How long do we spend with a good painting? Ten seconds, thirty? Two whole minutes? Then how long with each good painting in the sort of three-hundred-item show that is the current way of displaying a major artist? Two minutes with each exhibit adds up to ten hours. Hands up those who spent ten hours at the Matisse, the Magritte, the Degas. I know I didn’t. Of course we pick-‘n’-mix, the eye pre-selecting what appeals (or what it knows); but even a spectator with nifty gallery skills, who understands the correlation between personal blood-sugar levels and aesthetic delight, who can work the open spaces and is unafraid to follow a painter’s chronology backward, who declines to waste eye-time on catalogs and title-craning, who is tall enough to gain an unimpeded view and muscular enough to ward off the shoulder-charges of art fans lassooed to their headsets—even such a spectator can come to the end of a big show with a truculent feeling of what might have been.

It’s better, of course, in some vaguely ideal way, for as many people as possible to see as many pictures as possible, but the all-you-need-to-know visual compendium has major drawbacks. The bigger the show, the bigger the crowds have to be, which means busing them in with the promise that the event is not just aesthetic but also social (and being social, it has its class structure: those on the inside track get private viewing while the masses pant outside). In time, and with luck, this elephantiasis of exhibitions will cease: perhaps some megashow will explode like the fat man in Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life, and we shall go back to smaller displays, smaller crowds, the partial showing of an artist’s work, and the chance of more complete pleasure for the spectator.

Two of the most satisfying shows I saw last year, both at London’s National Gallery, were deliberately small. One was minimalist: the placing of Vermeer’s Street in Delft alongside Pieter de Hooch’s The Courtyard of a House in Delft, with three or four supporting items: the ethereal set alongside the grounded, but not competitively. The other was a six-room exhibition devoted to Manet’s The Execution of Maximilian. Themed and purposeful, it brought together for the first time since Manet’s death in 1883 his three accounts of the Execution: the loose-brushed, gloomy-hued, sombrero-filled first version from the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston; the fragmentary one (salvaged by Degas after Manet’s death) from the National Gallery’s own collection; and the best-known, final image from Mannheim. To see these three canvases all in the same room (but wisely not side by side—you had to turn your body to make the comparison, a physical reminder that time and reflection lay between each image) made for a direct, thrilling, intimidating challenge to the spectator: Why did Manet do this, junk that, adjust the other? By what process of thought, feeling, jump, hazard, did he get from a to b to c? To help us out, and also to pleasantly distract us, this triple center to the show was backed by sixty or so supporting items: formal portraits of the main participants, newsy lithographs, François Aubert’s photographs of contemporary Mexican scenes and personalities, cartes de visite showing the firing squad and the emperor’s bloody shirt, an assemblage of sources and spinoffs and oddities, none odder to an English eye than a photo of Maximilian and his court playing cricket, c. 1865, presumably at or near the castle of Chapultepec on the outskirts of Mexico City. The emperor stands behind the stumps next to Sir Charles Wyke, the British ambassador. The “pitch” seems to need not so much a roller as a gang of stone breakers.

Nowadays, when a debtor nation is obliged to defer its financial obligations, the developed world sends in the bankers for some painful restructuring. In 1861, when President Benito Juárez declared a two-year moratorium on his foreign owings, the response was of its time: six thousand Spanish troops, two thousand French, plus a handful of British turned up at Veracruz. The British were timid, the Spanish aimed at forced conciliation, but the French preferred conquest. They installed the Austrian Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian as emperor in 1864, guerrilla war broke out the next year, the occupation collapsed, the French withdrew, Maximilian declined to abandon his fresh throne, and the returning Mexican government executed him with two of his generals on the Hill of Bells outside Querétaro on June 19, 1867. On July 18 Flaubert wrote to the Princesse Mathilde that the execution (carried out despite protesting telegrams from, among others, Garibaldi and Victor Hugo) had horrified him. “What an abomination. And what a miserable thing the human species is. It is in order not to think about the crimes and stupidities of this world (and not to suffer from them) that I plunge myself headlong into art: a sad consolation.”


The news also made Edouard Manet plunge himself into art, though exactly how, and why, with what intentions or expectations, and with what adjustment of tactics along the route, we remain in benign and freeing ignorance. His progress toward his final image is much less well attested than, say, Géricault’s toward The Raft of the Medusa. There is, Juliet Wilson-Bareau tells us, “no record in the Manet archives of the people to whom he turned or the materials he used to construct his paintings—no newspaper cuttings or illustrations, no photographs, notes or rough sketches.” No useful obiter dicta or studio gossip have come down to us. We do not know why he abandoned the second version of the painting (structurally very close to the final version), or what it looked like when it was complete, since our earliest record, a photo of 1883, shows it already lacking the two left-hand figures of the Emperor and General Mejía. There is even an enticing blank when it comes to the presumed main aesthetic source for The Execution of Maximilian: Goya’s The Executions of the Third of May 1808, which has a similar ground plan and the same scary closeness of rifle muzzle to victim. We know that Manet visited the Prado, signing the visitors’ book on September 1, 1865, but if he saw Goya’s paintings of the May uprising (then hanging uncataloged in a corridor, and barely alluded to in the guidebooks), he never mentioned the fact. So we must proceed by guesswork and X-ray, our prime source of knowledge being the images themselves: three large canvases, one oil sketch (in Copenhagen), one lithograph, one traced drawing, plus Manet’s later recycling of the main figure-cluster for The Barricade, a scene from the Commune.

It’s normally tempting to confuse time sequence with progress. In fact, Manet’s first Execution is so different in color, tone, and feeling that it stands not as some botched first attempt but as a grand and haunting alternative. The shared elements consist of a trio of victims, a huddled firing squad, and the single detached figure of a soldier designated (honored? cursed?) to carry out the coup de grâce. In the first version, this NCO is the only character given any sort of defined face, and that is grimly expression-free; for this is a tight, swirling encounter, something vicious and shameful, in which one group of unidentifiable people wrests life from another, where the somber, oceanic colors run through executioners, victims, and backing countryside alike. It even seems to be night (as in Goya’s Executions) though we can work out that it isn’t.

The shared image of versions II and III is tonally quite distant from I, being posed, sunlit, lucid. Even the smoke from the rifles carefully expends itself in such a way as not to obscure the victims’ faces. But though the position of the main participants (and the structural echo of Goya) hardly varies from II to III, what happens behind them makes for a quite different effect. In II the scene takes place on what looks to be a stretch of open land, or perhaps a low hill; beyond are blue mountains and the sky; the action is therefore unspectated, anonymous, a moment of judicial brutality set amid nature, which seems in its warm blue continuity to be as indifferent as the firing squad. In III the participants are in what might be a prison yard, with sand underfoot, a high wall behind, spectactors (protesting and woeful) hanging over the wall, more spectators up on the back hillside, and the cypresses and white tombs of a graveyard in the top left-hand corner. Now there is an element of the bullfight (death in the sand, aficionados at the palisade); there is internal comment on and reaction to the event, and an endorsing memento mori in the background. It is all more weighted, designed, and argued as a picture; it is also (compared to III) more conventional in its directing of our responses. In this sense III is “progress” on II. But in another way it is regress: as if Manet took the notion of indifference to its extreme form in version II, then retreated. It’s hard not to be influenced by the romance of a painting in ruins, and also by a sort of modernist nostalgia—wanting past art to predict future art as much as possible. But II offers a stripped-down bleakness which speaks to modern spectators more directly than the busier III.

They both, however, present an image of extraordinary power; and it begins with the feet. (There are actors who maintain that the creation of character starts with the shoes.) In Goya’s Executions the firing squad’s stance is a crucial element: the hard ankle, the locked knee, the supportive back leg placed at the correct professional angle, and this pose echoing down the line of Napoleonic soldiers: these are the legs of oppressors, legs that stamp on protest, and whose rigidity marches on through the body until it reaches the final rigidity of the rifle. Whereas in Manet’s Execution the soldiers are not lined up (technically there may be two lines of three, but the effect is of a huddle), and their feet are turned out at an angle of 120 or so degrees; one soldier keeps his heels together, others have their feet apart; the squaddie in the middle is idiosyncratically putting all his weight on his left foot, grounding only the heel of the right foot. These feet are clearly meant to be noticed, since Manet has embellished them with white spats (not a detail enforced by realism; the uniform Manet depicted was notional, synthetic). They are feet sinking themselves in for useful work, like a golfer’s heels shuffling for balance in a sand-trap. You can imagine the NOC’s last-minute pep-talk: “Now just remember, lads, get comfy. Settle the old feet first, then it’s all in the knees and hips, relax your way into it. Imagine you’re out for a day’s snipe or woodcock….”


So these executioners are not a block of death dealers as in the Goya; they are soldiers carrying out quotidian duties which happen to include executing an emperor. This theme of diligent routine is separately exemplified in the figure of the NCO. In the Boston painting he stares straight out at us, turning his back on the execution and at the same time confronting us with the reality of his trade as a finisher-off of the inadequately slaughtered. In II and III he has become an equally insistent but much more subtle focus. He is now placed at ninety degrees to the firing squad, neither attending to the execution nor turning away from it; equally, he is indifferent to us. Instead, eyes down, he is attending to his professional moment, cocking his rifle in anticipation (III) or checking that it is cocked (II). Significantly, Manet deprives his NCO of spats: we aren’t to be distracted by his feet (in III they are further muted by being in a patch of darker ground) and can therefore be lured to concentrate as intently as the soldier himself does on the cocking of the rifle. The NCO varies in two key aspects between II and III. In II his face is smoothly finished and more characterized: this, you believe, is a particular person charged with this particular business. In III the brushwork is looser, the figure a trifle less specific; he becomes a bit more of an ordinary soldier like the rest of the squad. Both versions have their virtue and their defensibility. Where III does not seem an advance on II is in the treatment of the right hand. In II it is rendered naturalistically and in scale; in III it is larger, pinker, more spread: half as big again as the left hand, and bigger even than the painting’s other fisticfocus—the two joined hands of Maximilian and the general on his left. It draws attention to itself in an almost melodramatic way: Look what I am up to, the hand shouts from the canvas. This seems a small and unnecessary coarsening.

One contemporary critic complained that Manet’s work manifested “a sort of pantheism which places no higher value on a head than a slipper.” Pantheism, impersonality, indifference: just as the Execution works with a hard, even light and flat, thinned planes, so it operates on us morally. It illustrates, of course, a dramatic moment, and we may admire the steadfastness of the victims, especially after Manet’s plausible invention of the Emperor holding the hands of his two generals (in reality, he hadn’t been in the middle when executed, and the generals might have been shot in the back while sitting on stools, a common method of dispatch for those judged traitors). But we may also admire the steadfastness of the executioners, their splay-footed comfortableness. This is not a history painting with a moral message about heroism: Manet used the word peintre d’histoire as the worst of insults. And maybe it is only passingly a political image: when the lithograph of the Execution was banned in 1869, Manet described it in a press statement as “une oeuvre absolument artistique.

This was of course a little disingenuous, since Manet had deliberately chosen to portray a moment of extreme humiliation for the imperial dream of Napoleon III, and had done so while adorning the figure of Maximilian with hints of martyrdom (that saint’s halo of a sombrero, and perhaps even the central, Christly positioning); further, the uniform he had concocted for his firing squad was ambiguous enough to look French as much as Mexican, permitting the insinuation that the French, by abandoning their puppet emperor when things got rough, had as good as executed him themselves. This was certainly Zola’s interpretation, though his two statements on the picture make an instructive contrast. In an unsigned contribution to La Tribune, the novelist announced that the lithograph had been banned despite “M. Manet having treated this subject from a purely artistic point of view,” and wondered ironically if the government would soon start persecuting people merely for asserting the fact of Maximilian’s death. Four days later, however, Zola was pointing out the ambiguity of the uniforms and remarking on the “cruel irony” of Manet’s picture, which could be read as “France shooting Maximilian.”

Zola can’t have it both ways, no more than Manet can: either the work is artistically “pure” and just happens to have been taken from recent political events (thereby almost inevitably laying itself open to impure political interpretation); or it isn’t. But it’s also true that the very act of banning the picture (which was never seen publicly in France in Manet’s lifetime) had the effect of politicizing it. Not of popularizing it though: The Execution of Maximilian was no Guernica, stirring sentiment outside its native land. When exhibited in New York in 1879 (corner of Broadway and Eighth Street, admission 25 cents) it had little success. It played somewhat better in Boston, but the proposed tour to Chicago and beyond collapsed, and the canvas was shipped back to France.

Why exactly was the lithograph banned, and Manet warned in advance that the final painting would not be accepted by the Salon of 1869? Again, an inviting blank looms. No official docket exists with ticks in the relevant columns for seditious intent or unreliable aesthetics. John House, in his interesting essay on the traditions of history painting in nineteenth-century France and the offense Manet gave to those traditions, argues that the provocation must have been stronger than the mere portrayal of an event embarrassing to the government. Since two other paintings relating to the execution, by Jules Marc Chamerlat (both unfortunately lost—another blank), were accepted for the 1868 Salon, there must have been an additional aesthetic reason behind Manet’s exclusion: perhaps it lay in the painting’s “seeming detachment from the drama and its refusal to point a clear moral,” even in its “summary brushwork and seeming lack of finish.” Perhaps; but it may be a mistake to be too rational about the workings of censorship bodies. They are notoriously quixotic, developing their own eccentricities and exaggerated fears. If in doubt, ban it, is often the basic rule; and especially ban it on the mere reputation of the artist in question (Manet was a known republican). But whatever the irrecoverable truth, the censorship of 1868–1869 continues to act, by censoring posterity’s knowledge. It was not just the Execution that was suppressed, but also the reactions of the generation for whom it was painted, those who could tell us best how to read it politically. This absence adds to the picture’s opaqueness for contemporary spectators. To this extent, censorship succeeded, as it often does.

Another factor in the 1869 Jury’s refusal of Manet’s Execution might have been a controversy the previous year over Gérôme’s 7 December 1815, Nine O’Clock in the Morning. This depicted an earlier political execution, that of Marshall Ney, shot for his treasonable defection to Napoleon during the Hundred Days. According to the novelist and critic Edmond About, the painting was frowned upon because “the administration thought that such a memory should not be evoked, and politely pointed out…that the highest level of propriety dictated that this juridical assassination should not be put on display.” And especially not put on display in the way that Gérôme did. Though more traditional in manner and finish than Manet’s picture, 7 December 1815 is a forceful image of the unheroic. A damp, miserly morning in the Luxembourg, the Observatory looming in the gloom, and a scumbly, inexpressive wall bearing a deleted graffito “Vive l’ Empereur.” The former Marshal of France lies front right, face down in the mud, his top hat having rolled free. The firing squad is disappearing into the wet mist, its duty done; only the officer in charge turns to give a brief look back at the body, at what “the bravest of the brave,” as Napoleon called him, was now reduced to. The size of the canvas (a mere 64 by 103 centimeters) does not invite us to the tragic; nor does Gérôme’s dank palette. It is a small, vivid masterpiece, and was quite undiminished at the National Gallery by the proximity of Manet’s three large canvases. 7 December 1815 is, alas, woefully reproduced in this otherwise excellent volume; but it can be seen at the City Art Galleries in Sheffield.

This Issue

April 22, 1993