Famous Paintings: The Third of May 1808

The early years of Francisco Goya (1746-1828), born Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes, were thoroughly undistinguished, with no clues to the famous paintings, prints and drawings that now define his legacy.

He wasn’t a childhood painting prodigy; he clashed with and left his painting teacher, Anton Raphael Mengs; and was dismissive of Renaissance art and the artwork of antiquity (I wonder if he was surprised to have his admission to the Royal Academy of Fine Art rejected – twice).

But Francisco Goya was nonetheless brimming with ambition, perseverance, and confidence.

Left. Vicente Lopez Y Portana. Portrait of Francisco Goya, 1826.  Oil on canvas, approx. 37″ by 31″.  Prado, Madrid.

Following in the footsteps of his mentor, Velazquez, Goya became the king’s painter (pintor del rey) for Charles IV of Spain in 1789; he became First Court Painter in 1799. During these years, Goya created some of the most famous paintings of the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

The tumultous era of the Napoleonic wars were captured in many Goya paintings. Initially, Goya was a proponent of the political enlightenment and freedoms promised by Napoleon and the French Revolution of 1789.

By 1808, though, Goya wrote in his diary:

No one is innocent once he has seen what I have seen.  I witnessed how the noblest ideals of freedom and progress were transformed into lances, sabres, and bayonets.  Arson, looting and rape, all supposed to bring a New Order, in reality only exchanged the garrotte for the gallows. 

On May 2, 1808, Spanish citizens in Madrid revolted against the occupying army of Napoleon. The following day, Napoleon’s forces exacted revenge by executing hundreds of rebels along with innocent bystanders.

Goya captured this horrific day in The Third of May 1808, which he created only after King Ferdinand VII was restored to the Spanish throne in 1814.

Francisco Goya.  The Third of May 1808, 1814.  Oil on canvas, 8’9″ by 11’4″.  Museo del Prado, Madrid.

Nearly a third of the work is a black, looming, menacing sky whose weight seems to amplify the painting’s tension.  Goya depicts the French soldiers as virtual automatons in identical stances and uniforms, all anonymous and faceless: they are universal purveyors of cruelty and injustice, in Goya’s hand.

Victims in The Third of May, conversely, are depicted in wrenching detail:

  • the white-shirted man holds his arms upward, recalling Christ’s crucifixion;
  • the victim in the left foreground, prone in pooled blood, echoes the stance;
  • terror is rampant on the Spaniards’ faces as they witness the killings at point-blank range.

The presence  of the friar, who likely wouldn’t have participated in the revolt, is a stark reminder that many innocent Spainards were killed.


Explore other famous paintings by Goya, Duchess of Alba and Family of Charles IV (with its ungrateful son and his anonymous bride), and explore this overview of Goya’s famous paintings.

See a survey of art history with Masterpiece Cards, a set of art history flashcards that reproduce and assess 250 of the most famous paintings ever made.  

Each 4″ by 6″ Card faithfully reproduces a painting (in color approved by its owner); on the other side of the Card are key facts and an art historian’s introduction to the painting. Take a look!



By |2018-03-24T18:31:18-04:00September 7th, 2010|Romanticism paintings|0 Comments

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