Goya Paints Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

One of Goya’s best-known and most provocative paintings, the Third of May 1808, dramatically presents the culmination of two violent days of bloody rioting and civilian executions that led to the Peninsular War between Spain and France.

Summary of Event

A painter to three generations of Spanish kings, Francisco de Goya is regarded as the most important Spanish artist of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. His 1814 painting Third of May 1808 stands as one of his most powerful works of art. After King Joseph Bonaparte’s departure from Spain in 1813, and the reestablishment of the Spanish regency with the accession of Ferdinand VII, Goya began two canvases in March of 1814 to record the shocking events of early May, 1808, the beginning of the Peninsular War. Third of May 1808: Execution of the Citizens of Madrid (Goya) Goya, Francisco de [p]Goya, Francisco de;The Second of May, 1808[Second of May, 1808] Peninsular War (1808-1815)Francisco de Goya[Goya] Spain;Peninsular War (1808-1815) Madrid;and Francisco de Goya[Goya] [kw]Goya Paints Third of May 1808: Execution of the Citizens of Madrid (Mar., 1814) [kw]Paints Third of May 1808: Execution of the Citizens of Madrid, Goya (Mar., 1814) [kw]Third of May 1808: Execution of the Citizens of Madrid, Goya Paints (Mar., 1814) Third of May 1808: Execution of the Citizens of Madrid (Goya) Goya, Francisco de [p]Goya, Francisco de;The Second of May, 1808[Second of May, 1808] Peninsular War (1808-1815)Francisco de Goya[Goya] Spain;Peninsular War (1808-1815) Madrid;and Francisco de Goya[Goya] [g]Spain;Mar., 1814: Goya Paints Third of May 1808: Execution of the Citizens of Madrid[0690] [c]Art;Mar., 1814: Goya Paints Third of May 1808: Execution of the Citizens of Madrid[0690] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Mar., 1814: Goya Paints Third of May 1808: Execution of the Citizens of Madrid[0690] Bonaparte, Joseph Ferdinand VII

Tensions between the French and the Spanish had erupted on May 2, 1808, with riots and subsequent retaliation in the streets of Madrid that left approximately four hundred persons dead. French soldiers arrested and executed scores of Spanish citizens all day and into the early hours of May 3. Bonaparte took the throne slightly more than one month later and reigned as an unwelcome monarch until March 17, 1813. Many Spaniards initially welcomed the French, hoping Napoleon’s armies would oust their corrupt government, give Ferdinand VII his birthright as king, and bring much-needed social reform. Their optimism was dashed as war engulfed the country in the bloody wake of May 2 and May 3.

On March 9, 1814, Goya’s petition to paint “our glorious insurrection against the tyrant of Europe” was granted by the interim Regency Council, which agreed to pay Goya for supplies and provide a monthly stipend. Goya’s two identically sized canvases, each 266 by 345 centimeters (8 feet, 9 inches by 11 feet, 4 inches), portray the fighting of one day and the gruesome aftermath of the next with broad, loose brushstrokes that heighten the sense of immediacy and action in each scene. With striking visual contrast, Goya cast the Spanish first as heroes overthrowing their French invaders and then as victims summarily punished for insurrection. May 2 is depicted as a colorful, raucous street fight with echoes of artist Peter Paul Rubens Rubens, Paul and classical battle scenes, while the predawn execution of May 3 is bleak and brutal, reminiscent of popular prints. Although the Third of May 1808 has garnered the most critical attention, it cannot be understood effectively without considering its companion.

The Second of May 1808 depicts one of the violent fights between Spanish civilians and French troops that erupted in the streets of Madrid after a group tried to prevent members of the Spanish royal family from abandoning the city for France. Goya chose to paint the disturbance of the Puerta del Sol, the hub of Madrilenian life. Horses, Turkish mercenaries (the much-feared Mamlūks) Mamlūks[Mamluks] , and Spanish citizens fill the width of the composition, which is dominated by three Mamlūk fighters on horseback, their powerful mounts suggesting the inequality between the two sides. Despite this disparity, the Spaniards appear to have the upper hand. Just right of center, a turbaned figure in golden pants and a dark jacket, dagger at the ready, is thrown off-balance as he is grabbed by the waist from behind. His widened eyes reveal that he knows he is destined to the same gruesome fate as that of his compatriot in front of him, who falls off his horse, arms thrown back, mouth open, and covered in blood. A Spanish partisan prepares to stab the fallen enemy soldier, though only for revenge because his foe is already dead.

Other soldiers, armed with swords and rifles, try to repel the menacing mob, who crowd forward from the background, watching the struggle with rapt attention. Contrary to traditional battle scenes, Goya neither glorifies nor sanitizes the bloody conflict, showing both sides enmeshed in brutal and vicious combat. The bodies of both French and Spanish fighters lie on the ground, their weapons strewn about, still and ineffective.

Goya overlays this horizontal band of activity with two dominant diagonal axes, which intersect between the mounted mercenaries at the center of the painting. The axis that moves downward from left to right first passes over a struggle between a mounted soldier and standing civilian brightly dressed in a golden jacket and short ivory pants. The axis then moves through the body of the bloodied Mamlūk, whose sprawled legs clad in bright red dominate the center of the composition, and then to a crouching man at the lower right, whose yellow pants, white shirt, and pale green jacket draw attention to his stabbing the dead Mamlūk’s horse. The man’s figure bears a strong resemblance to the main character of Goya’s companion painting, The Third of May 1808.

The excitement of The Second of May 1808, with its bright colors and sunlit display of Spanish resistance, is notably absent from Goya’s second, better-known canvas that hauntingly depicts the events of the following morning. Day has turned to eerily quiet night, as French soldiers execute those caught with arms or suspected of participating in the previous day’s riots. Goya again relies on diagonal lines for the organization of his canvas, as two groups of figures recede into space from left foreground to right middle-ground before the distant, sleeping city.

On the painting’s right, a tightly knit phalanx of French soldiers lunges forward with rifles raised, their sharp bayonets pointed unnecessarily close to their unarmed captives. Opposite, an inchoate mass of Spanish civilians huddles together before Madrid’s Príncipe Pío hill as they await execution. Bloodied corpses fill the left foreground, piled randomly to make vivid the degrading, humiliating, and pitiless nature of their recent deaths. Just behind them, a man kneels on the bloodstained ground, surrounded by those waiting to die. His golden pants and white, long-sleeved shirt draw the viewer’s attention. No longer an aggressor, he is now a victim, his empty hands thrown open in a pleading V-shaped gesture of surrender. Many have noted the similarity of his pose to that of the crucified Christ, a reference surely recognizable to the Roman Catholic Spain;Roman Catholics Spanish audience for whom this image was intended.

The Christ-like figure wears bright colors that suggest purity and innocence, and they contrast starkly with the painting’s overall gray, black, and brown tones, further tugging at the viewer’s sympathy. The only other light source in the painting is a large lantern; its cold, artificial glare illuminates the cruel, predawn killings. Goya masterfully captures feelings of fear and despair through pose, expression, and gesture as those waiting to die either watch with hands clasped in horror or cover their faces, unable to look at the slaughter before them. Their inexorable destiny is further emphasized by the demeanor of the French soldiers, who stand rigidly with their backs to the viewer, anonymous members of a faceless, soulless killing machine rather than the human race. This contrast echoes the patriotic view of the uprising and subsequent war, in which the Spanish cast the rioters of May 2 as defenseless heroes and innocent, modern-day martyrs and the French as brutal oppressors.


Goya’s paintings influenced later nineteenth century artists, especially the French painter Édouard Manet Manet, Édouard (1832-1883), who adapted Goya’s composition for his own portrayal of the Execution of Maximillian (1867), but it remains unclear if Goya’s works were publicly shown during his lifetime. Goya had requested permission to paint these works; he was not commissioned to do so. His receipt of financial support from the interim Spanish government suggests he wanted to complete the work.

The paintings were first publicly acknowledged in 1834, when they were in storage at the El Prado Museum Madrid;El Prado Museum[Prado Museum] . They might have been displayed as part of a grand triumphal procession celebrating the return of King Ferdinand Ferdinand VII in 1813. Despite uncertainty over its immediate reception, the Third of May 1808 is now recognized as a canonical example of Romantic painting that focuses on victimhood, the dramatic presentation of horror and violence, and the appeal to the viewer’s compassion, sympathy, and emotion.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Castres, Juares, and Jean-Louis Auge. “Precis de composition: Le 2 mai 1808 et Le 3 mai 1808 de Goya.” Connaissance des Arts 537 (March, 1997): 84-89. Analyzes Goya’s two paintings to determine how he constructed space using calculated attention to symmetry, perspective, and formal harmony.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gassier, Pierre, and Juliet Wilson. The Life and Complete Work of Francisco Goya. 2d ed. New York: Harrison House, 1981. A standard monograph on Goya, first published in French in 1970. Includes a catalog of 1,870 paintings, drawings, and prints, and complemented by 2,148 illustrations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hofmann, Werner. Goya: “To Every Story There Belongs Another.” Translated by David H. Wilson. London: Thames and Hudson, 2003. A well-illustrated monograph on Goya with a short discussion of his wartime works.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Symmons, Sarah. Goya. London: Phaidon, 1998. Part of the Art & Ideas: Major Figures series, which provides overviews of individual artists who hold an important place in art history. The reader should see, especially, the chapter “Disasters of War: War and the Artist as Witness.”
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Thomas, Hugh. Goya: The “Third of May 1808.” New York: Viking Press, 1972. Part of the Art in Context series, this book places the paintings in their historical, social, cultural, and artistic contexts.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tomlinson, Janis. Francisco Goya y Lucientes 1746-1828. London: Phaidon, 1994. A monograph that argues that Goya was an artist whose works had greater continuity than has been recognized.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Goya in the Twilight of the Enlightenment. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1992. Traces Goya’s career from 1789 to about 1816. Argues that works from this period reflect important political and social changes in Spain and mark a turning point in Goya’s career.

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Peninsular War in Spain

Delacroix Paints Liberty Leading the People

Related Article in <i>Great Lives from History: The Nineteenth Century, 1801-1900</i>

La Saragossa. Third of May 1808: Execution of the Citizens of Madrid (Goya) Goya, Francisco de [p]Goya, Francisco de;The Second of May, 1808[Second of May, 1808] Peninsular War (1808-1815)Francisco de Goya[Goya] Spain;Peninsular War (1808-1815) Madrid;and Francisco de Goya[Goya]

Categories: History