History of Photography

History of Photography

A World History of Photography

The Story Behind the Pictures 1827-1991

Photographers' Dictionary






1   Nicephore Niepce. View from the Study Window, 1827

2   Louis-Jacques-Mande Daguerre. Boulevard du Temple, 1838

3   Eugene Durieu/Eugene Delacroix. Nude from Behind, ca. 1853

4   Duchenne de Boulogne. Contractions musculaires, 1856

5   Auguste Rosalie Bisson. The Ascent of Mont Blanc, 1862

6   Nadar. Sarah Bernhardt, ca. 1864

7   Francois Aubert. Emperor Maximilian's Shirt, 1867

8   Andre Adolphe Eugene Disderi. Dead Communards, 1871

9   Maurice Guibert. Toulouse-Lautrec in His Studio, ca. 1894

10 Max Priester/Willy Wilcke. Bismarck on his Deathbed, 1898

11 Heinrich Zille. The Wood Gatherers, 1898

12 Alfred Stieglitz. The Steerage, 1907

13 Lewis Hine. Girl Worker in a Carolina Cotton Mill, 1908

14 August Sander. Young Farmers, 1914

15 Paul Strand. Blind Woman, 1916

16 Man Ray. Noire et blanche, 1926

17 Andre Kertesz. Meudon, 1928

18 Robert Capa. Spanish Loyalist, 1936

19 Dorothea Lange. Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California, 1936

20 Horst P. Horst. Mainbocher Corset, 1939

21 Henri Cartier-Bresson. Germany, 1945

22 Richard Petersen. View from the Dresden City Hall Tower, 1945

23 Robert Doisneau. The Kiss in Front of City Hall, 1950

24 Dennis Stock. James Dean on Times Square, 1955

25 Bert Stern. Marilyn's Last Sitting, 1962

26 Gerard Malanga. Andy Warhol and The Velvet Underground, 1966

27 Helmut Newton. They're Coming!, 1981

28 Sandy Skoglund. Revenge of the Goldfish, 1981

29 Robert Mapplethorpe. Lisa Lyon, 1982

30 Joel-Peter Witkin. Un Santo Oscuro, 1987

31 Sebastiao Salgado. Kuwait, 1991


see also:

Aubert Francois

Chapter 7



Francois Aubert 


Emperor Maximilian's Shirt

Decision in


Francois Aubert stood at the side of the unfortunate Emperor Maximilian of Mexico as court photographer. The photographs he made of the final phase of the "imperio" were of particular interest to many of his European contemporaries, and are even said to have served Edouard Manet in the creation of his famous historical paintings.


In the summer of 1867, the news broke like a bombshell in the carefree Parisian salons: the emperor Maximilian of Mexico, together with his generals Mejia and Miramon, had been executed in Queretaro. In spite of the numerous foreign dispatches that had alerted to the danger, in spite of appeals for mercy from figures like Giuseppe Garibaldi and Victor Hugo, the news came as a shock. To the nineteenth-century understanding of justice, execution was a thoroughly accepted concept, and ever since the French Revolution the violent death of a monarch was of course recognized as one of the possible outcomes of the historic process. What shook the self-confidence of great European powers, especially Austria and France, was the fact that in this case the "upstart", Benito Juarez Garcia, was of Indio background. He had successfully challenged the Old World and had put a definitive end to at least the French attempt at hegemony in Centra! America. Rumor had it that Napoleon II spontaneously broke out in tears when the news reached him on 30 June. After all, it had been he who had sent Maximilian to Mexico, but then left him to his own devices, without military or political support. Prince and Princess Metternich demonstratively walked out of a fete associated with the Paris World Exhibition. The Count of Flanders and his wife did not even appear. Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria probably greeted the news with mixed feelings. He had always mistrusted the political instincts of his younger brother, but had also more or less encouraged him to undertake what was in any case a very risky venture.

Maximilian's doomed mission to Mexico might be understood as a strategic diplomatic power play for political influence. But it was also a personal debacle of a passionate and emotional man, who was literally destroyed between the interests of clever tacticians working according to different plans. And because the fate of Individuals moves the thoughts and feelings of contemporaries more power-fully than abstract political configurations, Maximilian succeeded in becoming one of the great tragic figures of the nineteenth century whose fate remained a matter of interest, at least in Europe, for a considerable length of time. It was hardly by chance that Edouard Manet, upon learning that the death sentence had been carried out, immediately began working on a large-format painting of the scene - a painting that remains not only one of his most important works but also an apotheosis of historical painting.

Today it is generally accepted that Manet, one of the leading Impressionists, derived much inspiration from photographs - although it must be borne in mind that the painter was not primarily concerned with the simple portrayal of historic events. If we nonetheless 'read' the painting as a document - as the title, The Execution of Emperor Maximilian, suggests - then it is chiefly because the photograph itself does not offer us the decisive moment. Francois Aubert was denied permission to document the execution photographically. In spite of this, in the early morning of 19 June 1867, Aubert, a trained painter, hurried off to the Cerro de las Campanas, the so-called 'Hill of Bells', to capture the scene at least by pencil. His small-format sketch, today in possession of the Musee Royal de I'Armee in Brussels, offers in fact the most authentic visual witness to the moment of execution.

Born in 1829 in Lyons, France, Francois Aubert graduated from the local art academy, studied under Hippolyte Flandrin, and by 1864 was active as photographer in Mexico. In addition to his private work, he also served as court photographer to the Emperor Maximilian -although he hardly had to undergo the formalities that normally surrounded such an appointment in the courts of Europe. Soon after the arrival of the designated monarch in Mexico, Aubert began to make portraits of him, the court, and his staff of generals. We might well picture Aubert - a powerful figure with a broad face, bearded and with a full head of hair - more as an itinerant photographer and adventurer than as a serious courtier. Furthermore, he was a clever reporter and an instinctive businessman who well knew how to take commercial advantage of the growing public interest in photography.

Although Aubert wasn't allowed to photograph the actual execution, he at least managed to document the 'scene of the crime' afterwards: the site of execution is marked with wooden crosses and an iron-wrought 'M' with a crown. Also clearly evident on the photograph are parts of the clay wall that had been hastily erected for the execution - a backdrop that also appears in two of Manet's fourversions ofthe scene. In addition, Aubert photographed the execution squad, and the embalmed and freshly dressed corpse of Maximilian in his coffin; nor was Aubert shy of capturing the bullet-ridden, blood-spattered clothing of the emperor for a curious public. He photographed the emperor's black frock coat, vest, and blood-flecked shirt before as neutral a background as possible. The photographs were subsequently distributed and sold internationally by the firm A. Pereire, which had presumably purchased the photographic plates and rights from the photographer.


Francois Aubert

Emperor Maximilian's Shirt


A cosmopolitan with liberal tendencies


In the tradition of Christian reverence for relics, Aubert placed the emperor's shirt in the center of his composition, thereby making it into the determining element of his photograph. The dark door frame in the background, the window, and the curtain behind it serve to concentrate the observer's attention on the most important artifact. The photographer attached the shirt to the door with two nails in such a manner as to make the pleated front clearly visible; having less interest in the presentation of the arms, he allowed them to fall rather more carelessly to the side. Clearly visible also are six circular bullet holes at chest level. According to Maximilian's personal physician, Dr. Basch, the bullets had all passed through the emperor's body, puncturing heart, lungs, and the large arteries: "From the nature of these three wounds, the death struggle of the emperor must have been extremely short." Aubert's photographs substantiate the doctor's statement and relegate rumors that Maximilian died only after receiving a coup de grace to the realm of legend - although it must be stressed that Aubert did not at all consider his work to be forensic. Instead, he was concerned with producing commercial icons -images that would satisfy the visual curiosity of an international public and thus allow them to participate in the fate of a young man who had failed in his endeavors.

A brilliant conversationalist, gallant social figure, talented dancer, art col-lector, and belletrist who expressed himself in the form oftravel accounts and poetry; a cosmopolitan with liberal tendencies, who could converse in at least four languages - so runs the description of Maximilian, born the second son of Archduke Franz Carl and his wife Sophie of the noble house of Wittelsbach in 1832. Maximilian enthusiastically devoted his energies to the creation of a modern Austrian fleet on the British model, incorporating the newest technology, including steam power, screw-driven propellers, and iron hulls. In addition, he founded a marine museum and hydrographic institute and furthered the construction and fortification of a new shipyard in Pola. Appointed rear admiral at age twenty-two, he shortly thereafter was named supreme commander of the navy as well, and was subsequently designated governor-general of the Lombard-Venetian kingdom. When his sober-minded brother withdrew these important offices from him in 1859 under threat of impending war with France, Archduke Maximilian came to feel the weakness of his position at home. This made him all the more susceptible to an offer from Paris, where Napoleon III had sought a candidate for the imperial throne he wanted to establish in Mexico - by today's standpoint an absurd idea.


Francois Aubert

Maximilian's Embalmed Body in His Coffin. albumin print, 1867

The medical Dr. Vicente Licea of Queritaro was responsible the procedure, which involved fitting the corpse with blue glass eyes.


Walking to his death with an upright posture


The background of the Mexican experiment was the attempt of several western European powers to revive Old World influence in Central and South America and simultaneously to "balance the Protestant-republican power of North America with the counterweight of a Latin-Catholic empire" (Konrad Ratz). A unilaterally imposed moratorium on repayment of the overdue Mexican state debt declared by President Benito Juarez Garcia provided France, Spain, and England with a welcome excuse for immediate military intervention and the establishment of Maximilian's 'imperio'. For his part, the Archduke of Austro-Hungary made his agreement dependent on the outcome of a plebiscite - which Napoleon and his Mexican vassals quickly served up. Thus Maximilian considered him-self to have been "elected by the people," and on 10 April 1864 accepted the crown in the palace of Miramar. Four days later he set sail from Triest aboard his favorite ship, the Novara, headed for Vera Cruz. What turned out in the end to be merely a short Central American regency reflects the internal contradictions of a monarch who swung oddly between court etiquette and liberal sentiments, between a zeal for reform and de facto highly authoritarian decisions. In an attempt to satisfy all parties - monarchists, republicans, liberals, and the Catholic Church -he placed himself politically between various political positions without having a firm basis of his own. On top of this, he faced an increasingly hopeless military situation. The end of the American Civil War had provided Benito Juarez Garcia - who in any case was far from defeated on his own turf- with an unexpected ally in the form of the USA. Simultan-eously, Napoleon, succumbing to internal pressures, lost interest in his American adventure and withdrew his troops from Mexico. As a result, Maximilian's twenty thousand imperial troops - in part recruited by force - confronted what eventually amounted to more than fifty thousand republican soldiers. Maximilian's offer to negotiate remained unanswered. As a result, everything depended on a swift military solution to the problem.

Francois Aubert
The Place of Execution in Queretaro, albumin print, 1867

Maximilian and his generals were executed at this spot.


It is 14 May 1867. Since February, Maximilian and his remaining troops have been entrenched in the small Mexican city of Queretaro, one hundred twenty-five miles northwest of Mexico City. The strategy, particularly supported by the Indio General Tomas Mejia, was to gather all forces for a final and decisive blow to the republican troops far from the capital. In fact, however, the imperial troops had maneuvered themselves into a trap, which they now planned to break out of on the morning of 15 May. It is no longer a matter of debate that Colonel Miguel Lopez betrayed the plan from a sense of wounded honor, and allowed Juarez's troops to in-filtrate the city the night before. Within a few hours, the streets of Queretaro were in republican hands, Maximilian and his officers were captured. A trial lasting several days was held, and the emperor was sentenced to death on the basis of the "Law of Punishment for Crimes Against the State," which had been decreed by Juarez in 1862. On the morning of 19 June 1867, Maximilian and his generals Miguel Miramon and Tomas Mejia faced an eight-man firing squad under command of nineteen-year-old Simon Montemayor. "I forgive all and ask all to forgive me. May the blood we lose be of benefit to the country. Long live Mexico, long live independence!" are reputed to have been his last words. Reports by the few eye-witnesses who remained loyal to the emperor are contradictory in their details. It seems certain, however, that Maximilian approached his fate with an upright posture and amazing serenity. How-ever self-contradictory, fickle, naive, and indecisive he may have been in the short course of his life, he now faced death with bravery and pride. He granted General Miramon the place of honor in the middle of the trio; Maximilian himself, contrary to Manet's interpretation, stood at the far right. The distance from the firing squad is said to have been five steps. To each of the soldiers he is supposed to have bequeathed an ounce of gold with the request not to aim at his head. Then, at 6:40 a.m., he turned his gaze to the heavens, and stretched out his arms. Maximilian's final gesture was substantiated by the testimony of his adjutant Prince Felix zu Salm-Salm: the emperor compared himself to Jesus Christ in the end, who had also been betrayed into the hands of his enemies. Francois Aubert, with his photograph of the blood-spattered shirt, bequeathed us the icon corresponding to his martyrdom.

Maximilian I of Mexico (1832-1867)

French Emperor Napoleon III (1808-1873)



Edouard Manet
Execution of the Emperor.


Execution of Maximilian


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