French artist Édouard Manet (1832-1883) was so shocked by the execution of Emperor Maximillian in Mexico that he depicted the awful scene in no less than four works of art, one of which hangs in the National Gallery in London.
The painting is in pieces, though. But there is a fascinating story attached to it.
Emperor Maximillian was an Austrian archduke installed as a puppet in Mexico at the behest of Napoleon III of France in the place of President Benito Juárez.
This was part of Napoleon III’s ambitions to restore the glory of France’s empire that existed under his famous uncle Napoleon Bonaparte.
Things soon unravelled in Mexico with the hapless Maximillian fighting republican forces aligned to Juárez – without success. Napoleon did not come to his rescue. Maximillian was captured along with two of his loyal generals. All three faced a firing squad on 19 June 1867.
Manet’s first rendition was an imaginary depiction of the execution. As more details came to light, he made minor adjustments to the subsequent paintings.
Given his republican leanings in opposition to Emperor Napoleon’s policies, Manet intended his work as a political statement. He painted an uncharacteristically large canvas with the soldiers placed in such a way as to make the viewer almost part of the firing squad. The composition is stark: dark uniforms, long rifles at right angles to the erect soldiers in the act of shooting. On the right is seen a sergeant checking his gun’s mechanism, clearly the one designated to deliver the coup de grâce.
Due to strict censorship prevailing in France at the time, Manet’s painting could not be displayed in his lifetime. It languished in his studio, deteriorating badly over time.
As a result, the damaged bits were removed. After his death in 1883, the Manet family cut the remaining canvas into four with the aim of selling the pieces separately.
We have fellow French artist Edgar Degas (1834-1917) to thank for assembling the four separate canvasses. Originally displayed individually in the National Gallery, which acquired the pieces from the Degas estate, the curators sensibly brought them together in one frame in 1992.
Missing from this display is mostly the left side of the original painting. It showed the main protagonists, Maximillian and his general Tomás Mejía. The only face visible, is that of general Miguel Miramón defiantly facing the death squad and holding his emperor’s hand.
Besides the ‘one’ in the National Gallery, Manet’s paintings of the execution are in Mannheim in Germany and Boston, with a lithograph and oil sketch in Copenhagen.