For a long time I did not know what to think about this painting. I was annoyed by its pompousness, disturbed logic of shots from barrels placed near the hearts of convicts and their vaguely depicted faces. At the same time I liked the way of presenting the platoon: the uniforms, the rhythm of the setting and the presence of this one soldier who reloads the weapon. He stands a bit aside, facing the viewer, so that I could see his face. My attention was also attracted by a group of onlookers climbed above the wall – their faces express a whole range of emotions.

Nevertheless, the essence of the scene invariably eluded me. What am I looking at?

Édouard Manet, The Execution of Emperor Maximilian of Mexico, 1868, Städtische Kunsthalle Mannheim

The main character in this scene is a man with a fair beard standing in the middle of a group of convicts. It is Maximilian Habsburg, brother of the Emperor of Austria – Franz Josef. An idealist, liberal, supporter of pro-social reforms and a victim of his own passion to change the world for the better. Regardless of real needs. Napoleon III ruthlessly used this passion, putting Maximilian on the throne of the Empire of Mexico – despite the legal election won by Benito Juárez. The French monarch counted on profits from the colony controlled by his own troops, additionally supported by the alliance with the Habsburg dynasty. The usurped power of Maximilian lasted three years, after which he was overthrown and tried for treason. The executing of the sentence is the subject of the painting.

The work of Édouard Manet is one of several in series, made by him under the influence of reports from Mexico. The painter was an opponent of foreign policy led by Napoleon III, which he expressed in these compositions. For political reasons, they were not publicly exhibited in France during the artist’s lifetime.

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