Manet relied on documentary sources
for basic factual information, but filtered it through his
own pictorial concerns. He valued a spontaneous approach to
art over traditional history painting, and he was more concerned
with expressing the temporal moment of the execution than
recording a historically accurate depiction of it. Contrary
to some contemporary accounts he depicted one execution squad,
accompanied by a noncommissioned officer (there to deliver
the final coup de grâce to Maximilian), in
an arena-like setting, and he positioned Maximilian between
Miramón and Mejía. He carefully attended to
the rhythm of the figures and the clouds of smoke over each
of the victims, details that allowed him to capture the instantaneousness
of his subject.
The painterly brushstrokes and atmospheric quality of Manet's first painting may reflect the ambiguity of early reports of Maximilian's death. In this work, one of Maximilian's two generals seems to be obscured by clouds of smoke from the guns, and the flared trousers and outlines of sombreros indicate that Manet had originally painted the soldiers in Mexican guerrilla uniforms.