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Empirical art

by Angus Trumble, 30 September 2016

Mexico from the Palace painted by ‘Maximilian Emperor'
Mexico from the Palace painted by ‘Maximilian Emperor'

Several years ago I came across this curious painting on the racks in a distant, dusty corner of the store room in the basement of the Johannesburg Art Gallery in South Africa. Since then the mystery surrounding it has never been far from my mind. According to an old label on the frame, the painting purports to be “Mexico from the Palace painted by ‘Maximilian Emperor’.” A later label suggests that it entered the Johannesburg collection thanks to the wealthy “Randlord” couple Florence and Lionel Phillips, and their absentee amanuensis Sir Hugh Lane, presumably around 1910 when Sir Edwin Lutyens’s elegant Art Gallery building opened to the public. As far as I can tell the picture has never been exhibited. There is, at this stage, no other documentation except for a minimal entry in the Gallery’s old hand-written accession register, which seems to presume that “Emperor,” in this case, was the artist’s surname. Although the Johannesburg curators were completely unaware of its possible significance, the question in my mind was then, and still remains: Could this painting be what it evidently purports to be ‒ a view out toward the capital city of his own short-lived empire, painted from the highest turret of his official residence the Castillo de Chapultepec, by the Emperor Maximilian I of Mexico (1837‒1867)? If so, it is a unique survival ‒ a portrait of his own realm from the vantage point of his own palace by a cultivated Habsburg prince.

The story of the brief reign of the Emperor Maximilian I and the Empress Carlota (born Princess Charlotte of the Belgians) is one of the strangest episodes of mid-nineteenth-century European meddling in the affairs of Central America. The Archduke Maximilian was the younger brother of the Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria and Hungary (1830‒1916). At first Maximilian pursued a career in the Austro-Hungarian navy, rising to be its Commander-in-Chief, and subsequently as a comparatively enlightened, liberal-leaning Viceroy of the Kingdom of Lombardy-Venetia, in other words Austrian-occupied Northern Italy before the Risorgimento. While serving in this latter capacity, from 1856 to 1860 Maximilian built as his official residence the Castello di Miramar on the shore of the Adriatic near Trieste. A formal invitation to accept the crown of Mexico was issued to Maximilian at Miramar by a visiting delegation of Mexican royalists in 1861. This strange idea was ultimately based on the picturesque historical memory of Habsburg monarchs in the old Viceroyalty of New Spain. However, the conceit was engineered and supported by the Emperor Napoleon III in an effort to gain for France a potentially lucrative and very substantial foothold in the Americas ‒ essentially creating a puppet regime for which Maximilian furnished a convenient and, it was thought, pliant Catholic figurehead. Before the end of the American Civil War, Napoleon was also confident that the United and/or Confederate States were not in a position to assert any influence or authority over their great southern neighbour, and to some degree he was right. Having at first wavered, Maximilian was eventually persuaded to accept the throne of Mexico, and arrived with Carlota in 1864. The new regime was wobbly from the very beginning and ultimately doomed when, after the end of the Civil War in 1865, the United States did indeed give powerfully effective support to republican forces under the command of Benito Juárez. The French were no longer able to sustain their intervention in Mexico; they withdrew their army; Maximilian swiftly lost control, was eventually toppled, captured, tried by court martial at Santiago de Querétaro and sentenced to death. Frantic telegraphic messages from the crowned heads of Europe failed to persuade Benito Juárez to spare the life of Maximilian. The Emperor and two of his loyal companions, Generals Miramón and Mejía, were duly executed by firing squad ‒ an episode that shocked Europe, and prompted Édouard Manet in Paris to paint his famous series of pictures, The Execution of Maximilian (1867‒69), which in turn referenced The Third of May, 1808, by Francisco Goya. These facts alone make the very existence of the present picture at least noteworthy.

Today the Castillo de Chapultepec has become subsumed by the immense urban sprawl of Mexico City, but when in 1864 Maximilian and Carlota chose it to be their official residence and seat of government, Chapultepec lay some distance from Mexico City. This is made quite obvious from the perspective of the present painting. Maximilian also ordered the construction of a broad, straight boulevard to connect the Imperial residence with the city, and named it Paseo de la Emperatriz (Promenade of the Empress). This is also clearly visible, a physical and visual link between the domestic foreground and the urban distance. At first the castle required much work. The Emperor engaged several architects, among them Julius Hofmann, Carl Gangolf Kayser, Carlos Schaffer, Eleuterio Méndez and Ramón Cruz Arango, not only to make the palace habitable, but also to devise ambitious neoclassical public rooms which accommodated, among many other Habsburg furnishings, a pair of new full-length state portraits of the Emperor and Empress by F. X. Winterhalter. Crucially in this instance the botanist Wilhelm Knechtel was also put in charge of creating a most unusual aerial garden on the roof of the building, which occupies the foreground of the present composition and corresponds in every detail with surviving plans. The rooms that open onto it were Maximilian and Carlota’s airy and comparatively modest private apartments.

When Maximilian was not pouring his energies into the Castillo de Chapultepec, and fretting over the guerrilla war in which he suffered successive setbacks and defeats, he amused himself by fielding a team of courtiers against the Mexico City Cricket Club ‒ which institution still exists today. One of the most affecting photographs of Maximilian that has survived shows the emperor among other players in their cricket whites, posing on a rather stony pitch, surrounded by a dense wall of cactus. It is said that play was from time to time disturbed, but surely never disrupted, by shots fired by Juárez’s guerrillas out of the surrounding hills. That image is almost as unreal as the aspect and wider historical context of the present painting.

As Maximilian’s hold over Mexico unravelled to the point of collapse, he sent the Empress Carlota back to Europe to seek the support and intervention of the “powers” against Juárez. Carlota duly travelled from Court to Court, making increasingly shrill, at times desperate entreaties for urgent assistance. An increasingly pathetic figure, Carlota made no progress at all and, shortly after having being received in Rome by Pope Pius IX, she suffered what we would now describe as a psychotic episode. The papal court was thrown into a panic when Carlota absolutely refused to leave the Apostolic Palace, proposing instead to sleep there for as long as it took the Pope to give her an undertaking that her husband would be rescued. After a tense night of hysterics, Carlota was persuaded to return to her hotel whence after several days of fearfully paranoid fantasies she was escorted home to Miramar and on to Belgium by her brother Prince Philippe, Count of Flanders. For many subsequent decades, permanently occluded by mental illness, and further traumatised by her husband’s execution in 1867, Carlota lived in the care of her Belgian family in the Castle of Bouchout in Meise. She died in 1927, aged 86. In 1868, Maximilian’s embalmed body was returned to Vienna for burial, and many of his effects were sent home to Miramar, but we do not know if this picture was among them.

We do know that, as a cultivated naval officer, Maximilian must have received instruction in basic cartography and drafting. We also know of several watercolours by him that were once seen and documented at Miramar, but to my knowledge no other oil painting by Maximilian has ever been positively identified. Nor is there among the effects of the Empress Carlota that are still today preserved in the collection of the Belgian royal family in Brussels and elsewhere any trace of works of art that might help to confirm Maximilian’s authorship of the present work.

In many respects it is a surprising picture. The paint film is comparatively thin and dry, and the handling certainly competent and in places even very good. There is a textural and chromatic range in the treatment of plants and foliage, for example, that is certainly deft and beguiling. The features on the horizon are drawn with ample skill, and the effects of light in the landscape are more or less congruent with what is, by any measure, an ambitious cloudscape. At the same time, however, there is a focus, a concentration, an insistence upon matters of fine detail, surely at the expense of larger effects ‒ the treatment of the garden furniture, for example, the urns and aspects of the planting ‒ all these smack of the Sunday painter. The elaborate perspectival arrangements with which the architecture is rendered, and also the topography farther distant, have a slightly ponderous character, as if the artist has had to work harder to get this reasonably correct than might have been the case for a truly professional landscape painter ‒ or that he has even worked with the assistance of a painting master or draftsman. As well, I am far from sure that the composition was not devised with the aid of some form of camera obscura or perspectival device, which might explain the undulation of the landscape as it approaches each vertical margin, and the slope of the horizon. There is no doubt that whoever painted this view did so from the most private part of the Emperor’s own apartments in Chapultepec.

I have racked my brain and can think of no other instance in history of the sovereign or ruler of a country painting a view of his or her capital (and from the highest point of his own palace) that therefore stands, in a very real sense, as a type of allegory of everything over which he reigned, however briefly. Queen Victoria’s Leaves from the Journal of Our Life in the Highlands was published in 1868, and was followed in due course by the excitingly different More Leaves from the Journal of Our Life in the Highlands (1884), but those volumes are obviously not the same thing at all. If indeed Maximilian painted this view “of Mexico,” and I think this is definitely possible, the Johannesburg painting stands as a melancholy and almost entirely forgotten monument to the aspirations of a relatively cultivated prince who had the great misfortune of having become fatally entangled in a geopolitical game that he could never possibly have won.

Upon restoring the republic and doing away with Maximilian and his companions, Benito Juárez immediately changed the name of the Paseo de la Emperatriz to the Paseo de la Reforma, and today Chapultepec is known as the Castillo de Miravalle. By what astoundingly circuitous route Maximilian’s painting found its way from Mexico City into the late Victorian or Edwardian London art market and onward to Johannesburg in the Union of South Africa we simply have no idea. Even if he did not paint it himself, or even if he painted it with some professional assistance (by one of the architects at Chapultepec, for example), it seems to me inconceivable that the Emperor did not own this painting at least for a brief spell ‒and the possibility remains that it may constitute one of the Emperor’s most affecting and eloquent utterances except, of course, for Maximilian’s last words, said to have been spoken before the firing squad on the Cerro de las Campanas at Santiago de Querétaro. “Poor Carlota,” he said. “Poor Carlota!”