The full and accurate title of this painting is Fusilamiento de Torrijos y sus compañeros en las playas de Málaga (“Execution of Torrijos and his Companions on the Beaches of Malaga”). It was painted in 1888 by Spanish romanticist Antonio Gisbert Pérez, known in the English-speaking world mostly as Antonio Gisbert. As you can see it’s quite a startling scene. Priests are saying the last rites over a group of prisoners, some blindfolded, as the firing squad that will execute them lines up behind them. It’s happening on a windswept beach, perhaps in winter, and the scene includes a number of tropes more common to romanticist landscapes than scenes involving people: crashing waves, dramatic clouds and sleepy villages that seem hidden in mist. The drama of the human scene contrasts with the beauty of the natural environment, which is the point.
José María Torrijos and Uriarte was a Spanish general dedicated to the precepts of liberalism, as that term was understood in the 19th century. Basically he was against the absolutist monarchies that then ruled most of Europe. After fighting in the Napoleonic Wars and participating in various movements aimed at ending the rule of kings in Spain, Torrijos, with support in Britain (where he lived in exile), organized a revolt and landed on the Spanish coast in 1831. Things didn’t go so well and he and his men eventually fell into a trap. Forces loyal to the king marched Torrijos and 48 companions to this beach and executed them by firing squad on December 11, 1831. Torrijos was essentially a martyr for the cause of anti-absolutism in Spain.
Gisbert was also a passionate liberal, and, as with many romanticist works, this painting was intended to have a political as well as an artistic dimension. Spain went through a lot in the 19th century, seesawing between republican governments and various monarchist restorations. In 1888, when Gisbert painted this, the country was again under a king, Alfonso XII. Many Spanish intellectuals yearned for a more liberal society. Of course Spain’s history in the next century was equally tumultuous, marked by the bloody Spanish Civil War of the 1930s. Gisbert, who died in 1901, missed all of that, but the sentiments portrayed in Execution of Torrijos lived on long after him.
The original of this magnificent work of art is in the Museo del Prado in Madrid, Spain’s national art museum.