Visual Arts20 Jun 2007 08:06 am
One of the great pleasures of studying art history is watching the conversations that take place, across continents and centuries, between the great artists. Painters themselves are deeply aware of their predecessors’ work. Once an iconic image has been created no future artist can ignore it. One of the great iconic images of all Western art is Francisco de Goya’s Third of May 1808 (above), a depiction of Spanish peasants being massacred by Napoleon’s soldiers. Nearly 60 years later, the French painter Éduoard Manet (considered by some an Impressionist and by others a Post-Impressionist*) wanted to depict another firing squad. In many ways, his paintings were a direct response to Goya’s earlier work.
In the early 1860′s, the United States was fully occupied by its Civil War. This was one of the bloodiest wars in history up until that point, and the Union Army could not possibly engage in another conflict. Aware of this distraction, Napoleon III of France took the opportunity to increase his influence in North America. In 1861, President Benito Juárez of Mexico passed a law that ended the repayment of Mexican debts to European nations. Napoleon III responded by invading Mexico and installing the Austrian noble Maximilian von Habsburg as Emperor.
The intervention was a disaster. By 1865, the French military was on the retreat, and the end of the American Civil War meant that the United States might intervene on Mexico’s behalf. In February of 1867, Napoleon III withdrew all the remaining French troops. Maximilian was stranded. He was tried for treason by the Mexican government, found guilty, and executed on June 19, 1867.
Manet was deeply moved by these events and made five works depicting them. The most complete existing work is Death of Maximilian (below) which Manet completed in February 1869. It is one of Manet’s greatest works, but he still felt a need to respond to his Spanish predecessor. In Goya’s painting, the central Spanish peasant is a paragon of innocence: his hands are outstretched in a pose that recalls Christ on the cross, and his shirt is a shock of white on an otherwise dark canvas. Manet was much more ambivalent about his subject: Maximilian is robed in black, a point emphasized by the white shirts of his collaborators.
But the clearest response to the Third of May is in the depiction of the executioners. Like Goya, Manet depicts his executioners as an undifferentiated mass. The soldiers are nearly indistinguishable one from the other, unlike the uniquely traced victims. But Manet complicates this picture. He sets one of the executioners off to the side, holding a rifle that will administer the “coup de grâce” if it is needed. Like Maximilian, this soldier wears an expression of complete equanimity. What did Manet mean by this? Maybe another artist will shed some light in a great work to come.
In 2006, The Museum of Modern Art in New York City exhibited five of Manet’s works depicting the execution of Maximilian. View the “Online Exhibition” here.
Or read more about Manet’s series here.
* For more on “Impressionism,” see the entry for Week 27, Day 3. For “Post-Impressionism,” see the entry for Week 36, Day 3.
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