I: Filippino Lippi

On the advice of Lorenzo de’ Medici, the Cardinal Oliviere Carafa commissioned Filippino Lippi to decorate the chapel he had endowed in Santa Maria sopra Minerva, the Dominican convent in Rome. The three walls and vaults were painted in fresco over the years 1489/91.

The altarpiece depicts two separate actions: on the left, following iconographic convention the angel of the annunciation approaches from the left, about to speak, while the dove symbolizing the Holy Spirit descends from above. On the right side of the same chamber, St Thomas Aquinas stands next to Cardinal Carafa, who kneels in prayer. In between the angel and Carafa, the Virgin is shown rising from her chair, her attention divided between not one, but two unexpected visitors. The angelic doctor seems to have chosen an inopportune moment, causing his client, the donor, to interrupt the annunciation.

Being obliged to show the donor present at the Annunciation without appearing to hinder it, turned a standardized image type into a compositional problem. Filippino resolved that problem visually by posing the Virgin in a manner that implies a sequence of events. Her body is oriented towards the donor, whom she was about to receive, when Gabriel arrived. His arrival obliges her to turn her head to the left. Her raised hand reads as an acknowledgement of both visitors. Instead of showing the donor intruding on the mystery of the incarnation, the picture shows the presentation of the Cardinal by St Thomas being interrupted by the arrival of Gabriel, after which the miraculous event will unfold, one imagines, without interruption, while saint and cardinal piously observe from the sidelines.

The solution is a marvel of pictorial tact and effciency and one the painter almost certainly arrived at himself in response to a problem the patron had not foreseen.



L’histoire est une résurrection.
–Jules Michelet

Immediately after news of the execution of Emperor Maximillian I of Mexico reached Paris on 1 July 1867, Édouard Manet began work on monumental painting depicting the event. The planned work would appropriate the scale and gravitas of history painting for the representation of a barely historical,  politically dangerous event.

Initially, the painting’s political credibility was thought to depend on its observed veracity–the painter of modern life, Baudelaire’s man in the crowd, must be present as history unfolds. That wasn’t possible in this case, but Manet was able to obtain details of dress, setting, and figure position from the few published accounts and photographs of the execution that had evaded Napoléon III’s censorship of the press following the incident. Over the following 18 months, revisions, corrections, and additions to those accounts caused Manet to abandon two  large-scale versions of the Execution of Maximilian, which misrepresented either the place, time of day or order of events, before he arrived at the final version. For that version, instead of doggedly attempting to create an illusion of empiricism, he focused on the ability of his chosen medium to capture and frame history. He did so by setting the representation of a political execution in broader art historical context by conspicuously alluding to Goya’s Third of May 1808, which he had seen for the first time on a recent trip to Spain.

The wisdom of Manet’s decision to forego full, descriptive accuracy in order tell a deeper truth about the execution’s political and historical significance becomes clear when his final version is compared to The Last Moments of Maximilian (1882), by academician Jean-Paul Laurens. Fifteen years after Maximilan’s death and 11 years after the end of the Second Empire, Laurens had access to the full historical record, which he scrupulously recreates in every detail of costume, setting, gesture, and position. Laurens’ slavish accuracy overwhelms the viewer with superficiality, as if to divert attention from the utterly banal interpretation of the event, which idealizes and flatters the emperor and demonizes the executioners. Despite his ostentatious fidelity to the record, Laurens omits the most, if not the only, significant fact of that record, the execution itself, sparing us the sight of violence in favor of sentimental “last moments,” while Manet shows us the precise and horrible moment when incident passes into history.

Turning back to Manet, aspects of the Execution of Maximilian that initially appeared to be faults–cramped composition, overly-close point of view, awkward occlusions and so on–now seem like virtues, as the cursory brushwork and laconic approach to detail underscore the empty prolixity and meretricious nature of Laurens’ handling of history and paint.

Due the politically-charged content, none of Manet’s versions of the Execution of Maximilian were exhibited in France in his lifetime.