Disasters of War

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"Disasters of War"

Spanish Insurgents Successfully Employ Terrorism Against Napoleonic Domination.


By: Francisco José Goya y Lucientes

Date: Created 1810; first published 1863.

Source: Etchings entitled Fatales consequencias de la sangrieta Guerra en España con Buonaparte. Y Otros Caprichos Enfáticos" (Fatal Consequences of the Bloody War in Spain with Bonaparte. And Other Caprices). San Fernando: Royal Academy of Fine Arts, 1863. The series became popularly known as Disasters of War.

About the Author: Francisco José Goya y Lucientes was born in the village of Fuendetodos, near Saragossa, Spain, on March 30, 1746. He began his career as an artist in the 1770s when he completed a series of frescoes for the Royal Academy, created designs for the Madrid textile industry, and painted portraits of wealthy patrons. In 1789, he rose to the prestigious position of court painter to King Carlos IV. An illness that struck in 1792 left him completely deaf. From 1808 to 1813, Goya was the official court painter to Spanish King Joseph Bonaparte. Goya died on April 16, 1828, after pioneering the expression of uninhibited, realistic actions and emotions in his paintings, a style that was not to come to fruition until the late nineteenth century. Goya's works hang in major art museums throughout the world.


By the early years of the nineteenth century, Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte had extended French dominance over much of Europe. He had absorbed Belgium, the Netherlands, and large portions of Italy into the French Empire, and satellite states included Spain, Switzerland, much of modern-day Germany, and Poland. Nominal allies included Norway, Denmark, Prussia, and the vast Austrian Empire.

Although a number of states—Russia, Sweden, and Portugal among them—remained hostile to Napoleon, it was Great Britain that posed the chief obstacle to Napoleonic hegemony (dominance of one state over another) over the entire European continent. Because a land invasion of the island nation would be next to impossible, the emperor concluded that the only way to bring Great Britain to heel was through economic warfare. His goal was to use his navy to close off the Continent, deny Great Britain access to markets, ruin its trade and credit, and cause economic unrest as the nation's economy collapsed.

Under the so-called Continental System, the emperor prohibited French allies from trading with Great Britain, which retaliated in 1807 with the Orders of Council, requiring ships, even those from neutral nations, to put in at British ports and pay tariffs. In turn, Napoleon retaliated by seizing any ship that adhered to the Orders of Council. The leak in the system, however, was smuggling, and many of the major ports of entry for smuggled goods on the Continent were located in Spain.

Unrest had been rife in Spain since the 1795 alliance between Spain and France. Spain's corrupt and highly unpopular Prime Minister, Manuel de Godoy, had had an affair with the queen, and Crown Prince Ferdinand held Godoy in contempt. Napoleon concluded that the only way to put an end to the squabbling between Ferdinand and his royal parents and enforce the Continental System in Spain was through force of arms under the pretext of a planned invasion of hostile Portugal. To pave the way, in 1808 he persuaded King Carlos IV and Crown Prince Ferdinand to abdicate and installed his brother Joseph on the throne. Joseph naively believed that as Spain's monarch, and backed initially by 100,000 French troops, he could bring liberal enlightenment to the Iberian Peninsula.

Instead, large numbers of Spanish nationalist insurgents, angered by the loss of their royal family and the presence of a Frenchman on their throne, rose in rebellion. On May 2, 1808, a bloody riot, captured in Goya's painting The Second of May, 1808, erupted in Madrid. The French responded with brutal reprisals, also captured in one of Goya's most famous paintings, The Third of May, 1808, which depicts a squad of anonymous French soldiers executing a Spanish insurgent, his arms raised in a Christlike gesture.

Thus began a brutal six-year conflict that added the term guerrilla war, or "little war" to the lexicon. During this time about 30,000 Spanish insurgents, most of them peasants and Catholic monks led by local nobles and organized into juntas, or committees, harassed and wore down the French troops, even though they were eventually outnumbered ten to one. The campaign was an escalating war of insurgent terrorism, as the insurgents brutally tortured and executed French troops and Spanish collaborators and the French launched equally brutal reprisals, often failing to distinguish combatants from civilians. Goya, as Joseph's official court painter, created an eyewitness account of the horror of the war, which Napoleon referred to as his "Spanish ulcer," in a series of eighty stark etchings known today by the title Disasters of War. Three of the etchings, which Goya never lived to see published, are reproduced here.



See primary source images.


The Spanish ulcer marked the beginning of the end for Napoleon. Sensing for the first time that he was not invincible, the British seized the opportunity to land an army in Portugal, beginning what became known as the Peninsular War. Between the British army led by the Duke of Wellington and the Spanish insurgents, the French became trapped in a futile six-year war of attrition that, in late 1813, forced them back over the Pyrenees. In 1815 the crown prince assumed the throne of Spain as Ferdinand VII, restoring royalist rule. As the Peninsular War drained the French treasury, Napoleon inexplicably set his sights on Russia, a campaign that proved to be a disaster. In 1814 he was forced to abdicate and sent into exile.

A half century later, Goya's etchings were published for the first time. Rather than capturing the glory and heroism of warfare, they showed viewers the atrocities that were perpetrated on both sides as terrorist tactics ruled.



Goya y Lucientes, Francisco. The Disasters of War, edited by Philip Hofer. New York: Dover, 1967.

Hughes, Robert. Goya. New York: Knopf, 2003.


Vega, Jesusa. "The Dating and Interpretation of Goya's Disasters of War." Print Quarterly. 11 (1994): 3–17.

Web sites

Bucksbaum Center for the Arts, Grinnell College. "I Saw It: The Invented Realities of Goya's Disasters of War." <http://web.grinnell.edu/faulconergallery/goya/index.htm> (accessed May 16, 2005).