Painted in 1881, this truly stunning work of art portrays the courageous escape of Victor Henri Rochefort from captivity seven years earlier. Rochefort was a French politician who had been held captive in New Caledonia for his role in the Paris Commune, a revolutionary government that ruled the French capital from March 18 to May 28th 1871. Rochefort was sentenced to serve the remainder of his life in prison. As it turned out, his successful escape meant that he only spent three years incarcerated.
His destination upon escaping was San Francisco, while he lived in London and Geneva over the next six years, before his return to France was officially permitted in 1880. Manet's painting created something of a stir at the time, due to the high-profile nature of the incident and the fact that Rochefort had only returned to his homeland a year earlier. The whole episode was very fresh in people's minds and it was considered a very raw subject matter to tackle.
The artist's imagining of the scene in which Rochefort escaped is both vivid and stark. The vessel appears relatively weak in the wide open expanses of the volatile ocean. It is a testament to Rochefort's strength of will that he successfully executed such an audacious escape before eventually, six years later, securing safe passage home to his mother country. At the time of its release, 'Rochefort's Escape' was met with a mixed reaction, with a number of critics struggling to separate political sentiment from artistic interpretation.
With the passing of time, however, it has come to be regarded as a masterpiece and currently has pride of place in the Kunsthaus Zurich. Edouard Manet died in 1883, at the age of 51, following the amputation of his left foot due to gangrene. In his last two years alive, many of his paintings focused on mundane subject matter, such as fruit and flower arrangements. It can be strongly argued that Rochefort's Escape was Manet's last truly important work of art.