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Napoleonic paintings
Napoleonic paintings

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2.2 Hero or great man?


Read the following passage from the Encydopédie article ‘Hero’, considering what qualities identify the hero as opposed to the great man. Which type of man seems to owe more to innate talent and genius? Which type of man can be identified with enlightened ideals?

A hero is defined as a man steadfast in difficulties, intrepid in peril and very valiant in combat; these qualities are linked more to temperament and to a certain configuration of the organs than to nobility of spirit. The great man is something very different -he joins the majority of moral virtues to talent and genius; he has only lofty and noble motives for his behaviour … The title of hero depends upon success, that of the great man does not always depend upon it. His principle is virtue which is as unshakeable in prosperity as in misfortune.

In short, humanity, gentleness and patriotism conjoined to talent constitute the virtues of the great man; bravura, courage, often temerity, knowledge of the art of war and military genius characterize to a greater extent the hero.

(Quoted in Johnson, 1993, p. 76)


The hero is above all a military figure; his principal quality is bravery in action, whereas the qualities of the great man are internal, moral ones. Whereas the qualities of the hero are part of his physical make-up and are simply what comes naturally to him, those of the great man seem to come from reflection and to provide him with a sense of direction. The hero is said to have military genius, which presumably means an innate instinct for what will work on the battlefield, while the great man is said to have moral virtues in addition to talent and genius. The implication seems to be that he has everything that the hero has and more – and also perhaps that he can claim more credit for his actions because they do not simply come naturally but require self-discipline, a striving after what is right.

The statement that the title of hero depends on success also suggests an element of chance and luck in the matter. By contrast, the great man is admirable because he sticks to his principles no matter what he goes through. Furthermore, since his virtues include ‘humanity, gentleness and patriotism’, it is clear that his superiority rests above all in his concern for other people. In this respect, as well as in his thoughtfulness, he can be seen to embody the ideals of the Enlightenment; as such, it is not surprising that the Encyclopédie should have presented him as more admirable. By comparison, the hero seems a rather problematic character, acting merely out of instinct and not obviously benefiting other people.

This text sheds light on the enlightened values that underlie Neoclassical art and helps reveal the ways in which Napoleonic portraiture departs from them. In the later eighteenth century, the commemoration of great men came to be considered one of art's principal functions; the aim was to inspire the viewer to emulate their virtuous, patriotic spirit. From 1775 onwards, the arts administration of the monarchy commissioned a series of statues of the great men of France, which only came to a halt with the Revolution. The cult of the great man culminated in the Revolution with the creation of the Pantheon in 1791. Among those subsequently buried there was the revolutionary journalist Marat, assassinated in 1793, whom David commemorated shortly afterwards in a famous painting; it can be seen to embody the enlightened ideal of the great man, whose virtuous life found its culmination in a noble death (see Plate 9 [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] ). David shows Marat at the moment of his death, slumped back in the bath in which he sat to soothe a skin disease, his pen still in his hand. The closed eyes, the light falling from above, the simple composition made up largely of horizontal and vertical lines, and the empty space above the figure together create a mood of great serenity, which implies that, just as he served his country in life with his pen, so he is glad to die for it. That Marat was a truly enlightened great man, humane as well as patriotic, is indicated by the note on the box that he has frugally been using as a table; it is a request for charity to a widow and her children, suggesting that he is a father to the poor. (In fact, Marat was a deeply controversial political figure, as widely reviled as revered.)

Click to see plate 9 Jacques-Louis David, The Death of Marat, 1793, oil on canvas, 160.7 x 124.8cm, Musées royaux des Beaux-Arts de Bel

As a posthumous portrait of a civilian, David's The Death of Marat is a very different type of image from Gros's Bonaparte at Arcole, which serves to promote the military career of a man who was not only very much alive but even (so the image suggests) invincible. Nevertheless, the contrast between the two paintings can help to elucidate the distinctive features of the Napoleonic image. First, whereas David universalizes his scene by depicting Marat naked and idealizing his notorious ugly face and diseased body – thereby turning him into a timeless, almost classical figure – the uniform and flag in Gros's painting locate the scene in a particular time and place. Bonaparte is thus identified as a modern figure, a specifically French hero. Moreover, whereas David's painting is above all a rational image, providing the viewer with evidence of the qualities which made Marat admirable, Gros's is an irrational one, seeking not to persuade or instruct but rather to overwhelm the viewer with the glamour of Bonaparte's appearance and the force of his personality. Some art historians have argued that David evokes traditional Christian imagery, notably depictions of the dead Christ; against this type of interpretation, it should be noted that the painting contains no hint of any supernatural element, no suggestion (for example) that Marat is going to be wafted up to heaven.

In it, traditional military heroism can be seen to dissolve into ‘an essentially modern notion of personal charisma’ (Prendergast, 1997, pp.122, 148). In describing the painting in these terms, there is a danger of projecting back on to this early portrait the fully fledged Napoleonic legend of later years. However, it also helps to distinguish this portrayal from those produced once Napoleon had embarked on a political career. As we will see, the image that he cultivated as ruler shifted away from the personal qualities of the hero towards the moral virtues of the great man. In general terms, it represents a compromise between the values of the Enlightenment (rationalism, humanity, etc.) and Romantic concerns (notably, in its emphasis on the quasi-magical ‘genius’ of the unique individual).