Two paintings hanging in different museums on different continents. Two paintings in different medium, one watercolour and one oil, painted by two different artists. It is almost thirty years between them. One painter was Austrian. The other French. What links them? And why? And why does it matter?
This is not a particularly hard question if you’re an art historian. I’m not even sure anyone but me will find it fascinating. Still, I find it interesting that a fairly unknown, at least outside expert circles, watercolour painting I came across researching a thesis earlier today had me thinking “…what? Is that really the same person as in the famous Manet painting?” I am talking about Peter Fendi’s Evening Prayer from 1839.
Peter Fendi was born in Vienna in 1796. In the 1820s and 1830s he rose to fame, partly due to him being an early defender of the lithography technique where his erotic motifs could flourish and be easily spread among the faux prude semi-bourgeois in Vienna, but also thanks to his stunningly beautiful watercolour interiors. The interior above is simply called Evening Prayer, but it is not any old bourgeois family that is depicted. It is the Habsburg Archduchess Sophie and her four children. Sophie was married to the emperor’s youngest son, but because of various deaths in the family the oldest boy in the picture, the blond one kneeling by the crucifix, would later become the Emperor Franz Joseph. But it is not him I am interested in. The least important one, the youngest to the far left, was called Maximilian, and he would for purely political reasons be installed as Emperor of Mexico for a short time.
Why I reacted as strongly as I did is probably because this seemingly innocent and naive, trusting little blond fellow would become famous to us mostly thanks to the incredibly cruel and Naturalistic painting Édouard Manet would paint in 1869 (he made the first one in 1867, but the big and famous one was finished in 1869), Execution of Emperor Maximilian. A death is never easy, and in pictorial art it can sometimes be more touching than in any other art form. The death of an innocent child is even harder to accept. Though, the man being executed was not an innocent child, was he? He was a grown-up, an Emperor, a military man.
Regardless what one thinks of the political situation in Mexico in the 1860s, I find it touching to think about these two paintings in connection to each other. Though thirty years apart. The young boy kneeling a little apart from his other siblings, a little further back from the kneeler than the other three, sends out an energy of a child wanting to be part of something. But being the youngest son of the three, the likelihood of him ending up as a prince in a castle somewhere, forgotten, is very high. Though he might not know it, he can probably sense it, like all children can. That he would be installed as Emperor of Mexico by Napoleon III 25 years later, in 1864, he could probably not even dream of. When I look at these two pictures there is still a touching similarity, something to do with the loneliness in Maximilian’s energy depicted by both Fendi and Manet. In Manet’s painting he hold hands with two friends and fellow officers, Mejía and Miramón, guiding him into the eternal Light. That it is the same boy as in Fendi’s painting fascinates me. That two painting on their own are just depictions of a moment, a snap-shot of someone’s life, is nothing strange per se. But seen next to each other, as pendants, they create a whole new way of looking at art. They create their own, or rather Emperor Maximilian’s, closed universe. The beginning and the end. Maximilian’s Alpha and Omega. Isn’t that incredible?