Manet’s images are electrifying. For him, painting was thinking, and his thoughts shoot out in bold, impetuous strokes, ricocheting off multiple targets.
One of his targets was the conservative French emperor Napoleon III. In the mid-19th-century this ruler, ravenous for new territory, had his eye on Mexico. When a reformist government under Benito Juárez came to power in the country, a privileged minority of landowners and clergy appealed to France for help, and Napoleon (counting on the United States being distracted by the Civil War) sent his army their way in 1862.
The initial invasion, under the pretext of collecting debts owed by Mexico, resulted in a mortifying French defeat, now celebrated by Mexicans as Cinco de Mayo. To provide a cover for a second one, Napoleon [n.b., Napoleon III, not Bonaparte] persuaded Maximilian, the idealistic younger brother of the Austrian emperor Franz Joseph, to become emperor of Mexico, backed by the French military. Maximilian, who knew nothing in particular about Mexico, accepted the offer with a missionary zeal, giving Napoleon both a colony and a Hapsburg alliance.
But problems instantly arose. The new emperor arrived in 1864 and was led to believe by Mexican monarchists that he would be embraced. He wasn’t. Popular support was for Juárez, pushed north by the French but poised to return. Maximilian, despite his liberal sentiments, made repressive moves, alienating everyone.
Napoleon soon realized he had a fiasco on his hands and wanted out. Maximilian was urged to abdicate, but stayed on, as his wife dashed in a panic to Europe to rally support. None came. The French Army departed. Juárez returned. Maximilian was arrested and, along with two of his generals, Miguel Miramón and Tomás Mejía, was tried for treason and sentenced to die. He was 35.
On the morning of June 19, 1867, the three were brought to open ground near a walled cemetery and shot by a squad of Mexican Army riflemen. Maximilian’s end was agonizingly protracted. The initial round of fire didn’t kill him; the coup de grâce was botched and had to be repeated to finish the job.