Executions of the Third of May, 1808
Francisco de Goya
The Executions of the third of May, 1808 is a painting created by the Spanish artist Francisco Goya. The painting 8 feet 9" by 13 feet 4". The painting depicts an execution of masses of Spanish countrymen by French soldiers. There are 8 plus soldiers, with their faces turned away from the viewer, firing at a group of Spanish countrymen at very close range. There is a central figure Spanish man in his early 30's with his arms outstretched. He is wearing a white shirt and yellow ochre pants. He is on his knees. If you look very closely you can see piercing in the palms of his hands. The central figure is surrounded by about 7 men. They are in various states of emotions. Some of the men cover their eyes, others are in prayer, while at least one covers his ears. There is a monk in prayer along side this group that frames the central character. In the foreground in front of this group of men being executed is a pile of dead bodies. There are at least 3 men dead in a pool of blood that covers them and flows into the center of the composition, in front of the central figure. There is a lantern that illuminates the execution. The action takes place outside the city. There is a church or cathedral in the distance. The men being executed are placed in front of a large boulder. The execution takes place outside the city.
As you can see in the description, there is no commentary about what the painting might mean, or your reaction to it. It is a record, a description of the event. You want to write in such a way that someone who has never seen the painting can get a mind's eye view of what the painting is about.
Explore the elements of composition namely, line, texture, space,color, and shape.
The mood of the painting is very bleak and somber. The colors which the artist has chosen are earth tones, and there is a strong overall contrast of dark and light. This dramatic lighting technique or chiaroscuro can be seen in the central figure or focal point-the young Spanish man with his arm's outstretched. The implied lines of the gun lead the viewers eye to the focal point. His outstretched arms form a "V" line. This line is reiterated in the collar and pants of the man. There is also an angular or "V" line formed by the lantern that illuminates the scene. There is a line in the sand that differentiates the "good, or noble" Spanish countrymen from the harsher, harder forms of the French soldiers in the shadows. The shapes of the French soldiers are highly contoured. They turn way from the viewer. We do not know what they look like. The viewer can not relate to them. In contrast we see the faces of the Spanish countrymen, we see their fear, pain, defiance, and belief. Texturally the Spanish countrymen are softer. The artist has created looser brushstrokes and a duller surface. This in contrast to the shiner surface of the soldier. Spacially, the viewer is outside looking in. The light and dark contrast of the line in the sand separates the two groups spatially. There is also a feeling of entrapment created by the line of the mountain that holds the Spanish countrymen into the space.
What is the overall meaning of the work of art? This is subjective, everyone may have a different response. There are no wrong answers to what the painting says to you-the viewer.
As I look at this painting, without even knowing the history behind it, I feel empathy with the Spanish countrymen. The central figure appears to be a Christ-like figure. Spain and France are for the most part Catholic, and there would be no greater hero than Christ. He appears on the scene-bigger than life. If he stood up He would tower over the scene. A soft light reflects behind him, creating a feeling of spirituality. It is though He is asking the soldiers, "Why are you doing this to Me?" He stands with the Spanish people and symbolizes their courage, faith, and lack of understanding of war atrocities and aggression. The element of time is very interesting in this painting. Goya presents the present-the figure presently being shot, the past-the dead men in the pool of blood-and the future-the long line of men who will be shot. The painting is timeless. It pays tribute to people who are willing to stand up for their beliefs, in spite of, aggressors who would try to destroy them. It also shows the price that the price of war for the victims as well as the aggressors. Goya shows us that the aggressors have become robotic like and inhuman in their treatment of the people they would try to conquer.