Arts + Entertainment

The National Gallery Masterpiece Tour: Manet’s ‘The Execution of Maximilian’

Sponsored by Christie’s
Becket’s Murder and Images of Political Killing

Friday 17 January to Sunday 16 March
Special Exhibitions Room
Free admission


Manet’s ‘The Execution of Maximilian’ has been described as ‘among the most moving and most tantalising pictures in the National Gallery.’ It depicts the fatal moment when the Austrian Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian, captured by Mexican revolutionaries, was executed alongside two of his generals in June 1867, and was painted as news of the event was reaching France. Maximilian had been installed by French force as Emperor of Mexico in 1863, after a multi-national army ousted the revolutionary Benito Juarez, who had overthrown the previous Mexican leader. Maintaining French rule had been costly, however, and French troops were withdrawn, abandoning Maximilian to an inevitable fate. Manet painted the sensational event on a large scale. He dressed the firing squad in French rather than Mexican uniform, thereby implying French responsibility for Maximilian’s death. The painting was never exhibited and Manet’s lithograph version was banned from publication. Cut up after Manet’s death for easier sale, the painting’s fragments were bought and reunited by Edgar Degas, and acquired by the National Gallery at the Degas sale in March 1918, during the First World War.

The Masterpiece Tour is part of the National Gallery’s aim to promote the understanding, knowledge and appreciation of Old Master paintings to as wide an audience as possible. This opportunity to bring hugely popular National Gallery paintings to the public’s doorstep is being made possible by the generous support of Christie’s.


Manet’s ‘Execution of Maximilian’ is being displayed with contextual material relating to its development, and with works from Canterbury Museums’ collections depicting the murder of Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral, notably John Opie’s painting of about 1793. Like Manet, Opie used life-size figures in shallow space to draw the viewer into the action, and limited colours for dramatic effect. The exhibition and supporting programme focus on the way in which artists, including photographers, have created iconic images that come to define events involving political killing. Exhibits include prints after paintings of political executions by Jean-Léon Gérôme  and Paul Delaroche; images of Communard executions by Manet and James Tissot; engravings of heretics burned at the stake in seventeenth century Canterbury; and photographs by Robert Capa  and Eddie Adams from the Spanish Civil War and Vietnam War. Particular highlights are four etchings by Francisco de Goya from the ‘Disasters of War’, which inspired Manet’s composition.

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