Ohlone Monitor

El Tres De Mayo: The Importance of Military Art

Vicente Vera, Opinions Editor

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In recent times, there has been more exposure and media attention surrounding insurrections across the globe. Every day, there are updates on the television and social media — feeding us with images depicting the horrors of armed revolutions, such as in the Syrian Civil War. These images trigger emotion and incite a reaction within those who grasp it, whether they want to feel it or not. But if there were no cameras to capture the moments of despair, would the atrocities of war trigger the same reaction from those who aren’t physically present? This was the dilemma during the era before photography.

In early history, information would mostly get around through word of mouth, and writing — even then, words could hardly illustrate the full extent of the documented events. Ultimately, when it came to swaying public opinion on rebellions, nothing was more powerful than the art of animating these illustrations onto canvases — painting.

An early example of paintings having an large scale effect on the stances shared by a community, was the Boston Massacre painting, drawn by Paul Revere in 1770. Though it falsely depicted British soldiers as firing on an innocent crowd of patriots — the truth being that the soldiers acted in self defense — it stirred thoughts of revolution among the American people who were already on edge.

Many of the paintings that preceded the nineteenth century, lacked very much context and emotion. They certainly weren’t very graphic compared to today’s artwork.

It wasn’t until the reign of Napoleon, that artists started to paint the full scope of one of the most ruthless acts of violence that went on in eastern Europe — firing squads. When the Spanish resisted Napoleon's armies during the occupation of 1808 in the Peninsular War, they were often rounded up, and killed in front of a firing squad. Caught in the middle of the war, artist Francisco Goya, wanted to capture the situation that his fellow citizens were in — raw and uncompromising. What resulted? A precedent setting painting that illustrated the massacre of innocent citizens trying to take back their country.

The events depicted in the famous painting — El Tres de Mayo de 1808 en Madrid — show a group of innocent Spaniards losing their lives in front of a firing squad, the perpetrators being Napoleon's forces.

The brutal killing of Spaniards was prompted by their violent rebellion against the invading French. Unwilling to be subject to the French crown, the Spanish revolted once French troops entered the city of Madrid on May 2, 1808. What ensued was a series of street fights all over the city — starting the Peninsular War. This war was an example of guerrilla warfare, where normal citizens with little military experience, took it upon themselves to defend their country against an organized militia led by Napoleon. The first day of fighting was unsuccessful.

As punishment for the uprising, the French troops were issued a proclamation that read — “The population of Madrid, led astray, has given itself to revolt and murder. French blood has flowed. It demands vengeance. All those arrested in the uprising, arms in hand, will be shot.” So the next day, Spaniards all over the city were rounded up and killed — just to prove that the French were serious about their attempted takeover of Spain.

The patriotic spirit buzzing around the country of Spain was enough to inspire Francisco Goya to show the world how martyrs tried to bring peace to their country, and the way in which they were silenced — on the third of May, 1808.

Military art is an important aspect of our culture because it helps reconstruct the scene of major historic battles and wars. Illustrations help connect with the event on a deeper level than any type of writing would. It does justice to our imaginations.

Though we have cameras now, artists continue to be inspired to use their own touch to paint historic events, the same way Francisco Goya did.


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El Tres De Mayo: The Importance of Military Art