Francisco Goya (1746-1828) Execution of the Rebels

(Executions of the Third of May, 1808), 1814-1815,

Prado Museum, Madrid, Spain



 Francisco Goya's (1746-1826) "Execution of the Rebels,"("Executions of the Third of May, 1808"), painted in 1814-1815, proves that the subject of a painting may be ugly and cruel, but the picture can be a great work of art if it is painted by a genius, and the aesthetics and content are significant.  This masterpiece is painted and drawn in a looser, more modern style, with less sculptural forms (than Caravaggio's "Deposition," for example), and flatter shapes that will influence French painter Edouard Manet in the last half of the 19th Century.


 The revenge of Napoleon's invading troops on the Spaniards who rebelled against their invasion, attacking the French, is taken by firing squad at night.  The subject of the painting is the horror of the execution.  Goya has massed his figures in four distinct groups...those already dead, those about to be shot, those waiting to be placed before the rifles, and the firing squad itself (the dead and those next to die actually form a single group, separated only by the horizontality of death and the verticality of life.


 The dead lie sprawled and bloody at the bottom-left of the picture.  Those to be shot next, stand behind the dead, above their heaped, prostrate bodies on the left side of the painting, opposite the firing squad on the right.  The group waiting to be put before the guns, occupies the space between them in the center of the painting, overlapped by the bayonets and rifle barrels, caught between the firing squad and the next to die.


 Hands and arms of the victims play major expressive and design roles in the painting.  The V of helpless surrender of the spread, raised arms of the most visible victim in white shirt and yellow pants, about to be shot, is repeated in the inverted V of the arms of the dead man bathed in blood in front of him.  Any acknowledgement of helplessness, any plea for mercy to our common humanity will not be heard.  Goya uses this standing figure to signify, on an individual basis, the humanity of the victims, their helplessness and futile appeal to the killers.


 In the group before the firing squad, the hands of a tonsured monk clasp in prayer, nearer the ground than heaven, seeming to reach more toward the shooters than God, as if realizing nothing will work in such extremity.  A clenched fist of another figure is barely raised above shoulder level in acknowledgement of the futility of resistance; hands cover a face in an attempt not to see, to hide from death just a moment away, echoing the gesture of the lead figure in the group next to be brought before the guns.  Another in that latter group clasps praying hands at his mouth; a figure falls to his knees, either in prayer or weakness from fear.  The spread arms of the fallen rebel echo the legs of the soldiers in wide-spread stance...inverted Vs in the foreground, left and right.  


 Light is of major emotional and compositional impact and importance.  The victims are in light, the killers in relative darkness; the sky is dark, mid-distance city buildings shadowed by the gloom.  A square box lantern (the lightest light in the painting, with the central victim's white shirt) casts the illuminating light, aiding the firing squad and revealing the crime to posterity, the way the light bulb's jagged rays in fellow Spaniard Pablo Picasso's painting of "Guernica," one hundred and thirty years later, serves to illuminate the atrocity of Nazi bombers destroying a Spanish market town.  


 The angles of light cast on the ground and on the low hill close behind the victims, like their spreading arms, reverse to a vanishing point near the center of the firing squad.  The inhumanity of the squad versus the humanity of the rebels, aside from their act of murder, is revealed in the faceless, mechanistic formation of the soldiers, backs to the viewer, that contrasts with, and directs our attention at, the faces and bodies – the individuality -- of the victims in their variety of postures and expressions.  


 All questions of aesthetics aside, the main message and emotional point of the painting is man's inhumanity to man, and Goya's abhorrence of it.


Copyright by Don Gray


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