Archive | October, 2011

Francisco Goya, Third of May, 1808, 1814-1815

16 Oct

Third of May, 1808 by Spanish court painter Francisco Goya was painted to commemorate the Spanish resistance during Napoleon’s occupation in 1808. At Goya’s suggestion, the painting was commissioned by the provisional government of Spain in 1814. This painting marked a turning point in Goya’s style as Third of May, 1808 deviated away from traditional Christian art or traditional portrayals of war, making this painting one of the first paintings of the modern era. This revolutionary painting conveys the brutality and cruelty of the executions of the Spanish by the French with groundbreaking realism and paved the way for the modern era of painting.

Third of May, 1808 represents the brutal execution of Spanish prisoners by a French firing squad. The French soldiers stand in a straight line aiming their weapons at the frightened prisoners. The faces of the soldiers are not visible, but the terrified faces of the Spanish rebels can be clearly seen. There is a man on his knees, with his hands up evidently about to be shot. His outstretched arms suggest a crucified Jesus. He is bathed in the most light and is the focus of the painting. Other men, in darker light, cower behind him. A few men are already dead, their dark red blood contrasting with the yellow ground. Your eye is drawn to the man in white on his knees. The whiteness of his shirt represents the innocence of the many Spanish citizens who were senselessly executed during the resistance and he represents the ordinary men who lost their lives fighting for something they believe in. The French soldiers form one dark gray and brown mass, becoming an anonymous killing machine and representing the inhumanness of war. Their mechanical efficiency when it comes to killing is truly horrifying and nightmarish. The solidness of their line and bodies represented the control and organization of these killings and unyielding line of the French soldiers contrasts with the chaotic and unorganized group of the rebels.

Third of May, 1808 paved the way for modern art because it broke away from the traditional depiction of war. War was depicted through the genre of history painting, which were paintings based on historical, mythological, or biblical narratives and were regarded as the highest and noblest form of art. History paintings were rooted in historicism where artists paid strong attention to the institutions, styles, and themes of the past. Contemporary subject matter was rarely dealt with in history paintings. Goya centers his painting around a contemporary event and doesn’t heroicize any of the men. It is not traditionally composed like history paintings with clean lines and clear perspective, which gave history paintings their power to move the viewer. The power of Third of May, 1808 comes from its bluntness and rawness. This portrayal of human slaughter in all its unpleasantness and baseness inspired a new and more realistic style of representing the world.


William Sidney Mount, Eel Spearing at Setauket, 1845

2 Oct

The year 1825 signaled a new era in American visual arts as artists searched for a national style that was different from the European tradition. The push westward fueled the search for a new national form of expression and for some American artists, like William Sidney Mount, the key to that new expression was held in the soil of the nation itself. In Eel Spearing at Setauket, Mount used pigments that were indigenous to Long Island. He also refused to travel abroad so that no foreign characteristics would become influential upon his paintings. Mount believed that by using pigments extracted from the Long Island soil, he would be better enabled at representing the local color, light and atmosphere of the nation. Many of Mount’s paintings, like Eel Spearing at Setauket, became political statements that expressed the fatal discord within the nation.

Painted for a wealthy New York lawyer who wanted a nostalgic picture of his childhood on Long Island, Eel Spearing at Setauket is one of Mount’s most famous paintings. Painted in the gorgeous morning light, two figures- a little boy and a female slave- fish for eels on the smooth river in Setauket. The manor of the commissioner, the Strong family estate, stands in the background, on the horizon. The slave stands in the foreground and wields a spear as she prepares to spear an eel. The position of her body calls to mind the traditional pose of St. George, the legendary dragonslayer. The boy sits in the back of the boat, watching as the woman spears the eel. The subtle coloring of the sand, water, and landscape speaks to Mount’s fervent study of the Long Island landscape and his use of indigenous pigments. The painting not only represents Long Island, it is Long Island. Reception for Eel Spearing at Setauket was mixed, as some did not like that it represented the young boy’s apprenticeship to a slave. By placing an armed slave at the height of his composition, Mount sullied the accepted agreement of a divinely ordained social hierarchy. Despite the smooth, docile, and geometric quality of the painting, Mount brought forth the fears upon everyone’s mind during this racially charged time in American history. At a time when the question of slavery was in debate, even a woman slave wielding an eel spear could call into question the stability of a nation. Mount succeeded in capturing scenes from everyday life in order to express a new national identity, but he also succeeded in capturing the instability and fragileness of the American nation in 1845.