John Elderfield, Chief Curator Emeritus of Painting and Sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and formerly the inaugural Allen R. Adler, Class of 1967, Distinguished Curator and Lecturer at the Princeton University Art Museum, joined Gagosian in 2012 as a senior curator for special exhibitions.
On June 19, 1867, Emperor Maximilian of Mexico was executed by firing squad, along with his generals Tomás Mejía and Miguel Miramón, at Querétaro, just north of Mexico City. Napoleon III of France had installed him there three years earlier after deposing the liberal government of Benito Juárez; when Juárez proved resurgent, Napoleon abandoned Maximilian to defeat. This essay continues a discussion, begun in the preceding issue of the Quarterly, of the French painter Édouard Manet’s response to this event. The story told thus far mainly concerned the unusual fate of his second painting of this subject, cut up and pasted together not once but twice. The subject of what follows is reenactment: Manet made three of these paintings altogether, each one not only comprising a new version of the preceding one but also, thereby, creating a new version of the event described—a new acting out of an event that was receding into the past, a new performance of the execution.
I said in the preceding essay that looking back at Manet’s enterprise now, from a period when art with a political message is common, alters it. But how? Let us begin with the introduction to a recent issue of the Brooklyn Rail, written by its publisher: “No work of art has ever prevented or stopped a war. No work of art has ever solved poverty, unemployment, or any other political or social crisis.” Nonetheless, the introduction argued, artists should be activists in their art by vigorously drawing attention to such issues. Many artists now do so, of course, hoping that their expressions of advocacy or disapprobation of matters that they themselves cannot directly affect will influence public opinion and propel action from those who can.
At face value, Manet did just that in response to the shocking execution of an emperor imposed in French neocolonial tutelage over Mexico. However, as we learned in the first essay, if he did begin with the aim of drawing attention to an injustice, he then sabotaged the possibility of his doing so: whereas in the first painting he had shown the execution squad in sombreros, in the second he showed them in the uniforms they had actually worn, which resembled those of French soldiers. This could be taken to impute French responsibility for the execution, and Manet was “dissuaded” from exhibiting the painting. Then, far from bowing to the continuing risk of state censorship, he maintained the squad’s appearance in his subsequent works on the subject: a small oil sketch, a lithograph, and finally a third large painting completed to the artist’s satisfaction in 1869. That painting waited to be shown until a full decade later, and then it was in the United States; only a quarter century after that was it exhibited in Paris, and on both occasions it attracted little public attention, for the cause it addressed was little remembered. So, do we regret that Manet’s holding to this one point of principle—no “fake news” about the soldier’s uniforms—meant his surrendering the option of being an activist in his art at the very moment when it was most needed? Could he have found a way around this problem?
An answer is provided by the writer Émile Zola, a great supporter of Manet’s who saw a trial proof of the lithograph in the artist’s studio shortly after the authorities had refused to allow its publication. (It was published only posthumously.) Zola wrote that it was because Manet “truly loves truth” that he had drawn the soldier’s real costumes and infuriated the censors. The writer was unquestionably thinking of a kind of truth akin to the meticulous documentation that he used to compose his own novels, but Manet was not a stickler for truth of that kind, and certainly not about everything that he knew had happened at Querétaro. In fact he altered what he knew, unquestionably deliberately, and his alterations speak of his commitment to truth of a different kind.
Let us take just one example. The discarded second painting discussed in the previous essay had a neutral background that could be thought to represent the hillside on which the execution took place. In making the three new works—the oil study, the lithograph, and the third painting—Manet increasingly refined the background, referring to his own recent painting of a bullfight he had seen in Madrid, “one of the finest, most curious and most terrifying sights to be seen,” he had reported. The result was to make the scene of the execution look like a place devoted to the ritual killing of animals, with a curious audience looking down into it watching the performance. Manet was amplifying the intimations of a topical event, finding objective correlatives for the human sensations and impressions occasioned by it.
The truth of Manet’s representation of the soldiers’ uniforms is akin to the authenticity unswervingly expected of a documentary photograph. (But can even Robert Capa be trusted?) The wider truth of Manet’s painting is also a matter of authenticity, but not of that kind: “Do you take me for a history painter?” he said. “Reconstructing historical figures—what a joke.” The Querétaro experience was not simply imagined—thought up—by the artist; rather, he imagined it after, or into, his knowledge of what had occurred, and showed it with a good-enough realness to be persuasive. This is akin to what we expect from a convincing performance, and Manet’s reimagining of the previously neutral background was extremely important in this respect. The sense of watching a performance pervades his composition: the performance of Maximilian’s execution is shown with what the poet and critic Paul Valéry called Manet’s own “resonance of execution,” through which the artist could “convey all his force, and completely realize his aim.”
Before going further, we need to remember that even as more news and images from Querétaro reached Paris, Manet could not have been fully informed about what happened there, or why. That itself makes his project of contemporary interest, for there are the obvious parallels between what took place in Mexico and our own troubled present—we are familiar with the baleful consequences of military intervention and regime change exacerbated by ignorance of the culture of the invaded country. And while the speed of communications is today immeasurably greater than in the nineteenth century, their reliability is often not; so we may still understand how, as the reports reaching France in 1867 accumulated, they proved to be contradictory, unreliable, censored.
Manet probably understood correctly that in deposing Juárez and installing Maximilian in 1864, Napoleon III was in search of mineral wealth abroad and prestige at home. But Manet could not have known, nor could most others, that in January of 1866 Napoleon had lied to France’s Corps Législatif when he said, first, that France had done its duty in Mexico, and second, that Maximilian was strong enough to stand alone. The first claim was based on the French army having successfully driven Juárez out of Mexico and into Texas, in April of the preceding year—the same month as the end of the American Civil War (and of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, the previous sensational death in the Americas). Napoleon’s second, spurious claim was in fact a consequence of that ending: the French assumption of power in Mexico had depended on the United States being otherwise occupied, and once the Civil War was over, the US government, favoring the Republican cause, had persuaded Napoleon to stop supporting Maximilian. It had even considered an invasion to reinstate Juárez. There was more than one player in this unworthy affair. The United States, having annexed roughly a third of Mexico after the Mexican-American War of 1846–48, had no interest in a European country maintaining influence that might challenge its “manifest destiny” in the region; and Napoleon, rather than be forced to stand against the United States, pulled out his army, thereby eventually sacrificing his proxy.
It is fair to assume that Manet worked in ignorance of all of this. Knowing it now—knowing of the underhanded pact that led to the defeat and execution of Maximilian—adds, I think, both power and poignancy to his painting; for how familiar that betrayal now sounds. However, it speaks of broader subjects than Franco-American culpability in a dishonorable abandonment of French allies to their deaths in the later 1860s. Manet was correct in saying he was not interested in reconstructing historical figures, but he protested too much when he called that project a joke. I have suggested that he was interested in staging a reenactment: that is precisely what used to be called history painting, a vivid reimagination and reminder of events of public importance, not so much as a polemical instrument of social or political change than as a mode of understanding both the triumphs and failures of human behavior. On the side of the failures, Manet had great paintings of tragic events to inspire him, notably Théodore Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa of 1818–19, in the Louvre, and especially Eugène Delacroix’s Scene of the Massacre at Chios of 1824, still controversial enough to remain at the Musée du Luxembourg rather than be transferred to the Louvre. Manet’s approach was different, though, in its absence of both emotive drama and the attribution of blame.
An early viewer of the final version of the painting in Manet’s studio, Edmond Bazire, said, “It is incontestable that the effect is prodigiously terrifying.” For present-day viewers, regularly exposed to far more violent imagery than Manet’s audience was, it is hardly that—except, perhaps, that what remains terrifying is its effect of the absence of affect, drawn to our attention by the one exception of the figure of Mejía, whose head seems gruesomely decapitated by the gun smoke surrounding it. This is in part an anti-Romantic, Realist concern for objectivity akin to Gustave Flaubert’s, who once wrote that there was “nothing feebler than putting one’s personal feelings into a work of art.” Such antisentimental sentiments became part of mainstream modernist taste: suspicion of the display of anything ingratiating. But in this painting by Manet it goes further than the shunning of empathetic appeal.
In these terms, Manet’s painting reeks of death and rigidity less in the depicted incident—only Mejía is reacting as if being shot—than in the alienating frozenness of the depiction.
A critic wrote recently of a violent film by Martin Scorsese, “so calm and remorseless is the clarity with which Scorsese charts the events of that day that you somehow yield to them not as flights of fancy but as the reconstruction of an established truth. Such is the method of the movie: patient, composed, and cool to the point of froideur.” This was Manet’s method, far different from the vivid displays of disaster and despair by the Romantics Géricault and Delacroix. Walter Benjamin wrote of a “kind of mimesis of death,” a “capacity to become rigid” in the writings of Manet’s friend the poet Charles Baudelaire. In these terms, Manet’s painting reeks of death and rigidity less in the depicted incident—only Mejía is reacting as if being shot—than in the alienating frozenness of the depiction, most evident in the mechanical repetition of the execution squad’s soldiers in the final version.
Moreover, the squad’s performance of the execution seems somehow unmotivated. As discussed in the preceding essay, the raised sword of an officer giving the command to shoot cuts diagonally across the background of Manet’s second painting of this subject. It remains in the succeeding oil sketch and lithograph, and—we know from X-rays—originally remained in the final composition. Painting it out, Manet imagined an execution without an immediate cause, something happening implacably by itself, with spectators looking on, as we now look on, not knowing who commanded the killing. Manet’s decision that his composition would be improved by erasing the sign to shoot suggests he had concluded that the cause of the execution did not matter; what did was the effect, the human cost. The result of death intended, as shown in the second canvas, was bad enough; of death unmotivated and uncaring, in the third, morally far worse.
Manet was frequently accused of indifference, of creating figures without psychological interiority, and the anonymity of the firing squad has often been cited as exemplary of this. In fact, although it is true that the faces of the shooting soldiers cannot be seen, the squad is not so much anonymous as ordinary in its cold automatism. That was why Manet needed realistic uniforms, although they looked French; the alternative—unattributable costumes—could not have provided the standard soldierly effect he required. Compare the result to Picasso’s 1951 nude version of Manet’s canvas, painted to deplore a massacre in the Korean war. That work may be more straightforwardly polemical, but the soldiers (and victims) are so strangely dehumanized as to have an almost science fiction–like appearance—not, I think, a wise move from the painter of Guernica. Manet painted a group of ordinary human soldiers, shooting in a calm and composed way—conforming to a routine.
When Manet decided to present the squad in this manner, in the first painting he also set apart, at the right, a sergeant paying no attention to the shooting, but looking down instead at the musket he is carrying. His seeming lack of interest has a narrative justification: it was his duty to deliver the coup de grace if the squad had not managed to kill the condemned men. (In reality, it hadn’t; the squad was inept.) That, in turn, personalizes responsibility for the killing: as noted in the preceding essay, Manet provocatively painted the sergeant’s face to resemble Napoleon III.
In the final canvas, he retained the sergeant preparing for this task, but now showed him standing further from the squad and concentrating on pulling back the firing hammer of his musket. If we notice this, Manet presumably hoped we would also notice that a shadow now falls into the painting at the sergeant’s feet—the shadow of someone standing to look at him from where we ourselves are standing. We wait with him as he waits, apart in his halted world, while the immobile squad fires silently. And we are to imagine him in Querétaro a split second later, starting at the deafening blast of the muskets and then walking over to the victims.
Since we in the West read texts from left to right, it has been conventional in narrative paintings to arrange the movement of the action in that direction too. Manet followed the composition of Goya’s Third of May, 1808, a painting of 1814 in the Prado (a scene of execution discussed in the previous essay), in doing the reverse. Further, he asks us to imagine the sergeant resembling Napoleon soon repeating that movement by walking across the painting from right to left to complete the executions. This doubling of the movement of the narrative adds time to what at first looks like a picture of the instant of execution.
Manet also amplified it in other ways. He had probably seen photographs showing that it was customary to have separate firing squads for each prisoner, which newspaper reports confirmed had indeed been the case in Querétaro. But he ignored that truth to retain from Goya’s Third of May the example of one single squad of soldiers. In the service of vividness and clarity, he also surrendered verisimilitude by showing apparently just three muskets fired in a single salvo by the six soldiers at the three prisoners. But to follow the reactions of the prisoners is to see that he did adopt the fact that the three men did not die simultaneously. Only the general closest to us and at Maximilian’s right, Mejía, seems to have been hit; across his body, the smoke of the muskets is compacted in an ugly dark gray to convey the thud of the bullets. Maximilian himself still lives but, pale and ghostly, seems to be fading into another realm, even while, in a tender gesture, holding the hand of the other general, Miramón, who remains alert, apart, and curiously observing the action as if it didn’t concern him. Beside him, the smoke drifts, dispersing in time, transparent in places to the wall behind. Manet shifts temporal as well as spatial relationships, showing us not only the instantaneous moment but also the moment extended in slow motion, and we may replay the action the longer we look, even before we imagine the sergeant walking over to deliver the coup de grace.
Why, we must wonder, did Manet show General Mejía in death and General Miramón alive? Standing to each side of the blond-bearded Maximilian, both are conspicuously of what the French then disdainfully called the races latines. Of the two, however, Mejía was the more prominent: an Otomi Indian from Querétaro—like the poor Indians gawking at his execution—he was a deep conservative who had supported the French against the liberal President Juárez in the hope of returning Mexico to monarchism, and to Catholicism as its state religion. Manet perhaps knew no more than the newspapers’ reports that Mejía was Maximilian’s principal commander, the one who had surrendered to Juárez and was therefore most culpable for what was now occurring. But the painter was the son of a prominent member of the French legal administration and had been well informed on Latin American affairs since his days as a naval cadet in Rio de Janeiro, so he may well have known of Mejía’s background, and that the general’s execution was important to the Juárez leadership to erase symbolically the causes for which he stood. Either way, Mejía was politically the most important man in the painting; and since most of the newspaper reports said that it was Miramón who was killed first, it was a definite decision on Manet’s part to give priority to Mejía. Indeed we may reasonably ask if it is the execution of Mejía that this painting is really about. At the least, by giving him precedence in death, Manet gives prominence to an influential indigenous victim of this sorry business beside an aristocratic European one.
Manet is not polemical; he does not urge. But he does dramatize as he reports. He is political in the strict sense of picturing the result of an unforgivable ethical failing in the practice of government and international affairs.
To further complicate the question, there is something odd about the soldiers. They fire their muskets in a horizontal plane parallel to that of the canvas surface and pictorially much closer to us than the diagonally recessive, more distant group of the three victims. I am not suggesting that Manet’s painting implies that the squad was so inept that it missed hitting Mejía, but it does not exactly depict him being hit, only reacting as if he had been. Manet at once shows us this climactic and gruesome moment of the story and leaves us in doubt about it, but does so without clouding the issues; and he complicates the story without complicating the painting.
Most of what is usually called political art is really polemical art, pointing a finger to assert a belief or assign a blame. In that respect, it can substitute for activism, while urging it. Manet is not polemical; he does not urge. But he does dramatize as he reports. He is political in the strict sense of picturing the result of an unforgivable ethical failing in the practice of government and international affairs, but I think he leaves us with something even more fundamental, something there in the very means of his painting. We owe to him the pioneering modernist, personal lesson: however adept artists are—and Manet was extraordinarily adept—they should not be self-congratulatory in the execution of their work. This was particularly critical in dealing with so important and sensitive a subject. It led Manet to be skillfully prosaic, scrupulously careful not to make perfidy look attractive. It is true that no work of art has ever prevented or stopped a war. But Manet tells us that a work of art (of any kind), by dispassionately dramatizing an event of war, can warn of how readily unconscionable acts do occur, and of how sadly commonplace institutionalized violence can be.
In addition to the publications listed at the end of my previous essay on this subject, from which derive much of the information and many of the quotations presented here, this one has also benefited from: Robert H. Duncan, “Political Legitimation and Maximilian’s Second Empire in Mexico, 1864–1867,” Mexican Studies/Estudios Mexicanos 12, no. 1 (Winter 1996), pp. 27–66; Brian Hamnett, “Mexican Conservatives, Clericals, and Soldiers: The ‘Traitor’ Tomás Mejía through Reform and Empire, 1855–1867,” Bulletin of Latin American Research 20, no. 2 (2001), pp. 187–209; and Kristine Ibsen, “Spectacle and Spectator in Edouard Manet’s Execution of Maximilian,” Oxford Art Journal 29, no. 2 (2006), pp. 213–26. I have also quoted from Phong Bui, “Dear Friends and Readers,” The Brooklyn Rail, July–August 2019, p. 7; and from Anthony Lane, “There Was Blood” (on Scorsese’s The Irishman), The New Yorker, November 4, 2019, p. 66.