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Napoleonic paintings
Napoleonic paintings

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3.1.1 Bonaparte Visiting the Plague-Stricken of Jaffa

First and foremost, Jaffa (like Eylau) contributed to the personality cult of Napoleon, which formed the core of the regime's propaganda. In this respect, however, it is important to note that this painting, exhibited in the Salon of 1804, was actually one of the first military scenes commissioned by the regime to exalt Napoleon in this way. This was largely because it took some time before the propaganda machine needed to organize a large-scale system of official patronage was in place. After Bonaparte seized power, David hoped to be given responsibility for running government art policy himself; in 1800 he was offered the title of ‘painter to the government’ but turned it down, apparently because it lacked the powers that he wanted. It was not until the end of 1802 that the administrator who was to be in charge of running the system was appointed; he was Dominique-Vivant Denon (1747–1825) and the new post that he filled was director general of the Musee Napoleon (as the museum in the Louvre was known at that time; the wing of the Louvre in which French paintings of this period now hang is named after Denon). Although a number of military paintings were commissioned in an ad hoc fashion during the consulate (including Jaffa), it was only during the empire that propaganda art was produced on a large scale.

To start with, moreover, military painting did not necessarily glorify Napoleon himself. When this genre was revived around 1800 after a long period in which paintings of battles were relatively uncommon, it was primarily in order to celebrate the bravery of all ranks of the French army, common soldiers as well as officers. Just days after the battle of Nazareth was fought in 1799, Bonaparte announced a competition for a painting to commemorate the event, one of the few successes of his Egyptian campaign, which he claimed as a great victory; it was not a personal triumph, however, since the French troops had been led on this occasion by another general. When the competition eventually took place in 1801, the government provided the artists with a summary account of the battle, singling out a number of individual acts of courage. The oil sketches submitted as competition entries were exhibited in the Louvre; the winner was Gros, who had made careful use of the documentation provided (see Plate 16 [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] ). What is striking about his sketch is, on the one hand, its immediacy and dynamism and, on the other, its lack of a single focus of interest. The composition consists, as you might expect from the brief, of numerous distinct groups of figures; the French commander, General Junot (on a white horse), does not dominate the scene but is set well back. A number of critics at the time objected to this lack of dramatic unity, which transgressed the hierarchical conventions of traditional history painting, in which the centre of attention is the most important person in the scene.

Click to see plate 16 Antoine-Jean Gros, The Battle of Nazareth, 1801, oil sketch, 135 x 195 cm, Musée des Beaux Arts, Nantes. Photo: Bridgeman Art Library

Significantly, the commission was subsequently cancelled; Gros never worked up his sketch of The Battle of Nazareth into the vast painting, some 7.6 metres (25 feet) wide, decreed by the terms of the competition. Although there may well have been other reasons, the decision must have been largely determined by the increasingly exclusive propaganda cult of Napoleon. The painting Gros produced instead, Bonaparte Visiting the Plague-Stricken of Jaffa (see Plate 3), testifies to the authoritarian nature of the new regime on a number of levels. For one thing, it was not commissioned by means of the democratic system of the competition, which had become the standard method of distributing official patronage during the Revolution. Instead, it was commissioned on Bonaparte's own initiative, apparently without even consulting Denon. Arguably, moreover, whereas Gros's composition for The Battle of Nazareth has a democratic structure that accords with the republican ideals of the Revolution, Jaffa adopts the hierarchic structure of traditional history painting (as noted in the previous paragraph).


Click to see plate 3 Antoine-Jean Gros, Bonaparte Visiting the Plague-Stricken of Jaffa, 1804, oil on canvas, 532.1 x 720cm, Louvre, Paris. Photo: Bridgeman Art Library

Compare Jaffa (Plate 3) to The Battle of Nazareth (Plate 16), thinking about the ways in which the composition of the former conforms to the traditional model of history painting. How might you see it as less democratic, more authoritarian? Bear in mind not only relationships between the figures within the painting but also your relationship, as viewer, to the picture.


Instead of giving equal attention to soldiers of different ranks and making it hard to work out who exactly is the commanding officer, as he did in The Battle of Nazareth, Gros places the most important figure, Bonaparte, in the centre of the scene in accordance with the traditions of history painting. Also, since the figure scale is much larger in Jaffa, Bonaparte takes up proportionally more of the picture than any of the figures in The Battle of Nazareth. He wears a splendid uniform which makes him stand out from the other figures, most of whom are either dressed in flowing robes or naked. He is the focus of attention, both for the figures in the painting, several of whom turn to look at him, and for us, the viewers, whose gaze is directed towards him; he is a commanding figure in every sense of the phrase. By comparison, The Battle of Nazareth is more democratic not simply in terms of equalizing soldiers of different ranks but also in allowing the viewer's eye to wander over it freely.