The Second of May 1808 by Goya

The Second of May 1808 by Goya (1814)

My Daily Art Display featured paintings for today and tomorrow are both by Francisco Goya and they depict events which happened in Madrid on two consecutive days in 1808.  I am guessing that most of you will have seen one or both of the paintings but may not have realised the connection between the two.  Today I am going to look at the painting entitled The Second of May 1808 which Goya completed in 1814, just a couple of months before he finished the companion work entitled The Third of May 1808.  So what happened on these two days that made the Spanish Romantic painter, Goya want to pictorially record the events.

I need to go back a little from 1808 and go over the run-up to the terrible events of May 1808.   The main protagonists in this story were France and Spain.  In 1799, in France, Napoleon Bonaparte had declared himself First Consul of the French Republic and five years later he was crowned Emperor of France.  Meanwhile in Spain King Charles IV had reigned supreme since 1788.  He had proved a weak and ineffectual leader who left the governing of the country to his wife, Maria Luisa of Parma and his Prime Minister, Manuel de Godoy, a wealthy nobleman who had taken office in 1792.

Napoleon seeing an opportunity of gaining more territory suggested to Charles that they join forces, attack Spain’s neighbour, Portugal and divide up the conquered land between themselves, one third to France, one third to Spain and one third to the Spanish prime minister Godoy, who would be given the title of Prince of Algarve.  Godoy was seduced by such an idea and persuaded the king to agree to Napoleon’s plan.  Unfortunately Napoleon had an ulterior motive and a different scheme in mind when, in November 1807, 23,000 French troops marched into Spain unopposed under the guise of supporting the Spanish army prior to the joint attack on Portugal.   Napoleon had hatched a plan with Charles’ eldest son Ferdinand that France would, with his help, overthrow the Spanish monarchy, which of course was his father, and the Spanish government of Godoy and Ferdinand would become King of Spain.

It was not until February 1808 that it became apparent to the Spanish what Napoleon’s true plans had been but even so the French army met with little resistance.  Charles IV and Ferdinand his son were, at the insistence of Napoleon, in the French city of Bayonne for discussions on the terms of the abdication.  At the beginning of May 1808, the French commander and Napoleon’s, brother-in-law, Joaquim Murat, tried to forcibly move the daughter and the youngest son of Charles, the Infante Francisco de Paulato from Madrid to Bayonne and this was the catalyst for the rebellion of the local Spanish population and the fierce street fighting in Madrid on May 2nd.

On that day, a crowd gathered in front of the Royal Palace in Madrid. Those gathered entered the palace grounds in an attempt to prevent the removal of the Infanta.  Marshal Murat sent a battalion of grenadiers from the Imperial Guard to the palace along with artillery detachments. The latter opened fire on the assembled crowd, and this sparked the start of the rebellion which soon spread to other parts of the city.

What followed was street fighting in different areas of Madrid as the poorly armed population confronted the French troops. Murat had quickly moved the majority of his troops into the city and there was heavy fighting around the Puerta del Sol and the Puerta de Toledo.   Martial Law in the city was then imposed by Murat and the French commander assumed full control of the administration. Slowly but surely, the French took back control of the city, and many hundreds of people died in the fighting.   There were Spanish troops in the city at the time but they were confined to their barracks and with the exception of one brigade did as they were commanded.   The bloody rebellion lasted several hours before the French troops recovered control of the city.

My featured painting today, The Second of May 1808, sometimes known as The Charge of the Mamelukes, depicts the street fighting that took place at the Calle de Alcala near the Puerta del Sol in the heart of Madrid.  The Mamelukes, which were a fierce band of Muslim fighters in Napoleon’s French Imperial Guard, charged the crowd and the ensuing savagery was captured by Goya in his painting.  Goya did not actually paint the picture until 1814 at which time the French army had been expelled from Spain.  He applied to the ruling council of Spain for financial aid to paint the picture as he put it:

‘…to perpetuate with the brush the most notable and heroic actions or scenes of our glorious insurrection against the tyrant of Europe…”

There is differing opinions as to whether Goya actually witnessed the scenes of the rebellion at first hand.  This massive painting measuring 265cms x 345cms (almost 9ft by 11ft) depicts the bloody skirmish.  Goya chose to depict the people of Madrid armed just with knives and rough weapons as unknown heroes attacking the might of the Mamelukes and a French cavalry officer.  The whole painting depicts a scene of chaos which in some ways stirs up a feeling of realism and authenticity.  The two figures you need to focus on are the man who is plunging the knife into the thigh of the white horse and the man who is at the rear of the horse and who is just about to plunge his knife into a Mameluke warrior who he has dragged from the horse.  Why?  In tomorrow’s painting The Third of May 2008 we will again see these two men and what happened to them as a result of their deeds.

Art historians have been somewhat critical of Goya’s handling of the painting stating that the horses appear static and the figures in the painting seem posed.  Of the two paintings, the Third of May 1808 is considered the better and more memorable

As a footnote, during the Spanish Civil War in the 1930’s, when Madrid was bombed by Nationalist troops, the Republican government decided to evacuate the paintings from the Prado. A truck carrying Goya’s paintings had an accident, and The Second of May was badly damaged: there were tears and even pieces missing. When the painting was later repaired, some damage was left unrepaired at its left border to remind viewers of the events of the civil war.