L’histoire est une résurrection.
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.