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Art and the National Identity: Moments in Spanish Historical Painting

In the year 1812, the first Spanish Constitution was ratified in Cadiz, Spain. This event can be considered as the birth of the modern Spanish nation-state (Pérez Garzón, 2005). Before the constitution, Spain was a union of territories and regions united only by having a monarch in common. With the proclamation of a liberal constitution, the deputies declared that the sovereignty of Spain resided with the nation, defining this as the "union of all Spaniards" (Herr & Carr, 2000). National unity was at the center of the new legislation which represented the end of the Old Regime in Spain (Herr & Carr, 2000) The 19th century marked a turning point in the history of all of Europe, not only in the Iberian Peninsula. The change in social dynamics gave rise to a more politically defined nation, which carried with it the creation of a national identity and the birth of nationalism (Pérez Garzón, 2005). While political stability of the modern nation-state was guaranteed through the centralization of the government administration, the social aspect had to be likewise supported by the assimilation of a national identity. The building of this collective identity can be understood as mainly a cultural issue, and the arts have been a great contribution to this effort at 'nation building.' Every nation began looking inward and considered folklore and regional myths to define their national iconography and create a unifying set of symbols. Historicism played an important part in the creation of this iconographic canon for each nation-state, particularly in Spain. The historical artwork produced by Spanish artists during the 19th century gives a clear reflection of the political and social context of the times. The evolution of the genre serves as a way to better understand the historical background during each portion of the century.


Historical painting was one of the most recognized artistic genres of the 19th century. It is a category defined not by aesthetics or style but by content. Although artists had been depicting scenes from the past for many years before, the new consciousness around a national identity that emerged in the 19th century gave way for a completely new genre of painting, which was defined by the historical and political context of the time. The same trends in historical painting can be seen throughout the entirety of Europe, as it was a century where every modern nation was defining its unified identity. For countries like the United Kingdom and France, the most important subjects were scenes from medieval literary cycles that identified each country's history. In Spain, historical painting after 1812 is unlike other historical scenes depicted before. The Spanish Constitution of 1812, also known as the Cadiz Constitution, attempted to unite a nation of segmented experiences during the Peninsular War to create a unified Spain that would fight together against Napoleon’s army, which had occupied the Iberian Peninsula and installed José Bonaparte as King of Spain. In fact, this conflict will later be referred to as the Spanish War of Independence, alluding to the freedom fighting spirit that fed the Spanish war effort (Muro & Quiroga, 2005). The theme of 'us' vs 'them' is noticeable in Spanish historical paintings of the earliest decades of the century. Francisco de Goya painted two canvases shortly after the end of the war representing an episode of Spanish resistance to Napoleonic rule. These paintings are a clear exaltation of the revolutionary spirit of the Spanish people when confronted with the repressive occupation of the country. The two canvases follow the events of the Second of May Uprising in Madrid, Spain, when the military and civilian population of the city rebelled against the occupying army. This insurrection occurred when the last member of the Spanish royal family was made to leave Spain by the French army, stirring up the already existing discontent that the people of Madrid, known as Madrileños, felt towards the French (Esdaile, 2003). The uprising failed to push back on the Napoleonic forces and culminated with the executions of many of the Spanish insurgents (Esdaile, 2003). Francisco de Goya made these fighters the protagonists of his paintings, placing them as the representatives of the Spanish nation instead of the exiled king.

Men in uniform holding men in peasant clothing at gunpoint surrounded by gun-downed victims with a fortress in the background.
Figure 1: Francisco de Goya's painting, The Third of May 1808, immortalised the uprising of Dos de Mayo (May 2nd Uprising) and the bloody executions that followed (Goya, 1814).

Goya's paintings of the uprisings represent the beginning shift towards the creation of national iconography based on history. Until that moment, historical painting consisted of representing Roman myths and alluding to Spain's Roman past, following the themes of neoclassical art (Diez, 1992). Francisco de Goya's callback to a recent and shared struggle of the Spanish people marked a point in which his contemporary countrymen could identify themselves in the history of Spain. The callback to a shared and recent struggle for the Spanish people showed how the nation was identified by the collective and not just the king (Muro & Quiroga, 2005). This lens takes a turn when the Napoleonic army was expelled from Spain in 1814 and the exiled king, Ferdinand VII, took back the throne, restoring the absolutist monarchy which characterised the rest of his reign and rejecting the Constitution of 1812 and its ideas. Francisco de Goya himself went back to being mainly a portrait painter and delved more into costumbrismo, which depicted every day life and customs of the Spanish people. During this period, Goya applied a more macabre and somber aesthetic to his work.


The liberal ideas of the 1812 Constitution was reintroduced during the reign of Queen Isabella II, Ferdinand’s daughter. Her reign began in 1833, and the period was marked by political and social unrest, with Spain separating into political factions. The second she ascended to the throne, Isabella was confronted with conflicting ideologies, like Carlism, a movement born out of the succession dispute between the Queen and her uncle, Carlos María Isidro (Carr, 1966). The Carlist conflict evolved into its own particular ideology based on traditionalism and the rejection of Isabella's more liberal reign, triggering three wars and numerous uprisings. The constant clash between conservatives, progressives, and liberals created the varying ideas of nationalism which reflected in the art that was created during and after Isabella’s reign. At first, the Spanish people were placed back at the center of the scene, and there was a great movement for remembrance of the victims of the Peninsular War (Muro & Quiroga, 2005). An important example of this callback to national resistance is the painting by Leonardo Alenza titled The death of Daoiz in Monteleón Artillery, which represents Captain Luis Daoiz, one of the central heroes of the May 2nd Uprising. This callback to popular resistance legitimized Isabella as the descendant of the dynasty that took back Spain from the Bonapartes and valued the Spanish people as part of the essence of the nation. This nationalism emphasized a strong population united under a legitimate monarch (Muro & Quiroga, 2005). Another defining painting of the time was José Casado del Alisal’s The Surrender of Bailén (Diez, 1992). This 1864 painting represents another important moment of the Peninsular War, while also alluding to Diego Velazquez’s Surrender of Breda, one of the most iconic works of art in Spanish history. While historical painting is defined by its subject matter, the style and aesthetic varied throughout the century. Around the mid 19th century Realism emerged, becoming an extremely popular genre of painting. Realism was defined by its accurate approach and depiction of reality and nature and became the default style of academic painters (Gudiol, 1964). Aside from historical painting, other subject matter like portraits and landscapes were also popular within Realism (Gudiol, 1964). Another genre that flourished during this time previously mentioned in this article was Spanish costumbrismo, which represented the common, everyday customs and traditions of the region (Pérez Vejo, 1996). Compared to historical painting, costumbrismo looked for the spirit of the nation in whatever was current and ordinary. While historical painting had been highlighting the shared past, this genre focused on sharing the present.

Two groups of men side by side in different military uniforms with leaders discussing with one another in the middle with more troops scattered in the background throughout the fields.
Figure 2: The Surrender of Bailén depicts the surrender of the French army after the Battle of Bailén in 1808, one of the first victories for the Spanish army against Napoleon's forces (Alisal, 1864).

Historical painting took the limelight once more in the last years of the 19th century. The style of the later years was a grander and more idealised aesthetic, differing from Realism (Guidol, 1964). Two of the most important themes of the genre for this later period were depictions of the Conquista and Catholic Monarchs of Spain (Pérez Vejo, 1996). Queen Isabella of Castille and King Ferdinand, who gave themselves the title of Catholic Monarchs, were the first monarchs who pushed for the unification of all the kingdoms in the Iberian Peninsula. Their efforts during the Reconquista and their sponsorship of Cristopher Columbus's first voyage made them symbols for Spanish power. The 400th anniversary of Cristopher Columbus’s voyage and the Reconquista of Granada, which was celebrated in 1892, made these themes relevant once again and called for the current population to celebrate the history of the Spanish Empire. The grandiose power of the Empire was at the center of these paintings, and it was mostly represented by the victory over the enemies of the monarchy and the domination of new territories and their people. One of the most important painters of the historical genre, Francisco Pradilla Ortiz, unveiled a painting in 1882 commemorating the Capitulation of Granada (Pérez Vejo, 1996). This painting is currently displayed in the senate building in Madrid (Pérez Vejo, 1996). The work clearly memorializes the moment in which Granada is taken by Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand, showing a triumphant victory over the dwindled army of Boabdil, the last Muslim ruler of Granada. This moment represents the unification of the entire Spanish territories under the Catholic Monarchs who had finally managed to take back the Kingdom of Granada from the last Muslim dynasties in the peninsula. The southern Muslim kingdoms were portrayed as the historical adversaries of the Spanish monarchy and, by extension, the Spanish people. The representation of such a historic defeat over this important enemy was a way of conveying the strength of Spain to the viewer of the painting.


The Catholic Monarchs had always been important figures of Spanish history, unlike Cristopher Columbus, whose glorification began in the late 19th century. In 1892, an exposition was celebrated in Madrid to commemorate the arrival of Columbus to the Americas (Pérez Vejo, 1996). In this expo, José Garnelo y Alda presented a painting titled First Tribute to Columbus. In Garnelo’s work, the public found an exaltation of Columbus while also portraying the indigenous Americans as submissive while they give tribute and gifts to the Spanish sailors. This portrayal of Columbus might seem common in the later centuries, but it can be dated back to this exact period in history, a moment when the consolidation of a national identity depended on inspiring the Spanish people to be prideful of a shared glory. The Conquista marked the moment in which Spain became an empire and boosted the drive for territorial expansion that the Catholic Monarchs already had. Depicting such a scene is meant to awaken the same feeling of excitement that Isabella and Ferdinand felt, but for history. While the monarchs saw glory in their future, when Garnelo painted Columbus, he was looking for it in the past.

Figure 3: The painting First Tribute to Columbus portrays a group of indigenous Americans presenting tribute to Columbus and his crew (Garnelo, 1892).

The last years of the 19th century were perhaps the most well known for the increase in popularity of historical painting in Spain. After the overthrow of Queen Isabella II in 1868 by the Glorious Revolution, there was a short period of democracy, which included the failed First Spanish Republic. This democratic era ended with the Bourbon Restoration in 1874, and the Spanish monarchy was reinstated. The differing ideas of moderates, progressives, republicans, and monarchists marked the last quarter of the 19th century. The clashing ideologies gave way for different ideas about nationalism, and Spain failed to unify both socially and politically (Muro & Quiroga, 2005). From this year onward, historical painting is defined by the glorification of the past of the Spanish Empire and associating Spanish national history with the monarchy’s history (Pérez Vejo, 1996). After years of segmentation, Spain had become a nation of many nations, proven by the rise in regional nationalism in various parts of the country (Muro & Quiroga, 2005). The uniting factor then became the monarchy, as the Restoration had ended the many years of political divides, even if some factions were still unsatisfied.


Art is an extremely powerful propaganda tool. In historical painting, the choice of themes and subject matter says a lot about the message being sent to the public. Although this message might be accidental or on purpose, it is impossible to deny that, when it comes to historical painting, the social and political context in which it is produced greatly defines the artwork. Throughout the course of the 19th century, Spain went through different periods defined by a number of wars and internal political conflict, which caused great segmentation within the population. The remembrance of certain events through art was a way for the masses to unify behind certain events that were considered to be foundational for the Spanish nation. The artwork mentioned in this article shows how the political climate at specific points in history defined what was considered as pivotal moments for the Spanish nation and the population. In the more liberal years of Queen Isabella II's reign, the most representative event for the nation was the Peninsular War. Years later, after the Bourbons had regained the throne, what served as a more powerful inspiration to a population tired of the infighting and the breakdown of the Empire from within was to show them a more glorious past, calling back to the Catholic monarch's attempt to unify the entire peninsula. The concept of a national identity is an extremely nuanced subject and can be affected by economic conditions and technological developments as experienced by the national population. These issues can be considered as influential to the arts as the political context of the era was for Spanish historical artwork. With history being so central to the overall context of nation building, historical painting will always find itself at the center of the attempt to consolidate the modern nation-state.

Bibliographical references

Carr, R. (1966). Spain, 1808-1939. Oxford : At the Clarendon Press.


Esdaile, C. J. (2003). The Peninsular War. Palgrave MacMillan.


Guidol, J. (1964). The arts of Spain. Thames and Hudson.


Herr, R. (n.d.). Flow and Ebb, 1700 - 1833. In R. Carr (Ed.), Spain: A History. essay, Oxford University Press.


Muro, D., & Quiroga, A. (2005). Spanish nationalism: Ethnic or civic? Ethnicities, 5(1), 9–29.


1992. La pintura de historia del siglo XIX en España, antiguo museo español de arte contemporáneo, 1992 [Exhibition catalogue]. Madrid.


Pérez Garzón, J. (2005). Memoria, Historia y Poder. La Construcción de la Identidad Nacional Española. In Colom González, F. ed., Relatos de Nación. La construcción de las identidades nacionales en el mundo hispánico.


Pérez Vejo, T. (2002). Pintura de historia e identidad nacional en España (dissertation). Madrid.

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Maya Sánchez Urrutia

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