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.
El Greco’s Assumption of the Virgin tells the story of the Assumption and was his first major commission after his move to Toledo. Painted for the high altar of the church of Santo Domingo el Antiguo in Toledo, the painting depicts the Virgin Mary ascending to heaven atop a crescent moon while a group of Apostles look on from below. The Virgin Mary is depicted in an interesting position in that she is seen from below while the Apostles are placed at the viewer’s eye level. The painting is divided into two spheres with the Apostles occupying the earthly sphere and the angels occupying the heavenly sphere. The Apostles stand around a heavy, stone tomb as they look on with amazement as Mary moves into the heavenly sphere. The angels form a semicircle around the Virgin Mary and reach out in celebration as she ascends. The clothing worn by the Virgin Mary, the angels, and the Apostles is rich, undulating, and bold but the Virgin Mary’s blue and red robes make her stand out from the others. Characteristic of El Greco, the bodies twist and gesture dramatically. These characteristics of form such as color and line convey the importance of the story of the Assumption as well as help to awaken a spiritual fervor in the viewer.
The focus of this painting is the Virgin Mary as it is the story of her being received into heaven. She is visually foregrounded in a number of ways. The viewer looks at the Virgin Mary from below which emphasizes her ascension to heaven. Her extended arms and dynamic body position command a presence against a backdrop of swirling clouds and moving angels. A striking patch of yellow surrounding the Virgin Mary’s head marks her as divine compared to the mass of angels behind her. The bright and bold blue cloth contrasts with the red of her dress making the Virgin Mary stand out against the gold of the sky and white of the clouds. Despite the seemingly heavy quality to the clothing the Virgin Mary wears, her ascension to heaven seems effortless and ethereal, adding to the spiritual quality of the painting. The colors and the Virgin’s dynamic body position emphasize the importance and the drama of the Assumption. To Christians viewing the painting, the Assumption is an important topic because it signals to them that they, like the Virgin Mary, can be received into heaven. El Greco’s emphasis on the Virgin Mary and her ascension is a signal to the importance of religion in everyone’s lives in Toledo.
The diagonal line created by the dynamic bodies gives the painting that upward mobility that is essential to a painting depicted the Assumption. The importance of the Virgin Mary’s movement upward is emphasized by the line within the twisting bodies and pointed hands focused on her. Because the line is dynamic and not static, the painting awakens a religious spirit and force within the viewer causing them to connect with their faith on a deeper level. Another striking aspect of Assumption of the Virgin is the bold use of color and the use of black. While the painting is very colorful, black is still prevalent and is an important marker in the distinction between the earthly sphere and heavenly sphere. Black is used within the bodies to give them more weight and distinction. The bold colors of the clothing play off each other in order to draw the viewers’ eye upward and toward the Virgin Mary. The Virgin Mary’s clothing is also a marker of her importance within the scene as it allows her to stand apart from the countless bodies behind her. Line and color play an important part in telling the story of the Assumption and help to awaken a spiritual fervor within its viewers.
Velázquez’s Forge of the Vulcan is a large oil on canvas of the god Apollo visiting Vulcan within his forge, or blacksmith workshop. Now found in the Museo del Prado in Madrid, the painting represents the moment when Apollo tells Vulcan that Venus, his wife, is having an affair with Mars. Vulcan, who is crafting weapons in his workshop, stands to the right of Apollo, who can be recognized by the crown of laurel around his head. The other blacksmiths in the forge stop in the middle of their work due to the surprise of both the appearance of Apollo and the news he is delivering. Forge of the Vulcan is noteworthy because it marks a change in Velázquez’s painting style. The change was influenced by his journey through Italy as well as a visit from Peter Paul Rubens to the Spanish court in 1628. The colors used and rendering of the bodies and the forge shows the influence of Italian painting on Velázquez. However, his use of ordinary people represents the influence of his Spanish training.
Velázquez chose to center the subject of his painting on the moment the Vulcan hears the news of Venus’ infidelity from Apollo. For this reason, Apollo is swathed in an orange toga to mark his importance. This bold use of coloring by Velázquez shows influence from Italian Renaissance painting where painters like Michelangelo and Titian used bold and striking colors in their paintings. The forge is dominated by gray and brown colors but is punctuated by bursts of orange and yellow from the fire and the hot metal being made into weapons and armor. The contrast between the dusty brown forge and the bright fire and toga heightens the drama of the scene. Visually, the orange-yellow colors move the viewers’ eye across the canvas. The bright yellow halo around Apollo’s head also contrasts sharply with the dark surroundings further marking Apollo as important within the scene. Apollo’s gaze is directed at Vulcan which causes the viewers’ eye to move from Apollo toward Vulcan, emphasizing these two figures as the center of the action. The use of striking colors inspired by the Italian masters helps draw the viewers’ eye across the canvas while also emphasizing the important people.
Forge of the Vulcan shows Velázquez’s interest in nude figures and he renders them in a classical style influenced by Italian painters. The figures are large and muscular and portrayed in such a way as to show off their bodies. The dynamic positions of the men’s bodies speak to the dramatic gesture common in Italian Renaissance art and emphasize the shock and surprise felt by Vulcan and the other men in the workshop. However, these bodies are of contemporary men and the myth takes place within the human realm: in a blacksmith’s workshop that could be found in Spain. While the bodies are muscular, the figures are not idealized in the same way the Italian masters idealized their portrayals of the gods. Vulcan is portrayed as a blacksmith, surrounded by tools typically found in a forge. He stands in contrapposto, but has the face of an ordinary man. Vulcan is not idealized and is quite ugly. He only stands out from the other figures as Vulcan due to Apollo’s gaze. The same can be said for Apollo who also looks like an ordinary man and is only marked as a god by the halo and bright orange toga. While the toga falls in such a way to show as much of his body as possible, he is still representative of a contemporary man. The surrounding men are arranged in different positions so Velázquez can illustrate his mastery of the nude body. The man in the foreground with his back to the viewer is also positioned in contrapposto while the man on the far right is bent over armor with his muscular leg extended out in front of him. The men are clothed in a simple brown cloth that allow their bodies to be visible but also marks them as everyday blacksmiths.
After his visit to Italy, the style of Velázquez painting began to change. But even with an interest in dramatic gesture, space, the nude figure, and color learned from the Italian masters, Velázquez still found ways to make these Italian influences his own by incorporating characteristics of Spanish painting into his works. Forge of Vulcan is one such work where characteristics from both Italy and Spain can be found.