The Spanish painter Francisco de Goya was a leading representative of Romanticism in Spain. He began his career as a court painter to Charles IV of Spain, an enlightened monarch. This portrait of the monarch and his families captures all the glitter and finery of a monarchy that was soon to be toppled by Napoleon’s invading troops.
Goya, The Family of Charles IV (Smarthistory)
In 1808 French troops invaded Spain, under the pretense of bringing the French Revolution to Spain. But instead of bringing democracy, Napoleon’s brother was appointed the new king. The Spanish populace rose up against the French occupying armies in a bloody conflict, and Goya chronicled the atrocities he witnessed in a series of etchings called “The Disasters of War”:
“In eighty small, compact images, each etched with acid on copper, Goya told the appalling truth. He aimed a high-power beam on hideous sights: guerrillas shot at close range; the ragged remains of mutilated corpses; and the emaciated victims of war’s partner, famine. Never before had a story of man’s inhumanity to man been so compellingly told, every episode reported with the utmost compassion, the human form described with such keen honesty and pitying respect.”
Voorhies, James. “Francisco de Goya (1746–1828) and the Spanish Enlightenment”. In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History
See works from the series at the New York Public Library Digital Collection
Goya’s major work chronicling the war is The Third of May 1808. It depicts a French firing squad executing unarmed Spanish peasants in retaliation for an uprising against the occupying army.
The scene takes place at night and is illuminated by a lantern. Our eyes are drawn to the spotlighted figure whose arms are raised in the pose of the crucified Christ as he is about to be executed. Goya makes the viewer sympathize with the peasants by focusing on their anguish as they await their fate. The firing squad, on the other hand, is faceless as they carry out their brutal task. The grouping of the figures is an ironic reference to David’s Oath of the Horatii, as if to suggest that the heroic patriotism of the Revolution had been transformed into a heartless killing machine.
Goya’s painting is different from traditional history painting because it does not celebrate virtue, nor does it glorify a modern “hero” the way Benjamin West did in his Death of General Wolfe, or as David did in his Death of Marat. Instead, Goya focuses on the helpless victims of social injustice. His painting does not celebrate human virtue but rather denounces human brutality.
BBC: The Private Life of a Masterpiece – Goya’s Third of May 1/4
During the later period of his life, Goya worked on a series of so-called “Black Paintings” that decorated the walls of his Madrid house. The are amongst the most horrifying images in the history of art. In their dark and brooding exploration of the bestial side of human nature, they reflect a profound loss of faith in the Enlightenment belief in human Reason, Heroism, and Nobility. In Goya’s eye, man is nothing more than an animal:
Goya’s Saturn Devouring One of His Sons (Smarthistory)
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