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Work Napoleon Bonaparte Visiting the Plague-Stricken in Jaffa

Department of Paintings: French painting

Bonaparte visitant les pestiférés de Jaffa (11 mars 1799)

© 2004 RMN / Thierry Le Mage

Paintings
French painting

Author(s):
Ophélie Lerouge

The painter Antoine-Jean Gros depicts the courage of General Bonaparte visiting plague-stricken soldiers in Jaffa, Syria, in 1799. Napoleon is touching one of the plague victims, as Christ did a leper. This huge canvas, hugely acclaimed at the 1804 Salon, was the first masterpiece of Napoleonic painting. Although the heroic nudes recall the work of Gros's master David, the warm colors, chiaroscuro, and oriental decor foreshadow Romantic painting.

The courage of the general-in-chief

The picture depicts General Bonaparte visiting plague-stricken French troops in the courtyard of a Jaffa mosque being used as a military hospital. The scene took place in March 1799 during the Syrian campaign. Bonaparte, in a shaft of daylight - ignoring the doctor trying to dissuade him - touches a sore on one of the plague victims with his bare hand. One of the officers watching has a handkerchief over his mouth. On the left, two Arabs are handing out bread to the sick. On the right, a blind soldier is trying to approach the general-in-chief. In the foreground, in the shadows, the dying men are too weak to turn towards their leader. The painter is implying that Bonaparte's virtue and courage justify the horrors of war. Gros has given him the luminous aura and gestures of Christ healing the lepers in religious paintings.

The first masterpiece of Napoleonic history painting

When he commissioned Gros to paint this canvas, Bonaparte, who had become First Consul, wanted it to help clear the accusations of the British press, who had alleged that he had wanted to execute the plague-stricken during his retreat to Cairo. The painting, presented at the 1804 Salon shortly before his coronation - a particularly opportune moment for Bonaparte - is the first masterpiece of Napoleonic history painting. Bonaparte and then Napoleon the emperor drew the painters of the time away from classical subjects and had them paint contemporary battles and imperial pomp instead, with himself as the heroic center of attention. Gros subsequently portrayed Napoleon on the Battlefield of Eylau (1808, Louvre), a work very similar to this one. The painting greatly influenced the painters of the next generation, Géricault and Delacroix, notably when the latter painted The Massacre at Chios (1824, Louvre).

On the threshold of Romanticism

The picture is neoclassical in its subject matter - the depiction of an example of virtue - and in certain formal aspects. The scene is depicted against a stage-like backdrop of arcades reminiscent of David's The Oath of the Horatii (1784, Louvre). The painter has given great importance to the center of the painting, where he has placed Bonaparte, and has also included several heroic nudes. But aspects of Gros's treatment in this work have broken with the art of his teacher David and herald Romanticism. The painter emphasizes the suffering of the plague-stricken, instilling a feeling of horror and the sublime in the viewer. The composition is divided into contrasting areas of light and shade. The light and colors are warm and recall those of the Venetian masters and Rubens. Gros, a precursor of the Orientalists, also took pains to depict oriental facial types, dress, and architecture.

Technical description

  • Baron Antoine-Jean GROS (Paris, 1771 - Meudon (Hauts-de-Seine), 1835)

    Bonaparte visitant les pestiférés de Jaffa (11 mars 1799)

    1804

  • H. : 5,23 m. ; L. : 7,15 m.

  • INV. 5064

  • Paintings

    Denon wing
    1st floor
    Mollien
    Room 77

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Additional information about the work

Signed and dated on the left on a step: Gros. 1804 à Versailles