Sydney Hessel

The Project

This essay topic is the first one that students in my 19th- and 20th-century Western Art History class tackle; often, it is the very first time students write an extended piece about visual material. The assignment requires them to choose a painting from the Enlightenment period that typifies Romanticism, and then analyze how the work affects a viewer. In other words, they have to exercise their new skills both for understanding how a work of art relates to its historical context and for analyzing significant visual details.

from her nomination....

Sydney's paper on Goya is remarkable because it achieves the basic goals of providing historical context and formal analysis, and then goes further to make a philosophical statement about what the painting implies about being an individual in society. Her descriptive writing is fluid, evocative and engaging, and her compelling analysis is tightly derived from specific visual evidence. She not only elegantly places Goya's painting in its context, but also explains how the painting shapes, in her words, "the audience's emotional world.."

Becky Gertmenian, History Teacher.

Sydney Hessel '09
Goya: A Window on Society and Self

Sydney Hessel
Art History
Fall 2007
pdf version

Goya: A Window on Society and Self

Human emotion has long been known to run counter to human reason; while rationality presides over the surface of action, sentiment reigns over the imagination and deep subconscious. Early 19th century European art demonstrates this schism. On the one hand, painters such as David and Kauffmann worked in neoclassical styles, drawing on antiquity for inspiration and infatuated by Enlightenment ideals, mainly the ability of man to understand the realms of nature and achieve progress through the use of reason. Romanticism, on the other hand, rejected this rationalist optimism and sought instead to explore emotions and subjective experiences, the unknown internal---a clear divide. Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes (1746-1828), a Spanish painter and printmaker, depicted royal celebrities and current events in a primarily Romantic style. In his oil work Third of May, 1808 (1814-15), he chooses to illustrate a scene from the Spanish war of liberation, in the course of which Napoleon’s troops shot hundreds of innocent civilians. Although the Spanish populace had at first welcomed the French for creating a more liberal constitution, rumors in Madrid of a plan to kill the royal family sent citizens into frenzy, culminating in executions by the French firing squad in places as terrifyingly unconventional for such violence as convents. Goya, along with the rest of Spain, felt disturbed by this event, and translated his emotions into a physical work of art. Through an off-balance composition, loose brushwork and texturing, and contrasting lighting combined with varying hue, Goya communicates the painful internalizing of a public event, detailing the paradoxical relationship between the experience of an individual and that of a society.

Third of May, 1808’s unbalanced composition expresses Goya's anguish over a current event while at the same time showing the difficulty involved in processing public sorrow on a personal level. The work can be roughly divided into three sections: a cylindrical dark upper sky, the mid-ground of action, and a lingering, empty foreground. Faceless gunmen run counter to a Christ-like white figure up against a small hill, while a church looms in the back. Emphasis on the left-hand side, highlighted by lighting and the focal religious figure, causes the piece to appear troublingly offset; the lack of balance creates tension. On one hand, the man in white evokes sympathy and connects personally with the viewer. On the other hand, the man is clearly involved in something larger than himself, a difference enhanced by the composition: humans stacked like rocks on the right, and the man on the left, although connected to their violence, alone, pleading with his eyes and gestures. The dark sky looms unevenly above the scene, adding to the work’s instability, as the foreground welcomes the audience morbidly to the center, inelegantly placing them in the midst of a fight between individual and societal will. This causes an increase in one’s awareness of conflict, enabling Goya to better communicate sorrow.
Through the presentation of a public event, the artist works to detail “imagination…united with reason,” invoking both the internal processing of an event and its rational public face. The off-balance composition creates an effective anxiety, heightening the conflict between society and self, and helping Goya to express the torment of this event fully.

The loose handling, contributing to texture, in the work furthers the conflict between individual processing and societal role, reflecting on internal pain in a uniquely public fashion. Goya’s wobbly stroke can be seen especially in his depiction of the blood pooling around the corpses; thick globular lines suggest the hand of the artist, and thus the personalized sorrow of the individual, denying any sense of neutrality. One enters the view of an entity rather than the realm of an entire public, allowing Goya to further harness the audience’s emotional world. The way he presents the hillside adds to the notion of subjectivity regarding civic grief. Using slashes of rough paint layered against the dark, clean background, he challenges the relationship between what is known in the public eye, and what is internal and unknown. The jittering brushstrokes of which the people involved in the public event are composed and the left-hand pastoral landscape contrast with the more solidified right-hand side and background. This suggests that while the facts of invasion may be clear-cut, the emotions surrounding the conflict are not. The grief of an entire public is internalized painfully. Explicating the crisscrossing of contradictory realms, the Christ-like figure’s face, made up of loose strokes and small black lines, seems to bring inner emotion to the public eye in a similar way. Goya shows how a society faced with suffering turns inside out, comprised at it is of individuals both united and distinguished by their processing of terror. The artist once stated that “Imagination, deserted by reason, begets impossible monsters.”
Subjective processing of terror, communicated through the loose handling, dominates the work, only slightly offset by the more solid right-hand figures. This indicates that “imagination,” or “the artist dreaming,” has conquered the processing of nightmarish tragedy, leaving little to be rationalized publicly, and thus engendering the so-called “monsters.” Internal thought consumes the public world, yet is entirely governed by a tragedy affecting citizens remote from the self. Society and the individual are at odds, intertwined complexly in Third of May, 1808’s handling, which continues to foster conflict and distress.

Goya’s use of contrasting lighting and hue emphasizes the contradictions regarding the disparity and interconnectedness of personal and public grief, continuing to further a viewer’s sense of sorrow. Subdued colors, such as the olive greens and grays of the shooters’ clothing, clash with popping primaries and white, mainly the outfit of the focal figure and the ruby blood of the dead men. A light on the ground shines on the figure, casting shadows and illuminating features within the darkness of the night-like setting. Much of the work swirls together because of the repetition of cooler green tones; only the warmth of the figure stands out. The contrast between the ebony background and the hillside, the triangular shadow in the right-hand corner and the yellow of the earth: these differences cause one to sense the painful warmth of inner processing in conflict with the colder face of public torture. While the hues surrounding the single individual appear lively, almost gleaming, those beyond the light are more naturalized, less vivacious and more alienating. Even the colors making up the church appear somber; Goya takes a pessimistic stance on this public institution, seeming to evoke the thought that God, too, has abandoned this individual at merciless gunpoint. The disparity in the tone of the red blood and the outfit versus the dark background and sages suggests a difference between the painful nature of infiltrated warmth and the cold factual world of public processing, direct reporting, or dehumanizing summary. As with handling, this is a poignant contradiction. The grief surrounding a public event is not one's own directly, yet its spread evokes a personal anguish. Goya’s use of hues parallel this message, working, moreover, to enhance the audience’s sense of sorrow.

Third of May, 1808 fully challenges a viewer’s sense of private and public realms. When the pain of a public event turns personal, where can one draw the line between what pertains to one's self versus one's society? In and of itself, the idea of a painting presents this conflict: although artistic expression is a personal enterprise, it is also rooted in the idea of spreading or implementing one's thoughts on a public. The audience is asked to decide their own role and be aware of the corruptions of visual media, the spin every artist puts on the innately subjective world. In the end, though, how humans distinguish between the environment and themselves is arbitrary; the extent of the influence of outside factors on persona will never be known—the classic nature versus nurture debate surges on. Through the character Faunia Farley in The Human Stain, Philp Roth writes of “the stain so intrinsic it doesn't require a mark…inescapable…reconciled to the…elemental imperfection.” Experience, like art, is a subjective world; thus, painting in the Romantic style, although it may appear distorted, is still emotionally accurate. Like the stain of experience, the stain of an artist is ever skewed and inexorable, even in realism. One needs only to find a secure place in this bitter storm of emotion. Even if illogical, safety in self is key.


1. Marilyn Stokstad, “Nineteenth-Century Art in Europe and the United States,” in Art History: A View of the West, ed. Sarah Touberg (Upper Saddle River: Pearson Education, Inc., 2005), 736-738.

2. From the Classicists to the Impressionists, ed. Elizabeth Gilmore Hunt (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986), 54-55.

3. Ibid., 54.

4. Ibid.

5. Philip Roth, The Human Stain (New York: Random House, Inc., 2000), 242.


“From the Classicists to the Impressionists,” edited by Elizabeth Gilmore Hunt. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986, 54-55. Roth, Philip.

“The Human Stain.” New York: Random House, Inc., 2000, 242. Stokstad, Marilyn.

“Nineteenth-Century Art in Europe and the United States.” In Art History: A View of the West, edited by Sarah Touberg. Upper Saddle River: Pearson Education, Inc., 2005, 736-738.