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.