Basharat Bashir

The Disasters of War

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Francisco de Goya

In November 1807, French troops invaded Spain and installed a new ruler. For the next six years, Spanish rebels fought the occupation; their resistance was the first ever to be termed “guerilla warfare.” It’s believed that in the early hours of May 3, 1808, French soldiers carried out orders to round up and execute hundreds of suspected rebels.

Francisco Goya, a Spanish artist would have been a witness of the massacre carried out by French soldiers. And the painting “The Third of May 1808” represents a war crime, with the rebel being elevated to achieve heroic martyrdom. The effects of the gruesome scenes witnessed by the artist would later on compel him to produce a series of prints as a revolt against the brute force used against his people.

Francisco de Goya was born to a modest family in 1746 in the village of Fuendetodos in Aragon. He studied painting from age 14 under José Luzán y Martinez and moved to Madrid to study with Anton Raphael Mengs. Goya is considered as one of the greatest Spanish Artist who ever lived. He is considerd as last of the old masters and the first modernist painter.

From the year 1810 to 1820 Goya produced a series of prints known as ‘The Disasters of War’. His memories of the events that he witnessed during the French invasion had an everlasting affect on him. He painted what he saw, and what he saw was bloodshed and chaos. He witnessed gruesome events during the course of his artistic career. He would have witnessed soldiers firing on innocent children, while as political authorities enjoyed as blood thirsty monsters and scavengers. We may argue about many things but in reality nothing has really changed between then and now. According to the critic Robert Hughes, author of a 2003 biography of the artist: “He speaks to us with an urgency that no artist of our time can muster. We see his long-dead face pressed against the glass of our terrible century, Goya looking in at a time worse than his.”

Goya did not make known his intention when creating the plates, art historians view them as a visual protest against the violence of the 1808 Dos de Mayo Uprising, the subsequent Peninsular War of 1808–14 and the setbacks to the liberal cause following the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy in 1814. During the conflicts between Napoleon‘s French Empire and Spain, Goya retained his position as first court painter to the Spanish crown and continued to produce portraits of the Spanish and French rulers. Although deeply affected by the war, he kept private his thoughts on the art he produced in response to the conflict and its aftermath. He was in poor health and almost deaf when, at 62, he began work on the prints. They were not published until 1863, 35 years after his death. It is likely that only then was it considered politically safe to distribute a sequence of artworks criticizing both the French and restored Bourbons. In total over a thousand sets have been printed, though later ones are of lower quality, and most print room collections have at least some of the set.

With these works, he breaks from a number of painterly traditions. He rejects the bombastic heroics of most previous Spanish war art to show the effect of conflict on individuals. In addition he abandons color in favor of a more direct truth he found in shadow and shade.

Art historians broadly agree that The Disasters of War is divided into three thematic groupings—war, famine, and political and cultural allegories. This sequence broadly reflects the order in which the plates were created. Few of the plates or drawings are dated; instead, their chronology has been established by identifying specific incidents to which the plates refer, and the different batches of plates used, which allow sequential groups to be divided.

In the early plates of the war grouping, Goya’s sympathies appear to lie with the Spanish defenders. These images typically show patriots facing hulking, anonymous invaders who treat them with fierce cruelty. As the series progresses, the distinction between the Spanish and the imperialists becomes ambiguous. In other plates, it is difficult to tell to which camp the distorted and disfigured corpses belong. Some of the titles deliberately question the intentions of both sides. Critic Philip Shaw notes that the ambiguity is still present in the final group of plates, saying there is no distinction between the “heroic defenders of the Fatherland and the barbaric supporters of the old regime”.

His late period culminates with the Black Paintings of 1819–1823, applied on oil on the plaster walls of his house the Quinta del Sordo (house of the deaf man) where, disillusioned by political and social developments in Spain he lived in near isolation. Goya eventually abandoned Spain in 1824 to retire to the French city of Bordeaux, accompanied by his much younger maid and companion, Leocadia Weiss, who may or may not have been his lover. There he completed his La Tauromaquia series and a number of other, major, canvases. Following a stroke which left him paralyzed on his right side, and suffering failing eyesight and poor access to painting materials, he died and was buried on 16 April 1828 aged 82. His body was later re-interred in Spain.

  Art terms


A term generally used to describe art that is not representational or based on external reality or nature.

Action Painting

A term coined by art critic Harold Rosenberg in 1952 to describe the work of artists who painted with gestures that involved more than just the traditional use of the fingers and wrist to paint, including also the arm, shoulder, and even legs. In many of these paintings the movement that went into their making remains visible


Relating to or characterized by a concern with beauty or good taste (adjective); a particular taste or approach to the visual qualities of an object (noun).

Art Nouveau

Decorative style of the late 19th and early 20th centuries that flourished principally in Europe and the U.S. Although it influenced painting and sculpture, its chief manifestations were in architecture and the decorative and graphic arts. It is characterized by sinuous, asymmetrical lines based on organic forms.


French for “advanced guard,” this term is used in English to describe a group that is innovative, experimental, and inventive in its technique or ideology, particularly in the realms of culture, politics, and the arts.


The technique and resulting work of art in which fragments of paper and other materials are arranged and glued to a supporting surface.



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