The massacre was a violent act that must have left a strong impression on the artist as there are two paintings in existence about the events, one for the fight on May 2nd and the other depicting the events of May 3rd.
Whenever an action of war usurps the freedom of a region, resistance becomes the only way in which to fight the occupying armies. As most under armed and poorly manned military resistance goes when attempted by civilians, the rebellion was put down within a day even though French blood was spilled. In order to reassert power and order, the French occupying army arrested and quickly executed those who were most prominent in the uprising. The power of that event and the consequences that followed appeared to have inspire this painter to commemorate the event through the artist medium that was his skill.
According to the evidence that the painting presents, the idea that Goya witnessed the events is highly probable. The emotions on the canvas not only provide a tale of the heroism of the rebels, but it shows the despair and the fear that would beyond the romanticism that might be found in a piece that is only documenting what might have happened, rather than the details of what did happen on that sorrowful day. The French army is clearly considered the enemy as they stand in a row that is rigid and without individuality, while the Spanish rebels are shown having individual responses and movement, thus giving them a more human appearance. The French are shown as a unit, a single tide of destruction, where the Spanish are men, vulnerable and
The piece is one of two works of art created to commemorate the infamous date and actions of that heroic rebellion. The companion piece, The Second of May 1808, shows a fury of movement with no central action taking the focus of the work. This suggests that a point of view was found by the artist that expressed the confusion and excess of activity that was difficult to process into one focal moment.