peninsular War (1808-14). Goya remained politically 'uninvolved'. However, after the war his relations with the restored Bourbon king Ferdinand VII - who declared himself an absolute monarch and reinstated the Spanish Inquisition - were not cordial. He painted official portraits of the king for a number of different bodies, but not for the king himself. Between 1819 and 1823, alienated by his country's descent into medievalism, Goya lived in a farmhouse outside Madrid, known as "La Quinta del Sordo" (Villa of the Deaf Man), where he completed his final work - a set of 14 brooding images known as the "Black Paintings". Executed in oil directly onto the plaster walls, they were not meant to be seen by anybody else, and it was not until around 1874, some 50 years after his death, that they were transferred to a canvas support and lodged in the Prado museum.



The Third of May 1808 commemorates the events surrounding the Madrid uprising against the French occupying forces of the previous day. The picture is in fact the right-hand half of a diptych: the left-hand half consists of The Second of May, 1808 (The Charge of the Mamelukes). The work was begun in 1814, following a successful appeal by Goya for funds in order to complete the project. It was, and is, a revolutionary painting and undoubtedly the most powerful piece of modern art produced in Spain during the 19th century. Yet, this work of avant-garde art would have been almost incomprehensible to those who saw it at the time, for the simple reason that it rejected all the usual conventions of Baroque and Neoclassical history painting. There are no heroes in the painting, only victims; there are no brave deeds to marvel at, only bloody executions; and there is no noble cause being commemorated, only revolt and suppression.

Contrast, for example, the fallen hero immortalized by Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825) in the Death of Marat (1793, Musee Royaux des Beaux-Arts, Brussels); or the nobility of Jesus's stoicism in The Disrobing of Christ (1577, Cathedral of Toledo) by El Greco (1541-1614). In Goya's oil painting, there is only purposeless death. The initial impact of The Third of May is not known. Nor do we know when it was first shown to the public. Along with its sister painting it was stored in the Prado and not even listed in the museum's catalogue until 1872. However, with the arrival of modern artists like Edouard Manet, who used it as the basis for The Execution of Emperor Maximilian (1867-69), and the new aesthetics being championed by Expressionism, The Third of May 1808 was finally recognized as a ground-breaking masterpiece. Its fame as an expressionist symbol of the atrocities of war has spread further during the 20th century, placing it alongside other anti-war icons of modern art, such as Guernica (1937, Reina Sofia, Madrid) and Massacre in Korea (1951, Musee National Picasso, Paris) by Pablo Picasso (1881-1973).

History painting that depicts a more or less contemporary event begins with The Death of General Wolfe (1770, National Gallery, Ottowa) by Benjamin West (1738-1820). Examples of this form of narrative painting typically have in common a recognizable hero who commits a brave act, and/or dies nobly as a result of it. The point of the painting is to convey the courage and wisdom of the hero, as well as the edifying lesson which he embodies. Goya's diptych is much more ambiguous, portraying as it does a leaderless popular revolt, and its consequences. The Second of May 1808 depicts the spontaneous rioting which erupted in Madrid as the people attacked the French occupying soldiers; The Third of May 1808 depicts the tragic aftermath of the uprising, when the French commander Marshal Murat, ordered the ringleaders to be shot. These shootings started in the early afternoon and continued all through the night and well into the morning of 3 May. The Third of May is set in the early hours of the morning after the uprising. To the right there is the rigidly disciplined French firing squad - a faceless unit of automaton-like executioners - whose rifles are aimed at a loose group of pleading and terrified captives. Around them lie the corpses of earlier victims, covered in blood. The scene is dramatically illuminated by a square lantern, whose glow allows us, in particular, to see the frightened face of the main figure - a simple labourer in a rough white shirt kneeling in the middle of the condemned men, with his arms open wide in a pose reminiscent of the Crucifixion. On the palm of his right hand are marks of the stigmata. Other rebels waiting to be shot include a monk in prayer, and a man who is too scared to even look at what is happening.

So what is the moral of the painting? What uplifting message does it convey? On the one hand Goya clearly indicates - through the 'crucified' protester - that the rebels are martyrs. On the other, he also shows that the uprising has been futile, and has achieved nothing. There is no sense that the sacrifice of human life is going to lead to salvation. Indeed, there is no cause, only tragedy. This is Goya's reluctant and totally 'modern' message. Without knowing it, he is preparing us for the anonymous mass murders of the 20th century. His negativity may possibly stem from his realization that the newly returned Spanish king, Ferdinand VII, is actually more dictatorial and less open to reform than the French king Joseph I, brother of Napoleon Bonaparte, who ruled Spain during the occupation.

The Second of May, 1808 and The Third of May, 1808 were both completed in the months following the triumphant return of Ferdinand VII into Madrid in May 1814. They were hardly suitable for hanging in the royal palace, where Ferdinand was busy dismantling the liberal constitution of 1812. The two pictures share the madness and inhumanity of Goya's "Disasters of War" - a masterpiece of engraving - cataloging the barbarism of military conflict.

Explanation of Other Spanish Paintings

Las Meninas (1656) ('the ladies-in-waiting') by Diego Velazquez
Museo del Prado, Madrid.

The Colossus (1808-12) (El Coloso) by Goya
Prado Museum, Madrid.

Saturn Devouring his Son (1819-23) (Saturno devorando a su hijo) by Goya
Prado Museum, Madrid.

Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907) by Pablo Picasso
Museum of Modern Art (MOMA), New York.

La Vie (1903) by Pablo Picasso
Cleveland Museum of Art.


• For the meaning of other Spanish paintings of the 18th/19th centuries, see: Homepage.

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