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Publication Date

Spring 2012

Degree Type

Thesis - Campus Access Only

Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)


Art and Art History


Anne Simomson


Execution, Manet, Maximiliam, Painting

Subject Areas

Art history


Edouard Manet painted five versions of The Execution of Maximilian. The three oils, lithograph, and oil sketch differ in style, focus, size, and media but retain a composition that quotes an earlier painting by Francisco Goya. Contradictions appear to define the group of paintings, the artist, and the circumstances. Manet was the painter of modern life that avoided history paintings and rejected traditional style, but here he portrays, in grand style, an obscure execution of an Austrian prince sent to rule Mexico by the Emperor Napoleon III. Manet attempted to show and publish these works despite his contentious relations with the academy, willing to risk his freedom by depicting a topic embarrassing to the ruling dictator. His political associations with anti-Empire activists suggest that his interest in the subject matter had political undertones.

In subtle and less-than-subtle means, Manet points the blame for the death of Maximilian on the French regime. He does so through visual means, innovative technique, references to modern and old masters' sources, and elements committed or omitted to the canvas. Indicative are his choices to portray the firing squad in French-style military uniforms and inaccuracies that create ambiguity and lack of clarity. To model the sentiment of horror, Manet includes a group of spectators and highlights their reaction with an additional light source. It was Manet's commentary on canvas. The response was immediate: the censors ordered a ban on its display and publication