The Execution of Maximilian
The Execution of Emperor Maximilian
Stadtische Kunsthalle, Mannheim
The wrong uniform exposes the true
Edouard Manet intended this painting to denounce a political crime
and stir up French public opinion. The imperial censor intervened,
however, hindering his design. The authorities discreetly informed
him that it would not be worth his while to submit his "otherwise
excellent" painting to the official Parisian art exhibition, the
Salon of 1869.
Manet's work showed the climax of a drama which had occupied the
European press for years. An}- regular newspaper reader would
immediately have recognized the scene: during the earlv morning of
19th June 1867, near the Mexican town of Queretaro, a Republican
firing squad had executed the Austrian Archduke Maximilian and two
of his generals. For three years Maximilian had ruled as Emperor of
Mexico. Officially invited to the land by a conservative minority,
he had been persuaded to participate in the ill-fated adventure by
the French Emperor Napoleon III, who had also supplied an army. When
Napoleon withdrew his troops from Mexico, Maximilian was taken
prisoner by his enemies. Forced to abdicate, he was sentenced to
death and executed.
"You can understand the horror and the anger of the censors", wrote
Manet's friend, the writer Emile Zola, in 1869. "An artist has dared
put before their eyes so cruel an irony: France shoots Maximilian!"
Manet had delivered a topical painting on a political scandal - as
effective a medium at that time as the photos in some of today's
news magazines. France had a tradition in such paintings: Theodore
Gericault, in 1819, had attacked the criminal incompetence of the
naval authorities in his Raft of the Medusa, and in his Massacre at
Chios (1824), Eugene Delacroix had pilloried Europe's indifference
to the Greek liberation struggle. Both works were exhibited, caused
a sensation, and achieved a political effect.
Manet must have hoped his Execution would be similarly received, and
began work shortly after first reports of the execution reached
Paris in early July of 1867. One and a half years later he had
produced a small study in oils, a lithograph (prints of which the
censor forbade him to sell), and three large-scale paintings. None
of these works was exhibited in France during the artist's lifetime.
The Second Empire's demise in 1870 brought no improvement, for few
people in Republican France desired to see paintings that reminded
them of the humiliating Mexican episode.
The canvases were consequently kept rolled up in a dark corner of
Manet's studio; the largest, after the artist's death in 1883, was
cut into several pieces, fragments later finding their way to
London; the oil sketch, meanwhile, went to Copenhagen, and the first
version of the large-scale work to Boston. The final version,
completed in late 1868, and measuring 252 x 305 cm, carries the date
of the execution. It was bought by citizens of the German town of
Mannheim in 1909, who donated it to the Kunsthalle. The political
atmosphere in the German Reich at the time was such that any
reference to the fickleness and perfidity of France could be sure of
a warm welcome.
"Napoleon le Petit"
The Execution of Emperor Maximilian (detail)
While the squad fires upon its victims, a sergeant wearing a red
hat, who, at first glance, seems peculiarly uninvolved, cocks his
rifle. The inglorious task awaiting him is to deliver the coup de
grace to Emperor Maximilian. The sergeant, with his beard and
sharply defined nose, bears a striking resemblance to Napoleon III.
The similarity was intended. Manet, of upper middle-class
background, was no friend of the Second Empire. By the time he came
to paint the final version of the Execution, he had realized, like
the majority of his contemporaries, that it was Napoleon who was
responsible for Maximilian's ignominious demise.
Louis Napoleon Bonaparte (1808-1873) was contemptuously referred to
by his enemies as "Napoleon le Petit". He spent most of his life
trying to emulate his famous uncle, Napoleon I. In 1848 he was
successfully elected President of the Republic; three years later he
became emperor by virtue of a coup d'etat. His next plan was to
establish French hegemony in Europe. However, he was less fortunate
in foreign affairs than in establishing his position at home. In the
early 1860s, he endeavoured in vain to influence Italy. Searching
for a new outlet for his intervention politics, he concluded,
somewhat astoundingly, that the distant land of Mexico offered the
key to establishing France as a great power.
It was a power vacuum which enticed Napoleon to Mexico, a country
rich in mineral resources, but badly run down and heavily in debt.
Since gaining its independence, it had been torn by chaos and
anarchy, with a civil war raging between the conservatives - the
aristocracy, big landowners and church - and the liberal, Republican
When the reformer Benito Juarez was elected President in 1861, his
opponent and the loser of the election, General Miguel Miramon,
emigrated to France where he was succesful in enlisting the support
of influential French financiers and of the court itself. Napoleon
conceived of a plan to win Mexico while its powerful neighbour,
America, was involved in the Civil War. Napoleon wanted to establish
a "bulwark" on the American continent against Anglo-Amercian
expansion - a Catholic, "Latin-American" empire, which would enjoy
French protection, and from which France would profit economically.
From 1861 onwards, and under various pretexts, France sent 40,000
troops across the Atlantic. They were followed three years later,
once the country had been temporarily "pacified", by the Austrian
Archduke Maximilian, whose fate, as Emperor of Mexico, was utterly
dependent on Napoleon. When he arrived, the land was still largely
under the control of Republican forces. His sole support as a ruler,
besides French bayonets, was Napoleon's solemn vow, laid down in
writing, that France would never deny its support to the new empire
"whatsoever the state of affairs in Europe".
However, the American Unionists, emerging victorious from the Civil
War in 1865, recognized Juarez as the legitimate Mexican president,
sending arms and refusing to tolerate a French presence on the North
American continent. Napoleon finally acquiesced to U.S. diplomatic
pressure, for his position in Europe was under serious threat. He
needed every man he could muster to defend the Rhine against a
superior Prussian army. The last French soldier left Mexico in early
1867. Napoleon III, in tears, had broken his word. This cost him
whatever popular credit he had once enjoyed and contributed to the
rapid decline of the Second Empire. Mexico proved both the Moscow
and the Waterloo of "Napoleon le Petit".
The role of the Mexicans
The Execution of Emperor Maximilian (detail)
Not unlike spectators at a bullfight, a crowd of Mexicans has
gathered in the background to watch the execution of the Emperor.
They were probably part of the great mass of mestizos, mulattos,
Indians and blacks who lived without rights or property. Benito
Juarez, a full-blooded Indian and former President of the High
Court, had guaranteed them civic rights for the first time in his
Constitution of 1857, expropriating the Church to provide the people
with land. Juarez was their man, and they gave him their support in
the guerilla war against the French.
Mexican national pride was, from the outset, unlikely to grant much
of a welcome to a foreign monarch arriving from a distant continent.
When Maximilian and his wife landed at Veracruz on 28th May 1864, a
deathly hush fell on the harbour; the inhabitants had all stayed at
home. With the withdrawal of the French troops, Maximilian's fate
was sealed. Abandoned by his Mexican officers, he was taken prisoner
by the Republicans and placed before a military tribunal. Sentenced
to death, he was refused a pardon by Juarez, a step which led to an
international outcry. The President was accused of flagrantly
violating international law.
When news of the execution arrived in Paris, the ensuing protest was
therefore initially directed against the Mexicans. Commencing the
painting in 1867, Manet may originally have wished to denounce the
Mexicans: the first version of the Execution, now at Boston, shows
the squad and sergeant in Mexican uniforms and sombreros.
In the course of July, however, it gradually dawned on the Parisian
public that the true culprit was not Juarez at all, but Napoleon.
Manet painted over details of the exotic costumes, refining the wide
breeches and sombreros to suggest French uniforms. This gave the
first version a peculiarly unfinished, ambiguous character, making
it unsuitable for presentation. Manet went to work again, giving the
sergeant, in each of the later versions, the features of Napoleon.
From now on there could be no doubt of the artist's intention; the
artist was criticizing his own government: Maximilian shot by
Frenchmen, with the Mexican people as mere spectators.
Dignity befitting a Habsburg
The Execution of Emperor Maximilian (detail)
The Emperor is shown at the place of execution, standing between two
loyal generals: dark-skinned General Tomas Mejia, and the former
president and infantry commander Miguel Mira-mon. Manet apparently
took the Emperor's pale face and blurred features from a
contemporary photograph. The French press had reported that
Maximilian, on his last journey, had worn a dark suit, as well as
the broad-brimmed sombrero of his adopted country. A handsome, erect
figure with a thick blond beard, Maximilian had presented himself
until the end - according to a conservative Parisian newspaper -with
the dignity befitting a true Habsburg. To Napoleon, Maximilian must
have seemed the perfect candidate for such an unpromising campaign
in distant Mexico. The prospect of " wresting a continent from .the
grip of anarchy and poverty" was not without appeal to the
thirty-year-old Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian of Austria, unhappy as
he was in his role as younger brother of Emperor Franz Joseph.
Condemned to political inactivity in Europe, forced to occupy
himself building palaces and collecting butterflies, he leapt at
Napoleon's offer of the Mexican throne as if responding to the call
of divine Providence.
Beguiled by Romantic dreams, Maximilian ignored all well-meaning
warnings. Putting his trust in Napoleon's promises, he embarked on
the Mexican adventure -though militarily and financially, the
conditions for such an enterprise were as dire as they could be.
The Mexican state was heavily in debt; maintenance costs for the
French taskforce alone swallowed up more than its entire annual
income. Funds were too low to pay for the upkeep of an indigenous
army; the few Mexican soldiers under French command, realizing they
were unlikely to be paid for their services, deserted to the
With his own zeal fully absorbed by the task of bringing "guidance
and refinement to the people", Maximilian left everyday political
business to his French advisers, who, deliberately withholding
intelligence of the deteriorating military situation, persuaded him
to lend his signature to unpopular measures, such as a summary death
penalty for the slightest resistance to the imperial government.
When Napoleon withdrew his troops in 1867, Maximilian, with his
handful of Austrian and Mexican loyalists, found himself facing an
army of 60,000 Republicans who had most of the country under their
control. A sense of honour prevented the Emperor from leaving Mexico
with the French troops. A Habsburg, he was reported to have said,
"did not flee"; nor would he "desert the post which Providence had
conferred upon him; no danger, no sacrifice could force him to
recoil until such time as his task was fulfilled or destiny was
stronger than he."
The Emperor, lured into a strategic cul-de-sac at the town of
Queretaro, betrayed by a Mexican officer, gave up after 72 days of
siege. He could have escaped even then, for the Republicans saw no
advantage in turning him into a martyr. But Maximilian refused to
budge, finally leaving his opponents with little choice about what
When his adjutant found a crown of thorns on a broken statue of
Christ in the monastery courtyard where the Republicans were holding
him prisoner, Maximilian said:" Give it to me; it will suit me
Like Christ, he felt himself "betrayed, deceived and robbed ... and
finally sold for eleven reales ..." In Edouard Manet's rendering of
the execution, the bright, broad rim of the sombrero surrounding the
doomed victim's face has the appearance of a halo.
Goya provided the prototype
The Execution of Emperor Maximilian
There is one thing I have always
wanted to do", Manet once confided to a friend, "I should like to
paint Christ on the cross ... What a symbol! ... The archetypal
image of suffering." In the Execution scene Manet comes close to
achieving this ambition. Emperor Maximilian may not be wearing a
crown of thorns, but his left hand, and the hand holding it
belonging to Miramon, already show signs of bleeding, though the
squad is painted in the very act of firing. The detail is contrived,
an allusion to the nail and lance wounds of Christ, the stigmata
shown in traditional Crucifixions.
Manet had seen stigmata on the hands of an innocent victim during a
journey to Spain: in a secular, and apparently realistic painting.
The work was Goya's early 19th-century execution scene, his famous
Third of May, 1808, in which invading French troops under Napoleon I
murder Spanish patriots. As well as the symbolic wounds, Manet
adopted the structural arrangement of Goya's composition, including
the position of the firing squad, which, seen from behind, gives the
impression of a faceless, anonymous death-machine. The contextual
links between the two paintings are not without irony: revolutionary
patriots, the victims in Goya's painting, are the perpetrators of a
crime in Manet's work; both works show French invading armies at
work, and, in each case, a different Napoleon is responsible.
Study for "The Execution of Emperor Maximilian"
However, the French painting retains none of Goya's theatrical
emotionalism. Manet transposes the scene from flickering lamplight
to the cold grey of dawn, avoiding grandiose gesture, brushing aside
the moving circumstantial detail that had been reported in the
press: the waiting coffins, the priests, the tears of loyalists who
had accompanied the Emperor on his last journey, the blindfolded
generals. As a result, he was accused of witholding sympathy; in
fact, however, there were artistic reasons for his abstinence. His
frieze-like arrangement of figures - the victims and firing squad
are unrealistically close together - against the neutral grey of the
wall, together with his muted use of colour, acknowledge his debt to
the painter Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825) and the tradition of the
French history painting.
Academic convention demanded the subject of a history painting be
drawn from the Bible, antique mythology or an actual historical
event; it had also to be morally or politically edifying and contain
a universally significant moral lesson. In Manet's day, this "high"
branch of art still commanded the greatest respect, celebrated as it
was at the official Salon year after year.
All his life, Manet had craved recogni-ton, preferably in the shape
of an official prize, at the Salon: in vain. With The Execution of
Maximilian the renewed prospect of success appears to have inspired
him with hope yet again. However, by the time he came to paint over
the Mexican uniforms, replacing them with French, Manet must have
realized that the work could only meet with the opprobrium of the
political and artistic establishment. He continued work nonetheless,
driven by an ambition even greater than his desire for recognition:
the Execution was to be his Crucifixion, and the great, modern
history painting of his age. The "moral lesson" "was equally
important: to denounce treachery and breach of promise, and lodge an
indictment: "France shoots Maximilian!"
Rose-Marie and Rainer Hagen