Theater & art

Frame by Frame

Imperial execution inspires Manet to furious work

Museum of Fine Arts

Imagine going to the Museum of Fine Arts — to one of its grandest 19th-century galleries — and confronting a cinema-size screen showing footage of the ghastly, chaotic hanging of Saddam Hussein.

In fact, something surprisingly like that is on display at the museum, in the form of one of its most celebrated paintings: the “Execution of the Emperor Maximilian.” Painted in 1867, it’s the first of four versions Edouard Manet painted of this incendiary subject. (The others are in London, Copenhagen, and Mannheim).

Arrogantly installing and then, when the winds change, abruptly abandoning puppet regimes is not the exclusive prerogative of American presidents. In the 1860s, the French, under Napoleon III, did it in Mexico. When French forces took the capital from rebel republican forces led by Benito Juarez, they installed Maximilian, the idealistic younger brother of the Emperor of Austria, as the new Emperor of Mexico.

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Napoleon III assured Maximilian of his support, and also the support of the Mexican population. But that support never congealed. And when things became dicey, Napoleon III withdrew French troops, telling Maximilian not to worry. When that advice was belied by events, he counseled him to abdicate. Maximilian — who had introduced many reforms during his brief rule, including debt relief for the poor and, ironically, the abolition of corporal punishment — refused.

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With American help, Juarez and his republican army re-took the capital, and Maximilian, flanked by his generals Miramón and Mejía, was executed. The news quickly reached France. Manet, a republican opposed to Napoleon III, was inspired to make a painting.

His artistic source was Goya’s “The Third of May, 1808,” which he had seen at the Prado. But his more immediate documentary sources were newspaper reports. One of the problems he faced was that details of the execution kept coming in even after Manet embarked on the work.

The shifting accounts, the sheer scale and ambition of the project (the MFA canvas is 6½ feet high and 8½ feet wide), and very real censorship concerns (the subject was clearly an indictment of the feckless Napoleon III) all help to explain why he painted four versions, and published a fifth as a lithograph.

With its smoky, inchoate atmosphere and its uncertain outlines, this first version is a kind of sketch, or in French, an ébauche. But it’s strangely more than that. It’s so big, to start with. And it has more color than this kind of sketch would ordinarily have. Above all, it is incredibly expressive.

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The infamous 2006 footage of Saddam’s hanging can remind viewers of how anarchic, sloppily improvised, and truly haunting even official state murders can be. This painting, by virtue of its free handling and blurry technique, performs a similar service.

Just how chaotic was Maximilian’s execution? Look at the figure on the right, facing us with his rifle. He was the non-commissioned officer. His job was to finish off the victims if the firing squad’s first volley left anyone still kicking. As it happened, his services were required.

When the smoke from the initial fusillade cleared, two of the victims, including Maximilian, were still alive. One of his two generals had not even been felled. Even as he stood there, in a macabre upright limbo, he had to wait to receive a fatal shot in the ear.

Job done. But they still had to deal with Maximilian. The emperor had fallen to the ground but was still twitching with life. Standing directly over him, the NCO fired again. But the flames from the misdirected shot ignited Maximilian’s vest. Water had to be fetched to extinguish them. Some say two more attempts failed because the rifles misfired. In a state of deep distress — my God, the horror! — the NCO finally succeeded. And at last it was over.

Not for Manet, though. He spent many more months painting the same scene in three further iterations. He couldn’t let it go.

Execution of the Emperor Maximilian

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By Edouard Manet. At Museum of Fine Arts. 617-267-9300, www.mfa.org

Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@globe.com.