Developments in the 19th Century
in 19th century -
Innovators of Painting
The Impressionist painters confronted nature in a very different way
from their predecessors. Their new language not only changed
traditional conventions, it overturned the very way of seeing the
world and challenged the human relationship with reality. The
artists did not record nature as static and unchanging but sought to
reflect its constant movement and natural pulse. In a rejection of
the age-old principles of academic painting - stillness, symmetry,
order, and cleanliness - they cast aside the distinction between
foreground and background; the frontal illumination needed for
chiaroscuro; the sharpness of outline; the balance of mass and
colour; and the solidity of form. In
Pissarro's words, "The
Impressionists have abandoned the three principles of illusion:
line, perspective, and the artificial light of academic painting."
This apparent lack of respect angered the public and critics alike.
Instead of depicting subjects substantively and definitively, the
Impressionists adopted a looser style that was lively and immediate
and in a continual process of change. In their paintings, executed
en plein air, these artists captured the sighing of the breeze, the
constantly changing sky. and the fleeting effects of light reflected
on water. Under the strong influence of the Impressionists, the
classical painting of landscapes became more ethereal and misty.
Unreal shadows and contrived dark tones were now eliminated, and the
paint lost the compact density characteristic of
Courbet, who said
that painting "is an art of sight and should therefore concern
itself with things seen." The English artist
(1776-1837) had already sought to evoke the "chiaroscuro of nature
in the dew, in the breeze, in the flowering, in the freshness, that
no painter has yet succeeded in putting on canvas", using rapid
brushstrokes and splashes of pure white paint applied with a palette
knife. In Impressionism, it is light, broken into all its composite colours, that floods canvases with freshness and captures the
constantly changing atmosphere. The browns and ochres (earth colours)
were replaced with the primary colours (red, yellow, and blue),
which were blended with complementary colours (green, purple, and
orange). Imitating the lively brushstrokes of
who had already used pure colour and not mixed his paint, the
Impressionists broke colours into a thousand fragments, not only
dissolving the outline of form, but flaking the paint itself in
order to reflect back every "impression". The surface, varying in
thickness and no longer depicted in uniform colours, came alive,
nourished by the quantity and variety of comma-shaped brushstrokes.
Many other marks were added to enliven the whole canvas and make it
appear in continuous motion, using reflections of light and the
contrast of complementary colours. The skies of the Impressionists
opened up, and the light became millions of particles -opaque,
vibrant, and refracting. It went far beyond the delicate,
spontaneous brushwork of such artists as Jongkind and Boudin, who
had already practised the art of painting en plein air. Impressionism
was very much a product of its time, and the movement coincided with
the discussion of ideas prompted by discoveries in the field of
optics, which, since the beginning of the 19th century, had
developed and been published in various journals. These included
theories about the composition of colour and the structure of light.
In 1839, the chemist Eugene Chevreul published a work on the
principles of colour harmonies and contrasts and their use in art.
These theories were applied directly to the canvases of the
After several failed attempts to get into the navy,
Manet took up
painting and studied under Thomas Couture, a famous academic painter
of the day. He visited Brazil, Belgium, Holland, Italy, Austria, and
Germany and was influenced by the Old Masters, particularly those of
the golden ages of Spanish and Venetian painting. His work began to
cause controversy in 1863, yet he became the most recognized figure
in the Impressionist group, bringing to them his idea of "pure
(1832-83) took Courbet's
realism one step further, so blurring the boundary between objectivity
and subjectivity that painting has never recovered from his quiet
revolution. After Impressionism, art can never return to a dependence
upon a world that exists "out there" apart from the individual artist.
Yet it was a quiet revolution only in that
Manet was a reticent,
gentlemanly artist who desired nothing better than conventional success
at the Paris Salons.
opposite, with his very fashion-conscious, witty, and urbane attitude,
Manet was the archetypal
flaneur (see column, right) and was well liked. To the end he could not
understand why his work was so reviled by the Parisian art world and
seen as an offense. Fortunately a private income enabled him to pursue
his course without undue financial distress, but one cannot imagine even
Manet ever compromising.
"The father of modern art"
In the past
Manet has been included
in the all-embracing term of Impressionism, but his art is Realist
rather than Impressionist. It was
Manet's attitude that
influenced the group of younger painters who subsequently became known
as the Impressionists. They were also affected by his radical use of
strong flat color, broken brush-work, harsh natural lighting, and the
generally "raw," fresh appearance of his paintings.
Manet was an extremely
cultured and sophisticated man from a well-to-do bourgeois background,
yet he painted with a simplicity that is startling. His painting
Le Dejeuner sur I'Herbe is the work of an educated
artist. The central group is based upon a print that is itself based
upon a work by
Raphael - nothing Pre-Raphaelite
Manet - and a picnic in
the woods was a well-established artistic subject.
What shocked the critics and the public was the startling modernity of
it all: the naked woman had a timeless body, but her face and attitude
were unmistakably contemporary. One wonders whether the scandal would
have been less if the men too had been unclothed.
Manet made his subject
seem so startlingly likely, a scene that might greet the eye of anyone
taking a stroll in the woods.
Ironically, it was the very power of this painting that made it a
popular failure, coupled with
idiosyncratic use of perspective. The girl bathing in the brook is
neither in the picture, nor out of it. Her proportions are "wrong" in
relation to the others, so that the three picnickers are enclosed within
what seem like two distinct styles of painting: the stooping bather
seems flattened and too remote, while the superb still life of
carelessly spilled clothes and fruit looks overpoweringly real.
In the center, Victorine Meurent,
Manet's favorite model,
looks out unabashed and shamelessly at the very intruder each viewer
fears might be himself or herself. That classical nymphs should feel at
ease with their bodies had long been accepted, but in portraying a
modern, fleshly woman realistically,
Manet stripped away the
social pretenses of his time.
Le Dejeuner sur I'Herbe
born January 23, 1832, Paris, France
died April 30, 1883, Paris
French painter who broke new ground by defying traditional
techniques of representation and by choosing subjects from the
events and circumstances of hisown time. His Déjeuner sur
l'herbe (“Luncheon on the Grass”), exhibited in 1863 at the
Salon des Refusés, aroused the hostility of critics and the
enthusiasm of the young painters who later formed the nucleus of the
Impressionist group. His other notable works include Olympia (1863)
and A Bar at the Folies-Bergère (1882).
Early life and works
Édouard was the son of Auguste Manet, the chief of personnel at the
Ministry of Justice, and Eugénie-Désirée Fournier. From 1839 he was
a day pupil at Canon Poiloup's school in Vaugirard, where he studied
French and the classics. From 1844 to 1848 he was a boarder at the
Collège Rollin, then located near the Panthéon. A poor student, he
was interested only in the special drawing course offered by the
Although his father wanted him to enroll in law school, Édouard
could not be persuaded to do so. When his father refused to allow
him to become a painter, he applied for the naval college but failed
the entrance examination. He therefore embarked in December 1848 as
an apprentice piloton a transport vessel. Upon his return to France
in June 1849, he failed the naval examination a second time, and his
parents finally yielded to their son's stubborn determination to
become a painter.
In 1850 Manet entered the studio of the classical painter Thomas
Couture. Despite fundamental differences between teacher and
student, Manet was to owe to Couture a good grasp of drawing and
pictorial technique. In 1856, after six years with Couture, Manet
set up a studio that he shared with Albert de Balleroy, a painter of
military subjects. There he painted The Boy with Cherries (c. 1858)
before moving to another studio, where he painted The Absinthe
Drinker (1859). In 1856 he made short trips to The Netherlands,
Germany, and Italy. Meanwhile, at the Louvre he copied paintings by
Titian and Diego Velázquez and in 1857 made the acquaintance of the
artist Henri Fantin-Latour, who was later to paint Manet's portrait.
During this period, Manet also met the poet Charles Baudelaire, at
whose suggestion he painted Concert in the Tuileries Gardens (1862).
The canvas, which was painted outdoors, seems to assemble the whole
of Paris of the Second Empire—a smart, fashionable gathering
composed chiefly of habitués of the Café Tortoni and of the Café
Guerbois, which was the rendezvous of the Batignolles artists. As he
created the work, passersby looked with curiosity at this elegantly
dressed painter who set up his canvas and painted in the open air.
At the Salon of 1861, Manet exhibited Spanish Singer (1860), dubbed
“Guitarero”by the French man of letters Théophile Gautier, who
praised it enthusiastically in the periodical Le Moniteur universel.
Mature life and works
From 1862 to 1865 Manet took part in exhibitions organized by the
Martinet Gallery. In 1863 Manet married Suzanne Leenhoff, a Dutch
woman who had given him piano lessons and had given birth to his
child before their marriage. That same year the jury of the Salon
rejected his Déjeuner sur l'herbe , a work whose technique was
entirely revolutionary, and so Manet instead exhibited it at the
Salondes Refusés (established to exhibit the many works rejected by
the official Salon).Although inspired by works of the Old Masters—Giorgione's
Pastoral Concert (c. 1510) and Raphael's Judgment of Paris (c.
1517–20)—this large canvas aroused loud disapproval and began for
Manet that “carnival notoriety” from which he would suffer for most
of his career. His critics were offended by the presence of a naked
woman in the company of two young men clothed in contemporary dress;
rather than seeming a remote allegorical figure, the woman's
modernity made her nudity seem vulgar and even threatening. Critics
were also upset by how these figures were depicted in a harsh,
impersonal light and placed in a woodland setting whose perspective
is distinctly unrealistic.
At the Salon of 1865, his painting Olympia, created two yearsearlier,
caused a scandal. The painting's reclining female nude gazes
brazenly at the viewer and is depicted in a harsh,brilliant light
that obliterates interior modeling and turns her into an almost
two-dimensional figure. This contemporary odalisque—which the French
statesman Georges Clemenceau was to install in the Louvre in
1907—was called indecent by critics and the public. In his vexation,
Manet leftin August 1865 for Spain, but, disliking the food and
frustrated by his total lack of knowledge of the language, he did
not stay long. In Madrid he met Théodore Duret, who was later to be
one of the first connoisseurs and champions of hiswork. The
following year, The Fifer (1866), after having been rejected by the
Salon jury under the pretext that its modeling was flat, was
displayed along with others in Manet's studio in Paris.
When a large number of his works were rejected for the Universal
Exposition of 1867, Manet, in imitation of GustaveCourbet, who had
the same idea, had a stall erected at the corner of the Place de
l'Alma and the Avenue Montaigne, where in May he exhibited a group
of works, including his paintings of toreadors and bullfights. He
showed about 50 paintings, but these were not received any more
favourably than before. His work from this period was varied in
character, but in general it seems to represent a greater concern
with close relations of tone and complexities of illumination and
atmosphere, sometimes exhibiting a freedom of handling comparable to
that in Concert in the Tuileries Gardens.
Much impressed by the naturalism of Manet's work, the young novelist
Émile Zola undertook to praise it in a long and courageous article
published in the Revue du XIX e siècle of January 1, 1867. In the
face of the hostility of the public, Zola saw Manet as
representative of all artists of importance who begin by offending
public opinion. Manet expressed his gratitude in his portrait of
Zola shown at the Salon of 1868. Along with his portrait of Zola,
Manet exhibited The Balcony (1869), in which there appeared for the
first time—in the figure of the Spanish girl seated with her elbow
on the railing—a portrait of the artist Berthe Morisot, whom he had
met at the Louvre. From then on, Morisot, who was to become one of
the leading female French Impressionists, was a frequent visitor to
Manet's studio. He painted a series of portraits of her, until her
marriage to his brother Eugène Manet.
After the positive reviews published by Zola, Duret, and the art
critic Louis-Édmond Duranty, Manet at the Salon of 1870 received an
homage in paint, Fantin-Latour's The Studio in Batignolles, which
served as a kind of manifesto on his behalf. This large canvas shows
Manet painting, surroundedby those who were his defenders at the
time: Zola, the painters Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Claude Monet, and
Frédéric Bazille, and the sculptor Zacharie Astruc. The painting was
caricatured in the Journal amusant under the title Jesus Painting
Among His Disciples.
During the Franco-German War (1870–71), Manet served as a staff
lieutenant in the National Guard and witnessed the siege of Paris.
In February 1871 he rejoined his family, returning to Paris shortly
before the Commune. His studio there was half-destroyed, but he had
taken care to store his canvases in a safe place, and he found them
intact. The art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel bought almost everything
that Manet's studio contained, paying 50,000 francs in the currency
of the time. From about this time on, Manet and hisfriends met at
the Café Nouvelle-Athènes, which had replaced the Guerbois. In 1872
he visited The Netherlands, where he was much influenced by the
works of Frans Hals. Asa result Manet painted Le Bon Bock (1873;
“The Good Pint”), which achieved considerable success at the Salon
exhibition of 1873.
Later life and works
The year 1874 was chiefly notable for the development of Manet's
friendship with the young Impressionist painter Claude Monet, with
whom he painted on the banks of the Seine (when they had first met
in 1866, the relationship was rather cool). Manet painted his most
luminous plein-air picture, Boating (1874), which was set in Le
Petit Gennevilliers and depicted two figures seated in the sun in a
boat. It was also at Argenteuil that Manet painted Monet Working on
His Boat in Argenteuil (1874). Although he was friendly with Monet
and the other Impressionists, Manet would not participate in their
independent exhibitions and continued to submit his paintings to the
official Salon. When The Artist and The Laundress were both rejected
by the Salon in 1875, Manet exhibited them along with other
paintings in his studio.
When painting Nana (1877), Manet was inspired by the character of a
woman of the demimonde whom Zola first introduced in his novel
L'Assommoir (1877; “The Drunkard”);in that same year he painted The
Plum, one of his major works, in which a solitary woman rests her
elbow on the marble top of a café table. He followed these works
with The Blonde with Bare Breasts (1878), in which the pearl-white
flesh tones gleam with light, and Chez le Père Lathuille (1879),
another of Manet's major works, set in a restaurant near the Café
Guerbois in Clichy. The latter depicts a coquette somewhat past her
prime having lunch with her young lover in yet another of Manet's
bold attempts to portray controversial subject matter in a decidedly
modern manner. From then on, Manet did a large number of pastels. In
broad, determined strokes he captured the features of George Moore
(1879), an Irish would-be painter and later novelist who often
joined Manet and Edgar Degas at the Café Nouvelle-Athènes.
In 1880 Manet had a one-man exhibition at the offices of the
periodical La Vie moderne (“Modern Life”), but his legs were already
affected by a malady that was to prove fatal. In 1881 he rented a
villa at Versailles, and, by the following year, with his illness
progressing at an alarming pace, he went to stay in a villa at Rueil.
He took part in an important exhibition of French art that was held
in London at Burlington House, and at the Salon he showed A Bar at
the Folies-Bergère (1882), a daring composition that intensifies the
exchange of glances between the image of the barmaid and the
customer before her, allowing the viewer to stand in the customer's
place. Radical in its obliteration of the boundary between the
viewer and what is viewed, the Bar was Manet's last great
contribution to the modern vision of painting. On April 6, 1883,
after painting some roses and lilacs, Manet took to his bed.
Gangrene developed in his left leg, which was subsequently
amputated. He died not long after and was buried in the cemetery of
In January 1884 a posthumous exhibition of Manet's work was held in
the Salle de Melpomène of the École des Beaux-Arts. True to his
admiration for the artist, Zola wrote the preface to the catalog. It
was after this memorial exhibition that Manet's paintings began to
Manet's debut as a painter met with a critical resistance that did
not abate until near the end of his career. Although the success of
his memorial exhibition and the eventual critical acceptance of the
Impressionists—with whom he was loosely affiliated—raised his
profile by the end of the 19th century, it was not until the 20th
century that his reputation was secured by art historians and
critics. Manet's disregard for traditional modeling and perspective
made a critical break with academic painting's historical emphasis
on illusionism. This flaunting of tradition and the official art
establishment paved the way for the revolutionary work of the
Impressionists and Post-Impressionists. Manet also influenced the
path of much 19th- and 20th-century art through his choice of
subject matter. His focus on modern, urban subjects—which he
presented in a straightforward, almost detached manner—distinguished
him still more from the standards of the Salon, which generally
favoured narrative and avoided the gritty realities of everyday
life. Manet's daring, unflinching approach to his painting and to
the art world assured both him and his work a pivotal place inthe
history of modern art.
The sombre mood of
Degas' L'Absinthe(1876) is emphasized by his use
of cold blue and grey shades. Two cafe regulars are portrayed
staring vacantly over their glasses, and the woman's contains the
familiar green drink of absinthe. Despite the appearance of
spontaneity, in reality,
Degas' paintings were carefully composed.
"No art was ever less spontaneous than mine," he remarked.
L'Absinthe is not a slice of life captured as it unfolds but an
evocation of surroundings and atmosphere. The man and woman pictured
are two of the artist's friends, the engraver Marcellin Desboutin, a
drinking companion from the Cafe Guerbois, and the actress Ellen
Manet's Bar at the Folies-Bergere (1881-82), we see the audience
reflected in the mirror behind the barmaid, with her customer
clearly "missing" from the foreground. Thanks to this device, we are
given a panoramic vision of the interior. What we see is not the
result of realistic observation but the artist's deliberate use of
false perspectives. He was nonetheless accused by the critics of
Bar at the Folies-Bergere
Courtauld Institute Galleries, London
The Third of May 1808
A NEW VIEW OF HISTORY
On June 19 1867, the Emperor of Mexico, Maximilian of Hapsburg, was
shot by a firing squad, together with his generals Miramon and
Mejia. As the news spread to France, public indignation turned
against Napoleon III, who had imposed the reign of Maximilian and
then withdrew the military forces that should have sustained it.
Manet worked on the subject for over a year, basing his composition
on photographs, documents, and eyewitness accounts. He created four
oils and lithographs, which in their structure strongly recall
Goya's The Third of May
1808 (1814), seen by
Manet two years earlier
when he visited the San Fernando Academy in Madrid. In
work, romantic sentiments have faded, the warm, soft colours
replaced by black and cold greens. There is no sentimentality, only
the action itself captured at the very moment the three men were
shot. There is none of the romantic rush that characterized
against the Mamelukes (1814), with its excited rhythm of
time and action. In
Manet's work, time is arrested at that instant.
The space is clear and clean, and the emperor is positioned at the
centre of the trio, like Christ on the cross. However, behind the
wall, there is the briefest hint of life beyond this time and place.
Struggle against the Mamelukes
This belongs to the same series as The Third of May
The Execution of Maximilian
The wrong uniform exposes the true culprit
The Execution of Emperor Maximilian
Stadtische Kunsthalle, Mannheim
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
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.
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
Rose-Marie and Rainer Hagen
Study for "The Execution of Emperor Maximilian"
Manet painted death scenes in his studio.
Dead Christ with Angels
(1864) and Dead Toreador (1864) were criticized for the flatness of
the figures and the "irrational" use of space. In fact, the latter
painting has a decorum and chromatic balance that derive from the
Velazquez. Fifteen years later,
Monet, at his wife's
bedside, painted Camille on her Deathbed (1879). He commented: "It
is entirely natural to want to reproduce the last image of a person
who is about to leave us forever. But even before the idea came to
me to set down those features that were so dear to me, I reacted
first and foremost to the violent emotions of the colours."
Dead Christ with Angels