The Surrender of Breda vs. The Third of May 1808: A Stylistic and Cultural Comparison
Since antiquity, art has been used to inspire, influence, and direct the minds of its viewers towards its creator's aim. Yet within the canon of art, no motif can be said to be more persuasive than depictions of war and military encounters, which often had the power to subdue or inflame depending on how each artist chose to represent their subject. Whether through the creation of propaganda or in the act of documenting the realities of war, artists and patrons have sought to give their struggles voice and to create narratives which still live on today. On this account, both Diego Velázquez's Surrender of Breda and Fransisco Goya's The Third of May 1808 distinguish themselves- not only for their individually singular approaches to war in their own times but also by how they have shaped the overall artistic wartime narratives. When placed side by side, these works not only present two sides of the spectrum of war imagery, from the civilized engagement of The Surrender of Breda to the expressive violence in The Third of May 1808, but they also work to relate the changing shape of Spanish identity and artistic practice.
As one of the predominant artists in Habsburg king Phillip IV's court during “El Siglo de Oro”, or the Golden Age of Spain, Diego Velázquez was commissioned to paint The Surrender of Breda for the Hall of Realms in the newly constructed palace outside of Madrid (Brown). Working over a year period from 1634 to 1635, Velázquez sought to recreated the relatively recent moment in which the Dutch forces surrendered to Spanish general Ambrogio Spinola at the Battle of Breda two years before during the Eighty Years' War (Berzal). One of twelve paintings of similar victory themes completed by Velázquez's well known contemporaries, The Surrender of Breda was meant to help illustrate the might of Spain's army, yet within his composition Velázquez worked to convey something rather new and revolutionary. Unlike the majority of military paintings at the time, Velázquez discarded the compositional hierarchy of placing the victor on high and instead allowed the two opposing forces within his work to meet upon equal ground – turning the usual scene of victory and defeat into an act of magnanimity and grace (Brown). The result is a balanced composition in which the Spanish troops to the right, and the Dutch troops to the left, both look towards the central focal point where Justinus van Nassau surrenders the key of the city to Spinola and Spain (Berzal).
Stopped in the act of kneeling, Nassau looks up to Spinola who bends down and graciously puts a hand to his opponent’s shoulder as if insisting they remain on equal terms and footing- frozen in the quintessential Baroque moment. Velázquez chose to depict the scene with a sense of intense naturalism, paying attention to the proper proportions and realistic modeling of his figures. The banners sway in the breeze, armor seems to shine in the sunlight while the stances of the those looking on appear to almost shift from side to side as if alive. The Dutch, with their young countenances and skewed spears are set at odds with the gleaming armor and ordered lances of the more mature Spanish troops. Though the smoke from the battle can be seen drifting in the background, there is almost no direct reference to the actual combat itself within The Surrender of Breda. Instead all the figures of the foreground, from the two generals to their men, remain removed from the violence -showing neither blood or wear from the confrontation.
In direct contrast, Fransisco Goya's 1814 seminal work titled The Third of May, 1808 reveals a night of terror and violence (Muller). Created as part of a diptych commemorating the uprising and brutal suppression of the Spanish under the French occupation, The Third of May, 1808 presents the final moments of the rebels as they are gunned down by Napoleon's forces (Zapella). Standing over the bloody and graphic bodies of those who have come before them, the Spanish peasants cry and plead for their lives as they look down the rifles at the faceless Frenchmen who take aim, ready to fire. Goya's use of light works to divide the frame into two, creating an asymmetrical composition which focuses in onto the emotive figure of a peasant with his arms flung wide in an appeal for mercy. The dramatic tableau is presented against the recognizable hill of Principe Pío, the actual place of execution, with the silhouettes of Madrid rising out of the dark in the background (Voorhies).
Painted five years after the event itself, in the wake of the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy to the Spanish throne, The Third of May 1808 was simultaneously an endeavor on Goya's part to ingratiate himself with with the newly crowned Ferdinand VII after a period of time spent serving the French, as well as an attempt to process the horrors he had witnessed their reign. Napoleon's invasion had put an end to the Age of Enlightened within Spain, with his deposition of the enlightened monarch Charles III in favor of his own brother Joseph Bonaparte (Zapella). The subsequent brutal occupation and treatment of his countrymen affected Goya deeply, shifting his artistic work from scientific Enlightened style to a more deeply emotive Romanticist perspective which embraced the darker nature of man (Voorhies). In a revolutionary approach, even when compared to other Romantic artists of the time, Goya discarded the heroic narrative of a “hero in a hero's act” which commonly accompanied most war scenes and instead chose to relate the realities he had witnessed (Zapella). In an echo of the Sublime, Goya worked to show an image that would convey the visceral horror of both the Spanish experience and war itself.
Each of these great Spanish artists approach their work in very different ways. Aside from the obvious differences in subject matter between Surrender of Breda and The Third of May 1808, there are several other elements which help to set these two works apart. Velázquez's vibrant and rich color jewel tone palette, drawn from the Venetian tradition of colorito, directly contrasts the somber dark earthen tones which Goya applied to his work in a tenebrist manner. Similarly Goya's expressive approach to his figures, which alternates between the stiff lined forms of the French troops to the fluid emotive forms of the Spanish peasants, broke away from the naturalism and realism which dominated Velázquez's work. Ironically, despite his naturalistic approach, the congenial meeting upon the battlefield Velázquez created for The Surrender at Breda came from largely inflated third party accounts he was given - unlike Goya who had very likely witnessed, if not the actual event, similar examples of the brutality he portrayed (Sánchez)(Muller).
Yet as much as these two works have in difference there is also several similarities which are of note. Despite their different stylistic approaches to the depiction of form, Velázquez and Goya had a very similar manner in regards to their paint applications. Velázquez, inspired by Rubens, worked in quick descriptive impasto strokes which from afar resolved into realistic three dimensional forms (Sánchez). Similarly, Goya was deeply inspired by Velázquez and Rembrandt, and kept his brushwork loose and descriptive. He would often use a palette knife and his fingers to model his figures – mimicking the fluid approach of the artists he was referencing, though in a more expressive manner (Muller).
Furthermore, despite the secular nature of both scenes, each artist worked to imbue a sense of Christian iconography within their works. With his out flung arms and marked palms, the peasant in Goya's Third of May 1808 is the more overt reference, echoing Jesus's crucifixion and evoking his martyred end. However the gracious tilt and embrace of Velázquez's Spinola also works to call to mind the gentle gestures of Christ in many baroque depictions of the Catholic savior, from Velázquez's own Christ in the House of Martha and Mary to his contemporary Esteban Murillo's Christ Healing the Paralytic at the Pool of Bethesda. Thus it can be said that both Goya and Velázquez worked to build upon existing visual motifs in order convey the emotional weight of their intended messages. From the tragic tortured martyrdom of Goya's peasants to the magnanimous benevolent Spinola, each artist sought to portray the Spanish perspective in a favorable light even as their outlooks on the conflicts they depicted varied.
At the height of the Spanish Empire's Golden Age, in a time of victory and wealth, the Spain which Velázquez lived in was very different from the crumbling and besieged empire Goya inhabited. Embodied into their work, the optimism of Velázquez's world comes into direct contrast with the visceral reality of Goya's. Yet both works prove themselves to be an innovative take on an established genre, working to expand upon and subvert the previous depictions of war which had come before them. The humility of Surrender of Breda's gentle victors stood apart from the vainglorious paintings of kings and generals which populated Europe at the time, working to convey both Spain's civility as well as its honor to those who would grace the palace halls. While the violent brutality of man's inhumanity to man was captured in The Third of May 1808- shattering the illusion of the glory of war, leaving only the reality of the bloodshed in what is often cited as one of the first truly iconic anti-war images in the history of art. Both of these images served to further the artistic dialogue of military engagements, both within Spain and within artistic canon as a whole, all the while serving as a commemorative embodiment of the times, culture, and events they helped to portray.
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Crystal has a MA in the History of Art from Courtauld Institute of Art as well as a BFA in Art History from the Academy of Art University.