Spain’s War of Independence: 1808-1814: The Ruins of Zaragoza and Goya’s “The Disasters of War”

September 28–December 2, 2008

To commemorate the 200th anniversary of the start of Spain’s War of Independence in May of 1808, the Meadows Museum has installed in its first-floor galleries two groups of period prints depicting the war’s devastation: a selection of Goya’s The Disasters of War along with Brambilla and Gálvez’s Ruins of Zaragoza, which is exhibited for the first time in the new building.

In spite of Spain’s tenuous alliance with Napoleon Bonaparte’s France, in early February of 1808 French Imperial troops marched into Spain and began seizing its fortresses. By February 29 they had taken Barcelona. Meanwhile, following a coup d’état, Spain’s King Charles IV was deposed and replaced by his son Ferdinand, whom Napoleon soon ousted in favor of his own brother, Joseph Bonaparte. Though a puppet Spanish Council approved the appointment, Spaniards soon defied their French occupiers. On the infamous 2nd and 3rd of May, the citizens of Madrid rose up in rebellion and were shot by the hundreds in retaliation. The events, which were famously immortalized in paint by Francisco de Goya in huge canvases now in the collection of the Prado Museum, sparked guerilla uprisings across the country. (The word for “little war,” guerilla has been used in English ever since to describe less formal, spontaneous combat.) The Spanish guerillas were soon aided by the Portuguese and their mighty allies, the British, who took their bitter battle against Napoleon to Spain. The war would rage on for another six years before the French were finally defeated, thanks to a series of successful battles headed primarily by Arthur Wellesley, the first Duke of Wellington, whom Goya portrayed during the last years of the war.

The ruined infrastructure and horrific loss of life that resulted from a peninsula-wide war of the Spanish, Portuguese and British against Napoleon’s France served as the sad inspiration for a number of the period’s artists, the most prominent of which was Goya. Though his energetic and moving paintings proved formal if controversial monuments to the devastation of some of the war’s most tragic events, it was through the medium of prints that the artist’s first-hand vision of the dark horror of Spain’s War of Independence touched broader audiences. The first edition of Goya’s series of 80 aquatint plates, titled posthumously Los Desastres de la Guerra, or The Disasters of War, was printed in 1863, long after the war had come to an end and some 35 years after his death. Though the images of piles of dead bodies and of blind inhuman cruelty speak for themselves, thought-provoking captions are included, which were likely composed by the artist’s friend Ceán Bermúdez. The prints’ empathetic, ironic and dark account of war seems to take no sides or find any glory in either the heinous or traditionally heroic, and perhaps because of this, generations of viewers have found in them a chilling brutal honesty. Indeed, the sense of hopelessness, harsh irony, and waste that permeates Goya’s images of his nation at war continues to have resonance today.

Goya was not the only artist to capture the toll that Spain’s War of Independence took on the country’s land, architecture and people. Long before the first run of the The Disasters of War, and, indeed, even before the end of the war, Fernando Brambilla and Juan Gálvez produced a bound volume of 27 prints illustrating scenes of the battle and resulting ruins following the siege of Zaragoza by Napoleonic forces in 1808, titled Ruinas de Zaragoza (Ruins of Zaragoza). These prints, of which the Meadows Museum has a set, are early examples of the use of aquatint in intaglio printing, later used by Goya in his bold explorations of the medium. The Meadows prints once belonged to Lord and Lady Holland, the representatives of the English crown in Madrid during the peninsular wars who were eyewitnesses to the siege of Zaragoza. The prints’ depiction of the vast destruction suffered in Goya’s hometown is telling of the state in which Spain was left upon the war’s conclusion; it signals the waning power of a country that, by the end of that same century, would lose what remained of its empire in yet another war.

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Carrie Sanger
Marketing & PR Manager