Great works: The Execution of Emperor Maximilian, 1867, by Édouard Manet

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

A lack of finish in a painting troubles us. It can also exhilarate, opening up various interpretative possibilities which are never quite realised. We saw a large, unfinished equestrian portrait by Édouard Manet in the recent retrospective of his portraits at London's Royal Academy. Its presence there was no cause for celebration. It was far too unfinished. Manet would have been appalled to see it on public display. In short, it looked like a filler.

This painting exists in three versions. One is in Boston, another in London, and a third in Mannheim. Two of these versions are either fragmentary or incomplete. The third is finished, but the almost polished representation of the story that it tells falls short of giving us much imaginative satisfaction. Why? Because Manet, in that final version, has shown us too much. It is too finically perfected in its execution.

And yet Manet drove himself on to do it, to bring it to a successful conclusion in the way that he did for a very particular reason. He was striving to rise to an occasion, which was the depiction of a subject of great public importance – the killing of an emperor and his two generals by firing squad. It was the kind of picture that would surely make his name at the Paris Salon. Alas, the Salon rejected it even before it was officially entered. Manet would never become the history painter he perhaps only half-wanted to be.

The first version of the three – which is the one you can see on this page – feels the most urgently alive. It has the stink of reality about it for all that it looks a bit rough and ready in its execution. There is a clutter of bodies here. Nothing is orderly or especially well managed. The soldiers feel nervily close-packed. We can smell the stink of all that rising smoke after the collective discharge of those firearms. The fug that hangs above the scene resembles an old-time London smog.

These problems – a sense of sketchiness, hurry and even unclarity – were unavoidable. They also explain why he never finished the painting. Manet was struggling to keep up with the present. He was painting it as news of the assassination was reaching him through the press. He had to remain faithful to the reported details as they came in. Unfortunately, some of these so called facts were then contradicted by further so called facts. Such are the difficulties presented to an artist when he tries his hand at making a painting which is also a timely documentary.

The subject was politically controversial. Maximilian, sometime emperor of Mexico, had been executed on the orders of the man who supplanted him. Napoleon III of France – a man heartily disliked by Manet – was in part to blame for the emperor's vulnerability. He had withdrawn French troops from the country, leaving him naked in the face of aggression.

Manet found himself hugely drawn to the subject when he first read about it in a newspaper in July 1867. He had recently seen Goya's The Third of May at the Prado in Madrid, another great painting about a public execution by firing squad – and he felt a need to respond to this new atrocity. But, as mentioned, he felt hobbled by a lack of accurate information. What exactly were these soldiers wearing?

First, guessing, he painted them in sombreros, only to discover a little later that they had in fact been wearing képis as headgear – which is why there is a mixture of the two here. The three men who are being executed are featureless: the general to the left of the emperor himself appears to be wearing a black hood, thus guaranteeing anonymity. They are featureless because Manet had no idea what they looked like.

And yet this featurelessness seems to work. It makes our pulses race. There is something chillingly effective about this hoodedness, this blanking out. It seems to speak for – and to appeal to – us all. It seems to summarise the terrible, sudden, wholly indiscriminate – and perhaps wholly unjust – onset of suffering.

By comparison, the faces of the three men in the final version of the painting, so docile, so blandly puppet-like, go to their deaths woodenly. We do not find ourselves reaching out to them, suffering with them. Manet knew too much about them by then. He no longer had the space to do a bit of feverishly anxious dreaming. The careful examination of a photograph or two had part-snuffed out all that inward terror.

About the artist: Édouard Manet (1832-83)

The French painter Édouard Manet was born into a family of great prosperity – his mother was the daughter of a diplomat and god-daughter of the Swedish Crown Prince – in the Rue Bonaparte in Paris. His father was a French judge who expected him to pursue a career in the law. In defiance of his parents' wishes, he devoted himself to painting, provoking public ridicule by depicting modernity as he saw it, though he maintained throughout his life a craving for public recognition. He died at the age of 51 of rheumatism and untreated syphilis. Days before his death, his gangrenous foot was amputated.

Arts and Entertainment
Keith from The Office ten years on

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams prepares to enter the House of Black and White as Arya Stark in Game of Thrones season five

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Albert Hammond Junior of The Strokes performs at the Natural History Museum on July 6, 2006 in London, England.

music
Arts and Entertainment
Howard Mollison, as played by Michael Gambon
tv review
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush in The King's Speech

The best TV shows and films coming to the service

tv
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Muscling in: Noah Stewart and Julia Bullock in 'The Indian Queen'

opera
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TVViewers predict what will happen to Miller and Hardy
Arts and Entertainment
Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in season two of the series

Watch the new House of Cards series three trailer

TV
Arts and Entertainment
An extract from the sequel to Fight Club

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant, Eve Myles and Olivia Colman in Broadchurch series two

TV Review
Arts and Entertainment
Old dogs are still learning in 'New Tricks'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Tonight we honour Hollywood’s best and whitest – sorry, brightest' - and other Neil Patrick Harris Oscars jokes

Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Patricia Arquette making her acceptance speech for winning Best Actress Award

Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears

Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
    Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

    Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

    Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
    Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
    With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

    Money, corruption and drugs

    The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
    America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

    150 years after it was outlawed...

    ... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
    Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

    You won't believe your eyes

    Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
    Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
    A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

    It's not easy being Green

    After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
    Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

    Gorillas nearly missed

    BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
    Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

    The Downton Abbey effect

    Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
    China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

    China's wild panda numbers on the up

    New census reveals 17% since 2003