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Yo lo vi’. Goya witnessing the disasters of war: an appeal to the sentiment of humanity

  • Paul Bouvier
Editor's note

The humanitarian mission maintains its ultimate objective of preventing and alleviating human suffering in situations of extreme crisis. In a different vein from the main subject of this edition- the future of humanitarian action – and using the power of images, Paul Bouvier, ICRC Senior Medical Advisor, brings us back exactly two centuries, to the ‘Peninsular War’ between French, Spanish and British, among the fiercest of the Napoleonic Wars.

The artist Francisco de Goya produced a series of etched plates known as The Disasters of War, which offered a hitherto uncommon view of war. By showing the horror and devastation of armed violence, the resulting dehumanization, and the distress and suffering of the victims, he denounced the consequences of war and famine and the ensuing political repression. Goya's lucid, compassionate, yet uncompromising depictions of war and its consequences are not only unique but also highly relevant today. His work is also an outcry and a plea for acts of humanity in the turmoil of armed violence, and anticipates the initiative that Henry Dunant would be prompted to take sixty years later, in Solferino. In a way, Goya announced Dunant.

Walking us through a selection of Goya's sketches, Paul Bouvier looks at victims, perpetrators, and eye-witnesses, and discusses how these images relate to the contemporary experience of humanitarian workers faced with the extreme violence of war. The author decrypts Goya’s sketches and relates them to the essence of humanitarian action as a response to human suffering.

Corresponding author
*The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of the ICRC. The article was presented in part at the symposium ‘L'expérience créative permet-elle d’élaborer des liens’ organized by the Fondation Recherche et Formation pour l'Education des Patients (Tiziana and Jean-Philippe Assal) and the Fondation des Treilles (Catherine Bachy), in Tourtour, France, February 2011. Email:
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1 We would like to thank the Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando, Calcografía Nacional, Madrid, which generously provided the reproductions of engravings in the series The Disasters of War, and the Archivo Oronoz, Madrid, for the reproductions of Figures 1 and 2.

2 For an introduction to the life and work of Goya, see Baticle, Jeannine, Goya: Painter of Terrible Splendor, Harry N. Abrams Inc., New York, 1994.

3 An excellent edition may be found in Balsells, Sandra, Bordes, Juan, and Manuel Matilla, José (eds), Goya, Chronicler of War: Los Desastres and the Photography of War, Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando, Calcografía Nacional, Madrid, Centro Atlántico de Arte Moderno (CAAM), Cabildo de Gran Canaria, 2009. Reproductions are available at: (last visited December 2011).

4 Sureda, Juan, Goya in Italy, Turner/Fundación Goya en Aragón, Saragossa, 2008, p. 159.

5 José Manuel Matilla, ‘Estampas españolas de la Guerra de la Independencia: propaganda, conmemoración y testimonio’, in S. Balsells, J. Bordes, and J. M. Matilla, above note 3, p. 5.

6 Carlos Serrano, ‘Que la Guerre était jolie!’, in Jean-Paul Duviols and Annie Molinié-Bertrand (eds), La violence en Espagne et en Amérique (XVe–XIXe siècles), Presses de l'Université Paris-Sorbonne, Paris, 1997, p. 105.

7 The numbers in the captions reflect the numbering of the plates in the series The Disasters of War by Francisco de Goya.

8 C. Serrano, above note 5, p. 105.

9 Juliet Wilson-Bareau, ‘“Aprende a ver”: hacia un mejor entendimento del inventario de 1812 y de la obra de Goya’, in Manuela B. Mena Marqués (ed.), Goya en tiempos de guerra, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, 2008, pp. 31–33.

10 Juan Bordes, ‘Los Desastros de la Guerra: interpretaciones históricas’, in S. Balsells, J. Bordes, and J. M. Matilla, above note 3, pp. 77–245.

11 Jacques Callot, Les Grandes Misères de la Guerre, Nancy, 1633. Pictures available at: (last visited December 2011).

12 The picture is available at: (last visited December 2011).

13 Jeannine Baticle, Goya, Fayard, Paris, 1992, pp. 353–355.

14 Bell, David A., La première guerre totale: l'Europe de Napoléon et la naissance de la guerre moderne, Champ Vallon, Seyssel, 2010, p. 326.

15 Ibid., p. 330.

16 See, for example, Juan Galvez, Fernando Brambila, Agustina de Aragón, Madrid, 1812, available at: (last visited December 2011).

17 J. Bordes, above note 11, p. 94.

18 Sontag, Susan, Regarding the Pain of Others, Picador, New York, 2003, p. 75.

19 D. A. Bell, above note 14, p. 331.

20 Sironi, Françoise, Psychopathologie des violences collectives, Odile Jacob, Paris, 2007, p. 39.

21 Claude Roy, Goya, Editions Cercle D'Art, Paris, 1952, p. 24.

22 Cyrulnik, Boris, Les murmures des fantômes, Odile Jacob, Paris, 2003, pp. 129136.

23 M. B. Mena Marqués, above note 9, p. 318.

24 See F. Sironi, above note 20, p. 122.

25 B. Cyrulnik, above note 22, p. 143.

26 ICRC, ‘Missing persons: a major humanitarian concern’, interview with Morris Tidball-Binz, 28 August 2009, available at: (last visited December 2011).

27 D. A. Bell, above note 14, p. 329.

28 Semprun, Jorge, L’écriture ou la vie, Gallimard, Paris, 1994, pp. 2526.

29 Hatzfeld, Jean, Une saison de machettes, Seuil, Paris, 2003, p. 149.

30 Marc Bouyer, ‘Les signes picturaux de la violence dans les “Désastres de la guerre” de Goya’ in J.-P. Duviols and A. Molinié-Bertrand, above note 6, p. 360.

31 Roquet, Claude-Henri, Goya, Buchet-Castel, Paris, 2008, p. 239.

32 D. A. Bell, above note 14, p. 320.

33 Marie Hagen, Rose and Hagen, Rainer, Goya, Taschen, Cologne and Paris, 2003, p. 57.

34 D. A. Bell, above note 14, p. 329.

35 Hugo, Adèle, Victor Hugo raconté par un témoin de sa vie, Librairie Internationale, Brussels, 1863, pp. 208210, available at: (last visited December 2011).

36 Sophie Renouart de Bussierre, ‘Rembrand-Goya’, in Maryline Assante di Panzillo and Simon André-Deconcha (eds), Goya: Graveur, Paris-Musées et Nicolas Chaudun, Paris, 2008, p. 63.

37 Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quijote de la Mancha, Madrid, 1605, Book I, ch. 5.

38 Slim, Hugo, Killing Civilians, Hurst, London, 2007.

39 F. Sironi, above note 20, p. 128.

40 Schwarberg, Günther, In the ghetto of Warsaw: Heinrich Jöst's photographs, Steidl, Göttingen, 2001. Pictures available at: (last visited December 2011).

41 Ricœur, Paul, Devenir capable, être reconnu, Esprit, Paris, July 2005, p. 125.

42 Ricœur, Paul, Parcours de la reconnaissance, Stock, Paris, 2004, pp. 332 and 350.

43 B. Cyrulnik, above note 22, p. 57.

44 B. Cyrulnik, above note 22, p. 197.

45 M. Bouyer, above note 30, p. 360.

46 Juliet Wilson-Bareau, ‘Goya maître-graveur: technique et esthétique’ in M. B. Mena Marqués, above note 9, p. 28.

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International Review of the Red Cross
  • ISSN: 1816-3831
  • EISSN: 1607-5889
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