Édouard Manet: The Execution of Emperor Maximilian (1868–69)

The last in a series considering four iconic moments in art history when artists sought to frame revolutionary ideals

By Christian Viveros-Fauné

Édouard Manet, The Execution of Emperor Maximilian, 1868–69, oil on canvas, 252 × 305 cm. Courtesy Kunsthalle Mannheim

Édouard Manet (1823–83) is widely considered to properly deserve the phrase Baudelaire coined for Constantin Guys: ‘the painter of modern life’. His groundbreaking works portrayed the nineteenth century in flowering transition into the twentieth. About the Frenchman’s political painting, curator John Elderfield put it best: ‘political art… does not reduce human affairs to slogans; it complicates rather than simplifies’.

Journalism, declared Washington Post publisher Philip Graham in 1963, ‘is the first rough draft of history’. In art, however, things had already gone further: when the painter Édouard Manet tackled history, he served up drafts one, two and three.

Before the idea of making art ripped from the headlines achieved self-evident vogue, Manet set the standard for painting contemporary subjects so directly that they crackled with authenticity. Among his controversial themes – and there were many, including his depiction of a mousy prostitute as a prostitute – one proved especially radical in political terms: the 1867 execution by firing squad of the Austrian archduke Ferdinand Maximilian, who had been installed as emperor of Mexico (the Habsburg family had originally ruled the Viceroyalty of New Spain) by Napoleon III four years earlier.

A naive puppet, Maximilian did France’s imperialist bidding in North America. His rule depended entirely on the presence of the French army; when Napoleon’s troops withdrew, he was overrun by republican forces and quickly captured. On 19 June 1867, Mexico’s pseudo-ruler was executed, alongside two local generals, in the manner of Christ and the two thieves. These events unleashed the nineteenth-century equivalent of a media frenzy – complete with eyewitness accounts, photographs and prints. 

Fascinated, Manet recognised in the subject a great opportunity. He had recently seen Francisco Goya’s The Third of May 1808 (1814) at the Prado in Madrid, the world’s first great modern painting about death by fusillade (consider, in this light, Hans Memling’s Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian, c. 1475). Mexico’s regicide, in fact, provided the perfect subject for a clean sweep: the French artist could tackle the fustiness of history painting, the conservatism of the Paris Salon (which predictably rejected his final canvas) and, into the bargain, Napoleon III’s authoritarianism.

Painted between 1867 and 1869, Manet’s painting of Maximilian’s execution exists in three versions. One is at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, another at the National Gallery, London, and a third at the Kunsthalle Mannheim. Two of these versions are either fragmentary or incomplete; the third, which is on your left, has had its painterly I’s dotted and its T’s crossed.

Manet’s last Maximilian painting was the only one to be exhibited in public during the artist’s lifetime. In 1879 it was shipped to New York and Boston and billed as a public attraction, with viewers charged 25 cents for the privilege. The business was a fiasco. Eventually, all three compositions were mothballed in the artist’s Paris studio; years later, the early twentieth century’s love of realism rescued them from oblivion.

An astounding depiction of the execution post-factum, the Kunsthalle Mannheim painting casts the viewer in the role of a fascinated rubbernecker: the triggers have just been pulled and the oaths shouted; the rifle smoke is yet to clear; the jury is out on the morality of the execution. One of Maximilian’s dark-skinned generals rears back with arms raised (the pose is lifted from Goya’s earlier picture); the second awaits his own personal bullet with hands crossed in an attitude of beatitude. Maximilian, for his part, couldn’t look more surprised. Death has found him just as he was in life: gullible, wide-eyed and unprepared.

From the May 2018 issue of ArtReview