Fatal ‘Game of Thrones’ That Intrigued the Painter Manet : Notes on Maximilian of Mexico

L. Author photo of Iron Throne now housed near Dubrovnik. R. Edouard Manet. 1832–1883. Paris. L’exécution de l’Empereur Maximilien. Execution of the Emperor Maximilian. 1869. Mannheim. Kunsthalle.” by jean louis mazieres is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

In 2015, the leader of the beautiful Croatian city of Dubrovnik was pleased with the bargain he got from the television network behind the popular “Game of Thrones” series.

Then Dubrovnik Mayor Andro Vlahušić told the Croatia’s RTL Direkt that he had snagged a key prop, the Iron Throne, as souvenir of the series. GoT, as the series is known, had been filmed partly in his city.

My photo of the Iron Throne on display on the island of Lokrum

“We purchased it for not much money, HBO practically gave it to us,” Vlahušić was quoted saying in news accounts.

On a June 2021 visit to Croatia, I overhead more than one fellow tourist refer to the popular show. GoT first aired in 2011. I’d guess the popularity of the series aided with the steady growth of visitors to Croatia in recent years.

Graphic from World Bank’s World Tourism Organization site.

I have not seen GoT. I admit to a failure of imagination that makes it difficult to appreciate fantasy stories, whether told on the screen or in words.

But I’ve read that the plots of GoT draw from the War of the Roses, the 15th century civil war fought in England. That’s a fascinating time in history, continuing from initial bouts between the Lancaster and York families into the establishment of the short but drama-worthy usurper dynasty founded by Henry VII.

It’s no wonder then that GoT was so popular. It adds dragons to the betrayals and comebacks and scheming of the Plantagenet and Tudor eras. And it was filmed with the dramatic backdrops provided by places like Dubrovnik.

My photo taken on walls of Dubrovnik
David G. Young photo of Dubrovnik
My photo of Dubrovnik
View of Lokrum and the wall of Dubrovnik. My photo taken from flat where I stayed.
Google Map of Lokrum and Dubrovnik

I saw the Iron Throne on display on Lokrum, an island close to Dubrovnik. It struck me that many people may visit the island to see this prop, without thinking much about a former owner of the island who lost a real-life game of thrones.

European Emperor of Mexico

Ferdinand Maximilian Joseph Maria von Habsburg-Lothringen was born on July 6, 1832. An ambitious younger brother of Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria, Maximilian served in his nation’s navy and married a Belgian princess, Charlotte.

Maximilian and Charlotte, 1857. Wikipedia copy of photo in Royal Collection of Belgium.

Maximilian angered his brother and was taken out of political life for a while. Maximilian and Charlotte focused on their estates on the Adriatic Sea. They built a grand castle known as Miramar near Trieste, now in Italy, and they beautified Lokrum. Tourist brochures says the peacocks still wandering Lokrum descend from birds that Maximilian brought to the island.

My photo on peacocks on Lokrum.
My photo of Lokrum

Maximilian and Charlotte might have tended happily for many years to their Adriatic gardens — if certain politicians had not gone hunting for a European king to lead Mexico.

Wikipedia copy of photo of Maximilian’s Miremare via Valleo61, image in public domain,

In the mid 19th century, Mexican conservatives worried about liberals undermining the traditional sources of great wealth for the nation’s elites, including the clergy. Their scheming coincided with the outsized ambitions of the French leader Napoleon III, the nephew of the more famous Napoleon I.

Cabanel, Alexandre. Portrait of Napoleon III. c. 1865. Wikipedia copy of image in public domain.

With the United States distracted by the Civil War, Napoleon III sought to gain influence in the Americas. He worked with Mexican conservatives to find a member of a European royal family to start a new monarchy in the Americas. (Crazy idea, no?) At the urging of his wife, Charlotte, Maximilian accepted the offer from Napoleon III to become the monarch of Mexico.

Cinco de Mayo

Portrait of Benito Juarez. Wikimedia copy of image in public domain.

When Benito Juarez became president of Mexico in 1861, he suspended payment of the nation’s debts. That gave Napoleon III a pretext for an invasion. In 1862, French troops suffered a temporary defeat in the Mexican city of Puebla, an event celebrated to this day as Cinco de Mayo. (Americans sometimes confuse this holiday with Mexico’s independence day, which is Sept. 16.) But by 1863, the French had control of the capital, Mexico City. Maximilian was crowned as Mexico’s emperor in 1864.

Maximilian stuck with reforms Juarez had instituted, refusing to give the Catholic church back land that had been confiscated. That eroded his support among the elites. After all, members of that crowd had gone shopping for a monarch in Europe to counter the work of Juarez. And Napoleon III quickly lost enthusiasm for his Mexican project. The United States turned its attention back to Mexico once its civil war drew near an end. It demanded the withdrawal of French troops. And by March of 1867, the French troops left. Maximilian, who had refused to abdicate, was put before a firing squad in June 1867 and killed at age 34. His wife was in Europe at the time, trying to rally support for her husband.

Manet’s Paintings

The painter Édouard Manet disagreed with the politics of Napoleon III, including his decision to create a Mexican monarchy. Manet essentially challenged his nation’s leader with three large-scale paintings depicting the execution of Maximilian, including the one seen below.

Edouard Manet. 1832–1883. Paris. L’exécution de l’Empereur Maximilien. Execution of the Emperor Maximilian. 1869. Mannheim. Kunsthalle.” by jean louis mazieres is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

For these, Manet appears to have been inspired by Francisco Goya’s depiction of French soldiers firing on Spaniards during an invasion, as shown below.

Goya. “The 3rd of May 1808 in Madrid or “The Executions”” by lluisribesmateu1969 is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

In Manet’s painting below of the execution of Maximilian, the officer on the right, wearing the red cap, bears a resemblance to Napoleon III.

L. Manet. 1832–1883. Paris. L’exécution de l’Empereur Maximilien. Execution of the Emperor Maximilian. 1869. Mannheim. Kunsthalle.” by jean louis mazieres is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 R. Detail of Cabanel portrait of Napoleon III.

None of Manet’s major paintings about the execution of Maximilian were shown at a Paris Salon during the artist’s lifetime, according to an excellent web presentation about these works from the U.K.’s National Gallery. Authorities also refused permission for sales of the lithograph Manet had created on this theme.

Still, for Manet, his work on this theme was “almost journalism” in its attempt to capture the scene of the execution, said Anne Robbins, associate curator for post 1800 paintings at the U.K.’s National Gallery. Manet uses “visual tricks” to gives these scenes their lasting sense of immediacy, she said.

Manet places “us viewers in the same position as the soldiers so we are, as such, taking part in this execution scene,” she said.

For links to sources used in this essay, please go to the Manet entry in my bibliography for research on artists of Europe.

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