Francisco Goya was born on 30 March 1746 (d.1828).
The Third of May 1808 is the picture against which all future paintings of tragic violence would have to measure themselves. It is truly modern, never surpassed in its newness, so raw that although it was a state commission it remained in storage, unseen by the public for the first 40 years of its life.
The surface is ragged: no smooth finish. The blood on the ground is a dark alizarin crimson smeared on thick and then scraped back with a palette knife, so that it looks crusty and scratchy, just like real blood smeared by the twitches of a dying body. You can’t “read” the wounds that disfigure the face of the man on the ground, but as signs of trauma in paint they are inexpressibly shocking - their imprecision conveys the thought that you can’t look at them.
The man about to be shot faces martyrdom in a clean white shirt, throwing out his arms in a gesture that recalls the Crucifixion, a gesture of indescribable power, flinging out life in defiance. The coarse, swarthy, dilated face - all vitality. The faces of the pueblo , the Spanish people, keep their individuality right up to the edge of the mass grave which is their destiny. They are the opposite of the utter anonymity of the firing squad - all identical backs, braced into the recoil of those big .70-calibre flintlocks. The men featureless, the hill featureless. This is the first truly modern image of war, the first to register the machine-like efficiency of oppression. It is as unlike all previous war paintings as Wilfred Owen’s trench poems are unlike all Victorian war poetry. No glory; only pity and loss, and the defiant humanity of the victims.
- Robert Hughes