Art Through Time: A Global View
Conflict and Resistance Art: The Execution of Emperor Maximilian
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.
John Elderfield, Chief Curator Emeritus of Painting and Sculpture, Museum of Modern Art, New York
“When the news came out that Juárez had executed Maximilian, all the criticism was against Juárez. It took a while for the liberal sentiment to prevail. And I think even it was directed against not poor Maximilian, but against Napoleon III. But, still, actually Juárez was amazingly brave in a sense for having done this and realized that he was going to be criticized and that nonetheless, given the history of Mexico and the way in which people are deposed and then come back or form governments in exile, that he absolutely had to do this. Everybody knows that he did the right thing.
The painting seems a twenty-first-century painting. I mean it absolutely seems of the present. But the context from which it came has actually receded from the painting. And I think that’s the hard thing to recover. What was it like? We have Manet’s letters. We know how he was contemptuous of Napoleon III and thought he was just a terrible person, and that what happened here was clearly something he judged to be entirely in character to this person who was just hopeless and actually made him angry enough to want to paint these huge pictures, as well as being a painter who cared about his career, thinking, ‘Great, I’ve got a subject, which is going to wow people’—that part of the job of the artist is also actually to provide something which is in the expanded notion of the word entertainment. And that’s what this is as well.”
“Manet and the Execution of Maximilian (November 5, 2006–January 29, 2007).” In Exhibitions & the Collection. The Museum of Modern Art Web site. http://www.moma.org/explore/exhibitions.
Elderfield, John. Manet and the Execution of Emperor Maximilian. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2006.
Fried, Michael. Manet’s Modernism: or, the Face of Painting in the 1860s. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998.
Rosenblum, Robert. 19th Century Art. New York: Abrams, 1984.