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This summer on my annual pilgrimage to the Central Highlands of Mexico I took a side trip to the charming town of Querétaro the capital of the state of the same name and not far from my base of San Miguel de Allende. The driver, Jorge Chavez, took me and my two daughters and two of their friends on a tour of the city, population around 400,000, founded in 1531 and like so much of this area very European in construct with Spanish colonial architecture and large downtown parks.
I was struck on my tour by an area called the Cerro de las Campanas as this was where the hapless Hapsburg, Archduke (Archdupe) of Austria, Fernando Maximilian, French and self-proclaimed Emperor of Mexico, was executed at the age of thirty-four by the troops of Benito Juarez. This execution of Maximilian and two of his generals, Tomas Mejía and Miguel Miramón has been memorialized and immortalized by the French impressionist Eduardo Manet in 1867, by a set of four paintings and one lithograph. None of which were allowed to be shown in France, and only one, the lithograph remains in France today. The censorship would certainly have been due to the harsh criticism that Napoleon III would have received for his foolish foray into Mexican politics by appointing Maximilian as his puppet ruler, the Emperor of Mexico, then withdrawing all military support from him only three years later thereby allowing for Maximilian’s eventual capture and execution.
Today it is hard to imagine how slow communication between the old and the new world was in the mid-nineteenth century. Only two years before this execution, Abraham Lincoln had been assassinated in Washington, D.C. and word did not reach London for eleven days. Consequently, it must have been very difficult for Manet to separate myth from reality in his interpretation of the event. As a matter of fact, Manet’s first painting, oil on canvas, 1867, belonging to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, depicted the rather too close firing squad dressed in the rebel republican uniforms of Juarez’ army but in the four later works the firing squads are dressed in the uniform of the French army, the faces of the soldiers, however, appear more and more Mexican. It was rumored that Maximilian affixed a scarlet ribbon to his shirt to indicate where he wanted to be shot and gave each of the seven executioners an ounce of gold to not shoot him in the face because he did not want his mother to have to see his mutilated face. He must have underpaid for this unusual service as one of the guards struck him in the eye, or so the story goes.
At the time of his execution Maximilian had seized control of and was the general of the Mexican army, and as such, it should have been most unusual for him to be executed by the opposing generals in war. This was, of course, a rebellion and not a war. Probably the main reason he was executed, many world-wide considered it an assassination, was that he himself had issued a decree that all captured rebels were to be shot. Juarez risked international censure if he executed Maximilian and censure at home if he did not, he chose to risk the former. In fact, the execution was delayed for one month by a perfunctory court martial in which Maximilian was found guilty.
The painting itself seems be a calculated work designed to express opinion rather than solicit emotion. Look particularly at the group of observers hanging over the wall group of observers shrieking and weeping in. Is that the rest of the world observing this grave injustice, dispassionately but judgmentally?
This French excursion into Mexican politics was prompted by the debt incurred by the corrupt Mexican leaders of preceding years to the French government and its citizens. Much of the debt was actually owed to a Swiss banker, who then became a French citizen, which in turn caused the French to intercede in Mexican affairs. The French invaded Mexico and after several defeats, the most notable in Puebla on the 5th of May in 1862, the Mexican army was vanquished and Napoleon III appointed the Austrian Duke as the Emperor of Mexico and claimed to the world that he was being treated as a Messiah by the Mexican people. Of course, the United States was at this time tied up with its own problems, their War Between the States and was unable to keep imperialism and monarchy from slipping into the New World.
It all ended poorly for France and particularly, of course, for Maximilian and his faithful wife, Carlota. What had once seemed a dream fairy tale dream come true, old world royals with a new world empire ended in the brutal execution. Manet considered the event important enough to make a political statement with this once censored work of art and the reality of it played out on the Cerro de las Campanas, The Hill of Bells, in Queretaro,
The Execution of the Emperor Maximilian, 1868, lithograph, by Eduard Manet can be seen in the Biblioteque National in Paris. Address 58 rue de Richelieu, metro:Bourse/Palais Royal. ph 33 (0) 1 53 79 59 59. Open every day except Sunday and the various galleries vary in opening times; general the hours are 9-5. The web site is www.bnf.fr