The protests of the last two weeks have been fueled by visibility and exposure: Cell phone footage, social media, and TV news have documented and broadcasted both the spirit of the protesters, and, at times, the violence they are met with. If it weren’t for this, many people still wouldn’t grasp the severity of what the protests are all about.
This got me thinking about popular cries for justice before photography and modern media. Artists and writers courageously raised their brushes and pens for justice. A great example of that is a powerful and important painting from Spain, which, in its own way, shed light on a crisis that might otherwise have gone unseen. Just like the brutality of those who killed George Floyd was exposed by someone with a camera phone, the brutality of those French troops was exposed by Goya.
As court painter to Spain’s kings, Francisco de Goya (1746–1828) spent his career dutifully cranking out portraits and pretty pictures. But inside, he chafed at the arrogance of kings and tyrants, and eventually became a champion of the oppressed.
Goya’s problem with authority came to the fore on one watershed day in Spain’s history — the third of May, 1808. France had invaded Spain. When the proud Spaniards confronted them on Madrid’s main square, Puerta del Sol, the French brutally crushed the protest and started rounding up the ringleaders.
Goya’s Third of May shows the reprisals. It’s the middle of the night, and the rebels have been secretly dragged before a firing squad. They plead for mercy and get none. The soldiers are completely in charge, well-equipped, and well-organized. The rebels are a motley group of grubby workers, scattered and confused. It’s a total mismatch, a war crime. The soldiers — a faceless machine of death — start cutting the men down with all the compassion of a lawnmower. The Spaniards topple into a mass grave. A kneeling man spreads his arms, Christ-like, and asks, “Why?” We can see the whole grim assembly line: those waiting their turn, the victims, the lifeless executed. Next.
If it wasn’t for Goya, who would ever have known about these nobodies? Goya places a big lantern in the middle of the scene and literally shines a light on this atrocity for the whole world to see. It’s a harsh prison-yard floodlight that focuses all the attention on this one man with his look of puzzled horror. The distorted features, the puddle of blood, the twisted bodies, the thick brushwork — all of these were unheard of at the time. Goya helped lay the foundations for a shocking new style — Romanticism — that emphasized strong emotion over idealized beauty.
Because of Goya’s artistic innovations and his social conscience, many consider him to be the last classical and the first modern painter. And thanks to Goya, even today we can remember these anonymous martyrs of freedom.
This art moment — a sampling of how we share our love of art in our tours — is an excerpt from the full-color coffee-table book Europe’s Top 100 Masterpieces by Rick Steves and Gene Openshaw. Please support local businesses in your community by picking up a copy from your favorite bookstore, or you can find it at my online Travel Store. To enhance your art experience, you can find a clip related to this artwork at Rick Steves Classroom Europe.