Napoleon Visiting the Plague-Stricken at Jaffa by Antoine-Jean Gros

Napoleon Visiting the Plague-Stricken at Jaffa by Antoine-Jean Gros (1804)

Baron Antoine-Jean Gros, also known as Jean-Antoine Gros was born in Paris in 1771.  His early artistic tuition, from the age of six, was carried out by his father and mother, who were both painters of miniatures.  He soon proved himself to be a talented student and at the age of fourteen he went to work at the studio of the French Neoclassical painter, Jaques-Louis David, and at the same time carried on his art studies at the Collège des Quatre-Nations, also known as Collège Mazarin, after its founder Cardinal Mazarin.  Gros admired David’s work and their artistic relationship blossomed and developed and Gros became one of David’s favourite pupils.  Gros, after time, moved away from the strict purity of neo-classicism and developed a love for the more colourful works of Rubens and the great Venetian Masters.

In 1791 his father died and Jean-Antoine was left to his own resources.  In 1792, despite failing to win an award at the grand prix, he was recommended by the École des Beaux Arts to carry out some portraiture of members of the National Convention, the constitutional and legislative assembly, which at that time, ruled France. He became disillusioned with the way the country was being governed and a year later, in 1793, at the age of twenty two, left Paris and travelled to Italy.  He lived first in Genoa where he eked out a living by painting and selling miniatures.  It was whilst living in Genoa that he met Joséphine de Beauharnais, the wife of Napoleon Bonaparte, and through her met the great French leader himself.

In 1796, Gros was with Napoleon’s army when the French managed to outflank the Austrian troops at the Battle of Arcole and he witnessed Bonaparte planting his beloved French tricolour on the bridge they had just captured.  He encapsulated this incident on canvas, entitled Bonaparte at the pont d’Acole.  Bonaparte was ecstatic at the way Gros had portrayed him at the scene of this great victory and immediately made him inspecteur aux revues, which permitted Gros to follow the army of Bonaparte and pictorially display future victories and, at the same time, select the artistic spoils of war which merited being taken back to the Louvre.  His battlefield paintings were well received by Bonaparte.    They were painted skilfully and with great flamboyance and style even if his portrayals strayed occasionally from the actual happenings.  That notwithstanding, his art work was truly exceptional and he became one of the most honoured and respected French painters of that time.  His work was sort out by the great and the good of the time and besides Bonaparte he carried out commissions for great rulers such as Louis XVIII and Charles X.

After the defeat and exile of Napoleon the Bourbons Dynasty in the guise of Louis XVIII returned to rule France.  Amongst the list of proscribed former revolutionaries who deposed Louis XVII during the French Revolution and who were to be executed was the artist Jaques-Louis David.  For that reason David decided to flee France and go to Belgium.  He refused to return to his homeland even though Louis XVIII offered him a full pardon.  Jean-Antoine Gros took over David’s studio and endeavoured to work in a more Neoclassical style but his later work was never to receive the acclaim his Napoleonic paintings achieved.

In 1835 Jean-Antoine Gros committed suicide, his body being found on the shores of the River Seine.  A suicide note was found on his body, saying that “tired of life, and betrayed by last faculties which rendered it bearable, he resolved to end it”

My Daily Art Display today is Jean-Antoine’s painting entitled Napoleon Visiting the Plague-Stricken at Jaffa which he completed in 1804 and can now be found in the Louvre.  The painting was commissioned by Napoleon Bonaparte himself, who wanted Gros to paint a picture,  pictorially recounting his visit to his sick troops at the military hospital, which had been temporarily set up in the courtyard of a mosque in Jaffa (now part of Tel Aviv, Israel).  Napoleon’s bloody battle and the subsequent sack of the town of Jaffa occurred in 1799.  Unfortunately for the victorious French army, their victory was closely followed by an outbreak of the bubonic plague, which was to kill far more French soldiers than died in the actual battle.

In the background one can see the breached walls of Jaffa and an over-sized French tricolour fluttering in the wind.   A pall of smoke from fires covers the whole area.   In the left middle ground we see an Arab man handing out bread to the sick whilst his servant waits behind him holding the bread basket.  Behind them we see two large black men carrying off, what is probably a dead body on a stretcher.  In front of Napoleon is a semi naked sick man being tended by an Arab physician.  To the far right we can see a blind man grappling with the pillar as he tries to gain an audience with Bonaparte.  Across the foreground we see bodies of the dying men prostrate on the ground.

Napoleon touching the sick

In the painting, Bonaparte was to be shown as a fearless man with no concern for his own health.  Gros’s painting depicts Bonaparte as he confronted the pestilence during his visit to his men who had contracted the plague.  Historians argue about the reasoning behind Bonaparte’s visit.  Was he there to decide whether to abandon his dying troops in this hell-hole in Jaffa, as some historians would have us believe he discussed with his medical team the mercy-killing of his sick men or was his reason more noble and he was simply there to boost the morale of his sick men?  Whatever the reason was for Napoleon’s to visit his troops, Gros managed to portray Napoleon in this painting as a brave and selfless man.  Look carefully at the painting and see how Napoleon is depicted bravely touching the plague sore on one of his men (is this not similar to the biblical story of Jesus touching the leper?)    Standing behind Bonaparte is one of his officers covering his mouth for fear of infection.  Gros knew how to show Napoleon in a positive light and this contrast between Napoleon and his officer brought home to observers the courage of their leader.   It was for the way Gros was able to manipulate a situation so as to show Bonaparte in the best light that Bonaparte favoured him over all his artistic contemporaries.  This painting, the first Napoleonic masterpiece, was shown at the 1804 Salon de Paris around the time of Napoleon’s proclamation as emperor and his coronation and it received great acclaim and launched Gros’s career.

Gericault and Delacroix were Gros’s greatest admirers and Delacroix said of Gros:

“….Pictures by Gros have this power of projecting me into that spiritual state which I consider to be the strongest emotion that the art of painting can inspire…”