Painting Review: The 3rd of May 1808 in Madrid

In preparation for assignment 4 annotations I have decided to research Goya’s famous The 3rd of May 1808 in Madrid. I tried to keep in mind Terry Smith’s four ways of looking as per assignment 3 feedback. 

The 3rd of May 1808 in Madrid or “The Executions” Goya y Lucientes, Francisco de Copyright ©Museo Nacional del Prado
The 3rd of May 1808 in Madrid or “The Executions”, 1814
Goya y Lucientes, Francisco de
Oil on Canvas, H 268 cm. x W 347 cm.
Copyright ©Museo Nacional del Prado
Royal Collection, Madrid, 1814; entered the Prado Museum, before 1834.



I’ve tried again to apply the techniques I learned in reading about the OU study diamond to this painting review. The grid format wasn’t that great for the blog so I’ve split into more of a questions and answers format.

Effects & techniques:

  1. What initially catches your eye? Where do you go next? And after that? The man in white, then the soliders, then the bloody bodies on the ground.
  2. Where do you end up? Do your eyes stray away from the work altogether? The church in the background
  3. Is there anything that you didn’t notice at first but saw later in your reading? The dent in the mans hand, stagmata?
  4. Did your eyes keep coming back to a particular part of the art work? The man in white
  5. Is there anything that you didn’t look at or thought wasn’t important? no.


    1. Has a wide or narrow palette of colours been used? A narrow colour palate with lots of earthy colours in it makes it feel realistic but also doesnt distract from the tonal lights and darks.
    2. Have contrasting colours been placed next to each other? The red of the blood and the green trousers of the monk, and the blue sleeves next to the blood on the dead man in the front brings them out slightly dispite being dark figures, more than the rest of the crowd, because the man in white and the soliders sort of steal the show.
    3. Are there more warm colours than cool colours or vice versa? The mostly warm palate this increases the tension, too much heat on a cool night in spain.
    4. Would you describe the colours as being bright or dull? Are there more bright colours than dull colours (or vice versa)? Most of the clothes and background is dull but the blood is bright red, fresh, dramatic
    5. In what way is dark and light colour used?

I. How wide is the range of colour values featuring in the art work? There is a wide range of colour values, the mood is tense. Very tense.

II. Are contrasting colour values present in the art work? Use of contrasting colour values pick out areas of interest, the light is coming from the lanturn, illuminating the man and the crowd but the soilders are a dark force cutting over the corner of the light.

III. Are contrasting colour values used to model three-dimensional forms? Contrasting colour values are also used to model three-dimensional forms of the folds, shadows are picked out from the dramatic lighting, even some which don’t make sense to be there from the lantern, eg the first frechmans coat would have been in darkness

IV. In what way are the colour values distributed throughout the art work? The distribution of the colour values helps pull your eye around the composition, light is mostly on the left side where the man in white is, darkness on the right from the bodies of the soilders and the dark press of the night sky.


  1. Does the medium impose any limitations on the way the artist works, or allow any particular effects? The oil paint has been applied in what looks to be a hurried fashion, which scratches to reveal layers of colours underneith on the texture of the background. Some parts of the scene are rendered and blended carefull, eg the swords and lantern but some parts look almost unfinished, eg the figures at the edges
  2. Is the medium used unconventionally or is the medium itself unconventional and, if so, does this contribute to the expressive effect of the art work? It doesn’t seem very conventional, it is almost sktech like rather than the beautufilly blended realism that we know oil paintings from earlier periods could be.
  3. Does the medium used suggest a particular mood? it appears desparate as though the artist had to get the image out of his head and on to the canvas.
  4. Does the medium used prompt the spectator to read the work in a particular way? not really


Representation of depth Technique: Effect:
(a) overlapping Y The scene feels 3 dimentional because of the many overlapping layers, the pile of bodies, the people overlapping the man in white on the left, on the right the soilders overlapping eachother so closely they look to be touching, the overlap the lantern and the crowd and the background hill overlaps the front of the church looming mist in the background
(b) diminishing scale Y the figures of the crowd look smaller than the soliders and the church is smaller because its further away. The main figure in white would actually be massive if he stood up so his size has been manipluated to to larger than life.
(c) atmospheric perspective Y The chuch is very misty in the background
(d) vertical placement Y the ground they all stand on is nearer than the church in the background
(e) linear perspective Y the soilders line up as a diagonal going out and back into the frame
(f) modelling Y the modelling of the various textures in the scene especially clothes make the illsuion realistic even through when you look closer you can see its not really


Use of lines:

Directional lines (horizontal, vertical, and diagonal):  The diagonal line of soilders pressing in is quite dramatic, they aim the guns as a strong horizontal at the man in white. The leg of the first soilder is the diagonal towards the pile of bodies, countered by his sword hanging down. The strong V of the man in white’s hands up is mirrored by the same pose in the dead man directly at his feet. the strond diagonal of the rolling hill behind him helps balance the fram from the left.

Contour lines – can also be used to outline forms; such contour lines can be described in terms of their thickness and sharpness. There are clear contour lines around the feet of the soilders and many of the more roughed out parts of the painting

Meaning – initial thoughts from the observed ‘evidence’

I’ve only read about this painting, and Goya, in WHA so far so I already know a little of the background context. Napoleon sent his troops into Spain in 1808, the two paintings 2nd of May and 3rd of May are a pair, representing the uprising of the Spanish against the invaders (2nd May) and the subsequent consequences of that uprising seen here in the 3rd May. Goya’s The second of May 1808 & the third of May 1808 might be seen as replies to Capitulation of Madrid by Gros which shows the Napolean gracoiusly accepting the ‘win’ in front of some nice clean tents in the daylight.

[caption width="800" id="attachment_2675" align="alignleft"] Capitulation of Madrid, 4 December 1808, Antoine-Jean Gros
 361 x 500 cm
oil on canvas
Represented person : Napoleon I , Louis-Alexandre Berthier, Prince of Wagram
“Return of Versailles 13 paintings”, 9 November 1834; Sent to Versailles, January 14, 1835

The dark block of faceless French soldiers are in the middle of executing the local patriots, the bodies pile up beneath the kneeling man in white who raises his arms in surrender, defeated, he represents the nation defeated, he appears as a heroic martyr. His face looks desolate, he knows what is coming next. He monk preys next to him and others in the waiting crowd cover their eyes. All this plays out in front of the church which did nothing to intervene.

Goya uses broad, loose brushwork, blazing colour, and dramatic chiaroscuro lighting to stress the realistic scene. However, it may not be a scene that Goya actually saw, since it was painted in 1814, after Spain’s liberation from Napoleonic rule. The composition is chock full of Christian symbolism, perhaps this scene is taken from a variety of sources of inspiration to represent what actually happened.

Context & Meaning:

In 1807, Napoleon Bonaparte’s forces crossed the Pyrenees into allied Spain under the pretext of invading Portugal. Once in there, he started to take control of regions of Spain. King Charles IV of Spain attempted to flee to South America when he realized what was happening but was forced to abdicate before he could. His son Ferdinand VII took over rule. Napoleon invited both Charles and Ferdinand to France. Fearing their leaders would be executed, the people of Spain rose up against the army (on the 2nd May) and were brutally suppressed (3rd May). Two days later, Napoleon took control, forced both kings to abdicate. He later installed his brother Joseph as Spain’s new monarch. Ferdinand VII was imprisoned for 6 years before he was allowed to reclaim Spain’s throne.

Along with its companion, The 2nd of May 1808 in Madrid: the charge of the Mamelukes, this work was made at the initiative of the Reagent, Luis de Boubon in 1814. Both works may have been used to decorate a triumphal arch during the return of Fernando VII to Madrid, or to commemorate the celebrations of the second of May.  (Museo del Prado, 2016)

The painting has quite a few different names: The 3rd of May 1808 in Madrid, The Executions, The Shootings on the Príncipe Pío Hill, (for the location of the scene) and The Third of May, 1808: The Execution of the Defenders of Madrid. The work commemorates the arrest & execution of mamelukes/madrileños (people of Madrid) on May 3rd 1808 by the Napoleonic invading army following a civilian revolt. As Goya stated: “It is my ardent wish, to perpetuate by means of my brush the most notable and heroic actions and scenes of our most glorious insurrection against the tyrant of Europe.”

The lower left side still shows the marks of damage suffered when this canvas was transferred to Valencia in 1937 during the Spanish Civil War.

“The light in his work is merciless for the simple reason that it shows up cruelty,” (Berger, J, 2001)

The focal point of the composition is the illuminated figure of the main figure whose glowing white shirt and disproportionate size immediately draws your eye. He’s thrown his arms up as though he were “throwing his whole life, in extremis, in the face of his murderers,” (Hughes, R, 2004). He is in the posture of a crucified man “linking the figure of the anonymous political martyr to that of Christ”, and this is reinforced by the stigmata on his hands.

Art historian Kenneth Clark remarked on Goya’s dramatic departure from the idealised and heroic style of history paintings in his book Looking at pictures:

One suddenly realises how much rhetoric even the greatest painters have employed in their efforts to make us believe in their subjects. Delacroix Massacre at Chios, for example: it was painted ten years later than The Third of May, and it might have been painted two hundred years earlier….. With Goya we do not think of the studio or even of the artist at work. We think only of the event. Does this imply that The Third of May is a kind of superior journalism, the record of an incident in which depth of focus is sacrificed to an immediate effect? I am ashamed to say that I once thought so; but the longer I look at this extraordinary picture and at Goya’s other works, the more clearly I recognise that I was mistaken. (Clark, K, 1960)

The French author Malraux points out that Goya paints “the absurdity of being human” and is “the greatest interpreter of anguish the West has ever seen.” (Malraux, A, quoted in Berger, J, 2001).

“Most of the victims have faces. The killers do not. This is one of the most often-noted aspects of the Third of May, and rightly so: with this painting, the modern image of war as anonymous killing is born, and a long tradition of killing as ennobled spectacle comes to its overdue end.”  (Hughes, R, 2004)

Goya’s background:

Francisco de Goya y Lucientes was born in a village called Fuendetodos in Aragon, to a modest family in 1746. He studied painting from age 14 under José Lúzan y Martinez.  He moved to Madrid to study with Anton Raphael Mengs. He became a court painter to the Spanish Crown in 1786, creating portraits commissioned by the Spanish aristocracy and royalty, and the Rococo style tapestry cartoons designed for the royal palace. In 1793, he had suffered a mysterious illness, perhaps a series of strokes, which left him permanently deaf. This had a profound impact on his art, which became increasingly visionary and strange. In 1799 Goya published a series of 80 prints titled Los Caprichos depicting what he called “…the innumerable foibles and follies to be found in any civilized society, and from the common prejudices and deceitful practices which custom, ignorance, or self-interest have made usual.” (, 2011) Where he explored themes of irrationality, folly, and corruption, the famous one being “The sleep of reason produces monsters”.

He married Josefa Bayeu in 1775, sadly they had many pregnancies and miscarriages during their life together. He was the court painter before, during and after the war but images he created during and after the war were much darker, both emotionally and visually, than anything he had done previously. He saw many of the war atrocities first hand, prompting him to create a series of anti-war etchings Disasters of War (Desastres de la Guerra) from 1808, these intended for private consumption and were not published until much later in 1863. Goya focused on how war brings out the basest human instincts. The two public paintings 2nd May & 3rd of May present a more politically charged version of the actual historical events. Some of the details of the painting can be seen in the etchings.

John berger speaks of the honesty goya, saying that he was a commentator more interested in events than states of mind. That his work has a culmination effect from one event to another. ‘The way he composed was theatrical. His works always imply an encounter…. One doesn’t analyse th processes of vision that lie behind an etching by goya; one submits to it’s climax’. (Berger, J, 2001)
Goya’s, commentary, his underlying theme was the ‘consequences of man’s neglect [.. ] of his most precious faulty, Reason’. ‘Reason as a discipline yielding Pleasure derived from th Senses. In Goya’ s work the flesh is a battleground between ignorance, uncontrolled passion, superstition on th one hand and dignity, grace and pleasure on th other. ‘ (Berger, J, 2001)

He draws the ‘abuse of human possibilities. What man was capable of doing to man’. (Berger, J, 2001) The argument on if goya was an objective or subjective artist, was he haunted by his own imagination or by what he saw of the decadence of the Spanish court, the ruthlessness of the inquisition and the horror of the peninsular war. Berger points out that he consciously saw himself as being typical of his time and although he used his fears as a starring point in his work, ultimately they were objective and social. He states that modern writers such as Malraux take a different stance, that goya paints ‘the absurdity of being human’, ‘the greatest interpreter of anguish the West has ever known’. Berger feels that Goya was a prophet of atrocities to come, in that he could foresee the consequences of man’s decent. And that Malraux and others are ‘disillusioned intellectuals’ seeing more of Goya’s despair than is present in the work itself. Berger does not believe Goya to be a Romantic artist, he merely borrows from the romantic vocabulary ‘without being affected by the Romantic predicament’. He states that ‘one of the most interesting confirmations that goya’ s work was outward-facing and objective is his use of light. In his works it is not, as with all those who romantically frighten themselves, the dark that holds horror and terror. It is the light that discloses them…. The light in his work is merciless for the simple reason that it shows up cruelty. ‘ (Berger, J, 2001)
Berger’ s point is that Goya was honest in facing the facts whilst still preserving his ideals.

‘the inestimable importance of Goya for us now is that his honesty compelled him to face and judge the issues that still face us. ‘ (Berger, J, 2001)



The painting has had tremendous influence on artists since the 1800s, for example Manet, Picassco, and many war photographers.

Picasso was ardently anti-war, in his Massacre en Corée he depicting an assassination by firing squad during the Korean War and you can clearly see the influence of the 3rd May here.

Massacre en Corée (Massacre in Korea) – Pablo Picasso
oil on plywood, 110 × 210 cm, Pablo Picasso gift in lieu, 1979, MP 203 © Succession Picasso, 2011/licensed by Viscopy, 2011 © Musée National Picasso, Paris © Paris, Réunion des Musées Nationaux/Jean-Gilles Berizzi









Manet made several versions, this one was cut into four pieces and reassembled by Degas:

Edouard Manet, 1832 – 1883
The Execution of Maximilian
about 1867-8
Oil on canvas, 193 x 284 cm
Bought, 1918


I found this video of a talk by Irishman Eamonn McCann on the importance of Goya’s painting on artists throughout history. The talk takes place in reference to a new rendition of Robert Ballagh’s ‘pop art’ version of the painting entitled, “The Third of May – After Goya, 1970″, this one has the buildings replaced by Derry buildings in the background. He draws parallel of the Irish Bloody Sunday massacre in the 1970s with Madrid in 1808. The setting has poignant resonance with another date.

Its the corner of Glenfada Park where just feet away Jim Wray, William McKinney, Gerard McKinney and Gerard Donaghy were shot and fatally wounded on 30th January 1972.

References: (2011) 200 Prints by Francisco de Goya, From His Most Important Series, on View in Valladolid At:–From-His-Most-Important-Series–on-View-in-Valladolid#.WMaiqU2yrcs
(Accessed on 13 Mar 17)

Berger, J. (2001) Selected Essays. New York: Vintage

Clark, K. (1960) Looking at Pictures. Holt Rinehart and Winston, New York

Google Cultural Institute. (2017) Goya At:
(Accessed on 13 Mar 17)

Honour, H & Fleming, J. (2009) A World History of Art. (7th Ed), London, Laurence King Publishing

Hughes, R. (2004) Goya. London: Vintage

McCann, E, Video. (2014) Talk: Bloody Sunday March Events for 2014 At:
(Accessed on 15 Mar 17)

Museo del Prado. (2016) The 3rd of May 1808 in Madrid or “The Executions” At:
(Accessed on 9 Feb 17)

Riding, A. (2006) ‘Picasso Comes Home to Spain’s Pantheon‘ At:
(Accessed on 15 Mar 17)

The Art Story. (2017) Francisco Goya At:
(Accessed on 13 Mar 17)

Vereycken, K. (2004) Francisco Goya, The American Revolution, and the Fight Against the Synarchist Beast-Man. Fidelio Magazine, Vol 13, Number 4, Winter 2004


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