The Execution of the Emperor Maximilian of Mexico

Edouard Manet
Keywords: ExecutionEmperorMaximilianMexico

Work Overview

The Execution of the Emperor Maximilian of Mexico
Edouard Manet
Date: 1868; Paris, France *
Style: Realism
Genre: history painting
Media: lithography
Dimensions: 43.5 x 33.5 cm
Location: Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, MA, US

The Execution of Emperor Maximilian is a series of paintings by Édouard Manet from 1867 to 1869, depicting the execution by firing squad of Emperor Maximilian I of the short-lived Second Mexican Empire. Manet produced three large oil paintings, a smaller oil sketch and a lithograph of the same subject. All five works were brought together for an exhibition in London and Mannheim in 1992–93, and at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 2006.

Maximilian was born in 1832, the son of Archduke Franz Karl of Austria and Princess Sophie of Bavaria. After a career in the Austrian Navy, he was encouraged by Napoleon III to become Emperor of Mexico following the French intervention in Mexico. Maximilian arrived in Mexico in May 1864. He faced significant opposition from forces loyal to the deposed president Benito Juárez throughout his reign, and the Empire collapsed after Napoleon withdrew French troops in 1866. Maximilian was captured in May 1867, sentenced to death at a court martial, and executed with Generals Miguel Miramón and Tomás Mejía on 19 June 1867.

Manet supported the Republican cause, but nonetheless was inspired to start work on a painting heavily influenced by Goya's The Third of May 1808. The final work, painted in 1868–69 is now held by the Kunsthalle Mannheim. The painting is signed by Manet in the lower left corner but bears the date of Maximilian's execution in 1867 despite being painted in 1868–69.

Fragments of an earlier and larger painting from about 1867–68 are held by the National Gallery in London. Parts of this work were probably cut off by Manet, but it was largely complete on his death; other parts were sold separately after his death. The surviving pieces were reassembled by Edgar Degas and they were bought by the National Gallery in 1918, but then separated again until 1979 and finally combined on one canvas in 1992.

A third, unfinished oil painting is held by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, donated from Mr. and Mrs. Frank Gair Macomber in 1930, who bought it from Ambroise Vollard in 1909. A much smaller work in oils, a study for the Mannheim painting, is held by the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek in Copenhagen. Manet was refused permission to reproduce the lithograph in 1869, but an edition of 50 impressions was produced in 1884, after his death. Examples of the lithograph are held by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts.

In the Boston version of the painting, the soldiers wear clothes and sombrero of Mexican Republicans. In the final version in Mannheim, they are dressed in 19th century field dress, common to many armies at that time, but Manet recognized the irony that they could be easily mistaken for French soldiers in this picture. The sergeant wearing a red cap clearly resembles Napoleon III (in reality, the execution was bungled, and a Coup de grâce was required).

Political sensitivities made it impossible for Manet to exhibit his paintings in France during the reign of Napoleon III, but the Mannheim version was exhibited in New York and Boston in 1879–80, brought there by Manet's friend, the opera singer Émilie Ambre.[1] The Mannheim and Boston versions were exhibited together at the Salon d'Automne in 1905. The Mannheim version was acquired by the Kunsthalle Mannheim in 1910 after being exhibited at the Berliner Secession earlier that year.

Befitting the nature of the historical event on which its subject matter is based, Édouard Manet’s painting of the execution of Maximilian I is far more complex than it first appears.
In 1861, allied troops from France, Spain, and Britain invaded Mexico to recoup debts owed to them by the Mexican government. French occupation of the country followed, and in 1863, Napoleon III of France offered to make Austrian Archduke Maximilian emperor of the territory. Napoleon’s plan to rule Mexico through Maximilian was not just ineffective but, in fact, disastrous. By the time Maximilian arrived in Mexico in 1864, France’s control there had weakened substantially. Within a year and a half, Napoleon announced the withdrawal of French troops. Abandoned and unprotected, the emperor was captured by Mexican nationalists and sentenced to death. His execution in 1867 sent shock waves through Europe.
The culminating work in series of compositions treating the same subject produced by Manet between 1867 and 1869, the Execution of Maximilian depicts a contemporary event of political significance. The firing squad and the condemned men—Maximilian and two of his generals—are clearly identifiable and there is no question about the action that is taking place. Yet, the way the artist has set the scene seems oddly detached from the gruesome violence it implies. This is most obvious in the figure of the officer on the far right, who calmly checks his rifle, and the line of rather apathetic spectators, who peer over the rear wall. Maximilian’s hat tilts upward to frame his head almost like a martyr’s halo, but his face is painted roughly and seems washed out.
In the Execution of Maximilian, Manet seems as much concerned with art historical quotes and references as with the event he portrays. The composition of the painting is a direct echo of Francisco Goya’s famous Third of May, 1808 in which the massacre of Spanish citizens by French troops is depicted. While Goya’s image includes absolute heroes and villains, the tone of Manet’s work remains coolly ambiguous. Functioning almost like reportage, the painting seems to resist taking a definitive stance on the controversial events surrounding Maximilian’s execution. Indeed, the artist seems to have borrowed elements of the work from eyewitness newspaper reports circulating in France. Despite its aesthetic claims to objectivity, the Execution was implicitly critical of Napoleon III. As a result, the French government censored a lithograph version of the work and the painting itself was denied public exhibition until 1879.

With the Bullfight that precedes it, the Execution of Emperor Maximilian is one of the few works in which Manet seeks a dramatic effect. The painting illustrates the climax of a well-known historical episode. Napoleon III intervened in Mexico to prevent it from gravitating toward the United States, for which he had no sympathy and which was at that time too involved in the Civil War to protest his actions effectively. French troops invaded Mexico in June 1863, and an assembly of Mexican notables proclaimed Maxirnilian - the brother of Franz Joseph of Austria - Emperor. But, once the Civil War was over, the United States demanded that the French withdraw their army, and Napoleon, in 1866, complied. Deserted by his supporters, Maximilian was captured in 1867 at Quere-taro, condemned to death, and shot in reprisal for the summary executions he himself had ordered. 

This is certainly the work which shows most clearly the influence of Francisco Goya (note, for example, the rapid treatment of the people looking over the wall) and, in particular, the influence of the painting in the Prado entitled The Third of May, 1808. But there is one thing that is quite wrong according to the old school. The spectators could not be in the position in which they are shown, in view of the height of the wall, unless they were standing on scaffolding. Conscious no doubt of this faulty drawing, the artist, perhaps to disguise it, has made the fore-ground stand out sharply from the background and diverted attention from the base of the wall by showing it as little as possible between the black-trousered legs of the prisoners and the soldiers. "You can see right away that they are French," Meier-Graefe said of the soldiers. As a matter of fact, for want of Mexicans, Manet had been forced to borrow a squad from a French regiment. 

In Manet's painting the soldiers have just fired (the chests of Maximilian and his two favorites are enveloped in smoke). In the back, an officer is preparing to give the coup de grace. 

What happens when a powerful country with imperial ambitions forces its way at gunpoint into the affairs of another, distant country, of which it has no cultural knowledge, on the pretext of bringing enlightened governance? And that country meets the encroachment with violent resistance? You get disaster.

And what happens when art responds quickly and critically to that disaster? You get the paintings in “Manet and the Execution of Maximilian,” a small, taut historical show that puts the Museum of Modern Art back on the experimental, heterodox track that it began to explore six years ago in its “MoMA2000” project, and then all but abandoned.

In a New York fall art season given over to mild Modernist pleasures, this show, which opens on Sunday, is a reminder of Modernism’s mutinous, myth-scouring origins. It achieves this by bringing one of art’s great guerrilla path-cutters, Édouard Manet, onto the scene, wry, infuriated, ambitious, and painting like Lucifer.

Not that there’s a lot of him here: eight paintings, three (and an oil sketch) on a single theme: the death by firing squad of the Austrian archduke Ferdinand Maximilian in Mexico in 1867. But it’s enough. Manet’s images are electrifying. For him, painting was thinking, and his thoughts shoot out in bold, impetuous strokes, ricocheting off multiple targets.

One of his targets was the conservative French emperor Napoleon III. In the mid-19th-century this ruler, ravenous for new territory, had his eye on Mexico. When a reformist government under Benito Juárez came to power in the country, a privileged minority of landowners and clergy appealed to France for help, and Napoleon (counting on the United States being distracted by the Civil War) sent his army their way in 1862.

The initial invasion, under the pretext of collecting debts owed by Mexico, resulted in a mortifying French defeat, now celebrated by Mexicans as Cinco de Mayo. To provide a cover for a second one, Napoleon persuaded Maximilian, the idealistic younger brother of the Austrian emperor Franz Joseph, to become emperor of Mexico, backed by the French military. Maximilian, who knew nothing in particular about Mexico, accepted the offer with a missionary zeal, giving Napoleon both a colony and a Hapsburg alliance.

Abandoned by the French government that crowned him and sent him to Mexico, the Emperor Maximilian was executed by a firing squad of Benito Juárez's army at Querétaro, north of Mexico City, on June 19, 1867. News of the execution reached Paris on July 1, just as Napoleon III was inaugurating that year's Universal Exposition. Édouard Manet set to work almost immediately, and by early 1869 he had completed a series of four paintings and one lithograph of the subject. Manet and the Execution of Maximilian unites several of these works for the first time in the United States, with selected additional works that examine the evolution from one painting to the next, which was fuelled by a steady stream of written and graphic accounts of the event. The exhibition is accompanied by education programs and a fully illustrated catalogue.