Artworks under the lens

Unveiling the Masterpiece: Francisco Goya’s “The Third of May”

In the vast tapestry of art history, certain masterpieces stand out not just for their aesthetic brilliance but for their profound ability to evoke raw human emotions. Francisco Goya’s The Third of May is one such painting, a poignant narrative that transcends its canvas to immerse viewers in the tumultuous realities of war. In this article, we’ll delve into the life and career of the enigmatic Francisco Goya, unravel the layers of The Third of May, and navigate through the intriguing details that make this painting an enduring testament to human suffering and resilience.

Who was Francisco Goya?

Francisco Goya

Imagine 18th-century Spain, a nation marked by tradition and upheaval. In the midst of this dynamic era was Francisco Jose de Goya y Lucientes, born on March 30, 1746, in Fuendetodos. Goya’s artistic journey commenced as an apprentice under José Luzán, and later, he honed his skills at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts of San Fernando in Madrid. However, what sets Goya apart is not just his technical prowess but his ability to evolve, both artistically and philosophically.

His Career

The Family of Charles IV

Goya’s career mirrors the turbulent period of Spanish history from the late 18th to the early 19th century. Initially recognized as a court painter, his portraits of Spanish aristocrats reflected the traditional Spanish artistic style. Yet, as he matured, Goya’s art underwent a radical transformation, becoming a mirror reflecting the contradictions and darkness inherent in human nature and society.

What is happening in The Third of May?

The Third of May
ArtistFrancisco Goya
Date Painted1814
MediumOil on canvas
GenreHistory painting, Romanticism
PeriodRomantic period
Dimensions8 feet 9 inches × 13 feet 4 inches
Series / VersionsNo known series or versions
Where is it housed?Museo del Prado, Madrid, Spain

Painted in 1808, “The Third of May” is a haunting depiction of the horrors of war, specifically the Peninsular War between Spain and France. The painting captures the aftermath of the Dos de Mayo Uprising in Madrid, when Spanish citizens revolted against the French occupation. The French retaliation was brutal, leading to the mass execution of Spanish civilians.

In the painting, a lone figure, illuminated by a stark light against the dark backdrop, stands before a firing squad of French soldiers. His outstretched arms and terrified expression convey a sense of vulnerability and desperation. The composition is emotionally charged, with the central figure symbolizing the innocent victims caught in the crossfire of political conflict. Goya’s use of light and shadow adds to the intensity of the scene, emphasizing the stark contrast between the power of the oppressors and the helplessness of the oppressed.

Interesting Facts

Step into the chaotic aftermath of the Peninsular War, specifically the French occupation of Spain, and you’ll find The Third of May as a visceral testament to the atrocities of conflict. Painted in 1814, this masterpiece encapsulates the aftermath of the Dos de Mayo Uprising in Madrid, where Spanish citizens vehemently resisted French occupation. The canvas unfolds a harrowing scene – a group of civilians, their faces illuminated in the stark light of a firing squad, on the verge of execution by faceless French soldiers.

The focal point is a central figure, arms outstretched in a gesture reminiscent of the crucifixion. This anonymous man becomes a potent symbol of sacrifice and resistance, embodying the collective struggle against oppression. The composition is stark, with Goya’s masterful use of light and shadow intensifying the emotional impact, immersing the viewer in the immediacy and horror of the moment.

Personal Connection: Goya’s Witness to Atrocity

Goya’s decision to portray the harsh realities of war in The Third of May was not an artistic abstraction but a response to personal experiences. As a witness to the atrocities committed by both French and Spanish forces during the Peninsular War, Goya felt a deep-seated obligation to document the brutalities he had seen.

Innovative Technique: A Play of Light and Shadow

The Third of May showcases Goya’s innovative use of light and shadow. The stark contrast between the brightly lit figures in the foreground and the shadowy French soldiers in the background is not just an artistic choice – it’s a deliberate strategy to intensify the emotional impact of the scene.

Human Focus: Vulnerability Amidst the Darkness

Unlike conventional war paintings that often glorified heroic actions, Goya’s work in The Third of May places a spotlight on the vulnerability and humanity of the victims. The faceless French soldiers become not just an enemy but a representation of the dehumanizing effects of war on both sides.

Impact on Art and Activism: A Precursor to Social Commentary

The Third of May is more than a mere painting; it’s a precursor to using art as a tool for social and political activism. Its powerful depiction of injustice and resistance has inspired subsequent generations of artists to leverage their craft to address societal issues.

Unraveling the Layers

At the heart of The Third of May is the exploration of the human experience amid the chaos of war. Goya’s brushstrokes etch a narrative that goes beyond the historical specifics of the Dos de Mayo Uprising, becoming a universal commentary on the resilience of the human spirit in the face of oppression.

The Crucified Martyr: Symbol of Defiance

The central figure in The Third of May, with outstretched arms reminiscent of the crucifixion, is a visual anchor that demands attention. This anonymous man becomes a symbol of defiance, his posture echoing a willingness to face inevitable suffering for the sake of a greater cause.

Faces of Fear and Courage

Goya’s attention to facial expressions is remarkable. The illuminated faces of the civilians reveal fear, desperation, and an unwavering defiance. In contrast, the French soldiers remain faceless, emphasizing the dehumanization that occurs on the side of the oppressors.

The Isolation of Light

The strategic use of light in the painting serves as a metaphor for isolation and exposure. The civilians in the spotlight face the consequences of their resistance, their individuality stripped away in the harsh glow. In contrast, the French soldiers lurk in the shadows, their anonymity underscoring the collective nature of oppression.

Narrative Momentum in Composition

The composition itself propels the narrative forward. The diagonal line formed by the illuminated figures draws the eye toward the central martyr, creating a sense of movement and urgency. The stark contrast between light and dark enhances the intensity of the moment, forcing the viewer to confront the emotional gravity of the scene.

The Third of May and the Human Condition

Soldier Detail Third of May

Goya’s masterpiece is not just a historical snapshot; it’s a mirror reflecting the perennial struggle of humanity against injustice. The painting transcends its specific context, inviting viewers to engage with timeless themes that resonate across cultures and centuries.

The Cost of Resistance

The willingness of the central figure to face certain death for the sake of resistance invites contemplation on the sacrifices made in the pursuit of justice. Goya forces us to confront the stark reality that resistance often comes at an immense personal cost.

Dehumanization in Conflict

The facelessness of the French soldiers speaks to the dehumanizing effects of conflict. It serves as a reminder that, in the fog of war, individuals on both sides can become mere instruments of a larger, often oppressive, system.

Power Dynamics and Collective Responsibility

The Third of May subtly addresses power dynamics and collective responsibility. The illuminated civilians, standing together yet isolated, symbolize the collective nature of resistance. Conversely, the faceless soldiers embody the collective responsibility of those perpetuating the violence.

The Unwavering Spirit of Defiance

Despite the grim circumstances, there is an undeniable spirit of defiance in The Third of May. The illuminated faces, though marked by fear, also exude resilience and courage. Goya captures the essence of the human spirit that refuses to be extinguished even in the face of overwhelming adversity.

Legacy and Influence

The Third of May has left an indelible mark on the art world, influencing subsequent generations of artists and activists. Its enduring relevance extends beyond the canvas, sparking conversations about the role of art in societal critique and advocacy.

Goya’s Art as Social Commentary

Goya’s departure from traditional artistic norms paved the way for a new era of art as social commentary. The Third of May served as a precedent for artists using their craft to shine a light on societal issues, challenging viewers to confront uncomfortable truths.

Inspiring Activism Through Art

The painting’s powerful depiction of injustice and resistance has inspired artists to use their work as a tool for activism. From the Spanish Civil War to contemporary conflicts, artists have turned to their canvases to speak truth to power, echoing the spirit of defiance encapsulated in Goya’s masterpiece.

Impact on War Photography

The immediacy and emotional intensity captured by Goya in The Third of May find echoes in the field of war photography. Photographers, much like Goya, aim to document the human cost of conflict, presenting a stark and unfiltered view of the consequences of war.

Contemporary Relevance in Global Conflicts

As conflicts continue to unfold globally, The Third of May remains relevant. Its themes of resistance, dehumanization, and the collective cost of conflict echo in contemporary conversations about human rights, justice, and the moral complexities of war.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the message of the third of May?

In this potent statement against war, Goya not only condemns the countries that go to war with one another but also warns us, the viewers, about our own complicity in violent acts that take place between people who are only a few feet apart rather than between abstract concepts like “countries.”

What are the elements and principles of the Third of May 1808?

Francisco Goya’s picture The Third of May, painted in 1808, is a masterful example of art and design. It demonstrates the six elements of art and design, which are unity and variation, emphasis, balance, rhythm and movement, perspective, and proportion and scale.

What are the characteristics of Francisco Goya paintings?

Among Goya’s most enigmatic and somber works are his latter paintings. The “Black Paintings” are a group of 14 paintings he created from his rural home outside of Madrid. They feature themes of evil, brutality, desperation, and longing.


Francisco Goya’s The Third of May is not merely a painting; it is a profound exploration of the human condition in the face of adversity. As we traverse the emotional terrain of this masterpiece, we encounter not just the historical specificity of the Dos de Mayo Uprising but universal themes that resonate across time and borders.

As we stand witness to the illuminated faces and faceless oppressors in Goya’s masterpiece, we are confronted with the stark reality that, even in the darkest moments of history, the human spirit refuses to be extinguished. The Third of May is more than a painting; it is an enduring call to empathy, activism, and an unwavering belief in the indomitable strength of the human spirit.