Francisco de Goya: The Disasters of War Series

Francisco de Goya has been considered the most important Spanish artist of the late 18th and early 19th centuries and throughout his long career as a commentator and chronicler of his era. Immensely successful in his lifetime, Goya is often referred to as both the last of the Old Masters and the first of the moderns. He was also one of the great portraitists of his time. Goya became a court painter to the Spanish Crown in 1786 and this early portion of his career is marked by portraits of the Spanish aristocracy and royalty and Rococo style tapestry cartoons designed for the royal palace. He was appointed Director of the Royal Academy in 1795, the year Manuel Godoy made an unfavorable treaty with France. In 1799 Goya became Primer Pintor de Cámara, the highest rank for a Spanish court painter.

By 1807, Napoleon set out to conquer the world. He convinced Spain’s king, Charles IV, into an alliance with him in order to conquer Portugal. Napoleon’s troops poured into Spain, supposedly just passing through ( But Napoleon’s real intentions soon became clear when the alliance that was established turned out to be a trick. The French were taking over and in 1807 Napoleon led the French army into the Peninsular War against Spain. Goya remained in Madrid during the war which seems to have affected him deeply. Although he did not talk about his thoughts in public, due to most likely fear of persecution by the French. The atrocities he saw were unimaginable and they can be seen in his Disasters of War series of prints. The series was published 35 years after his death and his 1814 paintings The Second of May 1808 and The Third of May 1808. We aren’t really sure what Goya’s involvement with the court of the Joseph I was since he was placed on the throne by his brother Napoleon Bonaparte, he was not the legitimate king of Spain but rather an imposter. Nonetheless, Goya painted works for French patrons and sympathizers but kept neutral during the fighting. After the restoration of the Spanish king Ferdinand VII in 1814, Goya denied any involvement with the French. Ferdinand VII returned to Spain in 1814 but relations with Goya were not cordial. The artist completed portraits of the king's variety of ministries, but not for the king himself.

On May 2, 1808, hundreds of Spaniards rebelled. the slaughter of his countrymen and the horrors of war made a profound impression on the artist. He commemorated both days of this gruesome uprising in paintings. Although Goya’s Second of May Painting is a tour de force of twisting bodies and charging horses The Third of May 1808 in Madrid is acclaimed as one of the great paintings of all time and has even been called the world’s first modern painting ( On May 3, these Spanish freedom fighters were rounded up and massacred by the French. Their blood literally ran through the streets of Madrid ( Goya’s Painting titled the 3rd of May Shows us the raw reality of a day of the war, the cruelty we as humans possess. The first thing that catches our eye in this oil on canvas painting is the Spanish man, with the crisp white shirt stretching out his arms in submission both to the men and to his fate. Almost a Christ-like figure standing in front of a firing squad, waiting to die in front of a row of French soldiers aiming their guns at him. Another thing that catches our eye is the country hill behind him which can be seen almost as an executioner’s wall. We also see death all around him, piles of dead bodies lying at his feet, streaming blood ( To his other side, a line of Spanish rebels stretches as far as we can see into the landscape. The Spaniards cover their eyes to avoid watching the inevitable death that they know is awaiting them. The city and civilization are far behind them. We even see a monk, that seems like he is praying for the man in the white shirt, himself and everyone else waiting on their deaths. So, we see the unstoppable cruelty of one group of people towards another.

El Tres de Mayo, by Francisco de Goya, from Prado thin black margin.jpg,_by_Francisco_de_Goya,_from_Prado_thin_black_margin.jpg

We might never know what the true intentions behind Goya creating The Disasters of War, some art historians view them as a visual protest against the violence of the 1808 Dos de Mayo Uprising, the subsequent Peninsular War and the move against liberalism in the aftermath of the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy in 1814. In my opinion, I think he wanted all these disturbing events that were caused by a tyrant as Napoleon to be recorded for us to remember regardless of time and the outcome when we are consumed by power and greed. Perhaps Goya wanted there to be a record of this macabre moment in the history of Spain. His depiction of battlefield horror represents the conscience in the face of death and destruction.


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