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  • Manet and the Execution of Maximilian
  • Ronald Paulson (bio)
Manet and the Execution of Maximilian, Exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art; catalogue by John Elderfield, 200 pp.

The small but stunning exhibition that graced MoMA until the end of January 2007 focused on four major works of Edouard Manet, three eight-foot paintings and one small modello of The Execution of Maximilian (1867–69), from (in chronological order) the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; the National Gallery, London; the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen; and the Kunstalle, Mannheim (hereafter referred to as Boston, London, Copenhagen, and Mannheim). They were Manet's most considered response to the question of modern "history painting"—how to adjust the grandest of painterly genres to contemporary experience, how to be Baudelaire's "painter of modern life,"of "the transitory, the fugitive, the contingent" moment. And the result proved dicey; Manet's paintings were not publicly shown until the twentieth century.

There were no longer gods and heroes, but the French Emperor Napoleon III in 1861, noticing a struggle for power in a weak foreign country, and wishing to pursue empire in the New World, sent French troops to Mexico to establish order, followed in 1864 by a puppet ruler, demoted Emperor Maximilian (a young Hapsburg, a liberal idealist dedicated to democratic reform, brother of the reactionary Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria). The French troops met with unexpected resistance, indeed were defeated in battle, and Napoleon withdrew them, leaving Maximilian, we might say, holding the bag, to be executed by firing squad in 1867. All these emperors and a tragic denouement offered themselves as a suitably exalted subject for a history painting.

I must declare an interest in the subject. There was a movie in 1939 called Juarez, which should probably have been called "Maximilian and Juárez" (Paul Muni was Juárez), but I remember it as "Maximilian and Carlotta." Brian Ahearn was Maximilian, with his curled bifurcated blond beard, elegant, aristocratic, and androgynous. The cathected image was the "emperor" Ahearn, with the fascinating beard, being shot by the firing squad, as in Marie Antoinette (a film of the year before) the "queen" (Norma Shearer) had been guillotined. Both images, I see looking back, drew on scenes of martyrdom that had entered the child's consciousness at an extremely early age with the Crucifixion (emperor and empress, king and queen, King of Kings). At that time there was a more public analogy: Maximilian and Carlotta and that other elegant but doomed pair, Edward VIII and Mrs. Simpson. [End Page 164]

The other figure in the movie was Napoleon III, beseeched by the Empress Carlotta (Bette Davis) to save her husband; Napoleon III was played by Claude Rains, who was shown at one point sitting on a hobby horse having his portrait painted riding a charger like the one his uncle rode in the painting by Baron Gros. (But I misremembered: It was the English ambassador who addressed the emperor on the hobby horse; Carlotta broke into a cabinet meeting.)

The analogy employed by Manet in his paintings of the execution of Maximilian reflected French power politics of the 1860s. He came at the subject of Maximilian's execution graphically from his experience of Goya's painting of Spanish patriots shot down by a French firing squad, The Third of May, which he had seen on his visit to Madrid in 1865. His four major paintings of Maximilian's execution followed between 1867 and 1869.

John Elderfield, in his exceptional catalogue for the MoMA exhibition, does not conceal the obvious relevance of the painting and the story to current events of the twenty-first century. For Paris there is Washington, for Mexico Iraq, and for the little Napoleon (nephew of the Great Napoleon) the younger President Bush. (He does not, but one must inevitably, recall Marx's reference to the younger Napoleon's coup as tragedy repeated as farce.) There is Napoleon III, "autocratic, often imprudent"; the French army's early control of central Mexico followed by the success of Juárez's guerilla forces; the inadequate military support, the number of dead soldiers and civilians, in particular the wasted deaths of French soldiers...


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