Antoine-Jean Gros

Painting a Pandemic: Napoleon Visiting the Sick | Stephen Basdeo

Stephen Basdeo is a writer and historian based in Leeds, UK. He has published books and articles on various subjects including the history of crime, radicalism, and socialism.

Antoine-Jean Gros, Bonaparte visitant les pestiférés de Jaffa. 1804. Oil on canvas. Louvre, Paris (Public Domain Reproduction Licensed under Wikimedia Commons)

Plagues have always left their mark on popular culture. The first recorded instance of bubonic plague, for example, appeared in the Bible. The desolation and destruction caused by plagues have also been represented in art, such as Nicholas Poussin’s Plague at Ashdod, as well as popular culture. Novels such as William Harrison Ainsworth’s Old Saint Paul’s (1841) retold the terror of the great plague of 1666. Mary Shelley’s The Last Man (1826) and Jack London’s Scarlet Plague (1912) have depicted the end of the world through plague. The social anarchy resulting from plague are obviously a mainstay of pop culture depictions; times of crisis often bring out the worst in humanity. Yet they can also bring out the best in humanity as well, and it is one human, at his best and most heroic, whom Antoine-Jean Gros decided to represent on canvas in 1804. The man was Napoleon Bonaparte, Emperor of the French.

The French Revolution began in 1789 when Louis XVI convened the Estates General to find a remedy for the nation’s parlous financial situation. From there events snowballed: the Third Estate formed the National Assembly and adopted a constitution; the royal family was put on trial and condemned to death via guillotine; Robespierre instituted his Reign of Terror to safeguard the revolution, during which over 40,000 people died; and events then stabilised somewhat under the rule of the Directoire government. Against this backdrop a young Corsican general was working his way up through the ranks of the French army and distinguishing himself in combat against the British and their allies. This man was Napoleon. France sought to weaken the power of Britain’s ally, the Ottoman Empire, who held sway over much of the Middle East including Jaffa. The French Siege of Jaffa, which lasted between 3 and 7 March 1799, was a decisive victory for Napoleon who entered the town on the last day. However, a plague struck the city and killed large numbers of both French soldiers and Ottoman citizens. Of course, Antoine-Jean Gros—who was one of Napoleon’s cheerleaders—in his painting of Napoleon visiting the plague-stricken victims at Jaffa depicts the plague as something that predominantly affects the Muslim populace. All but one of the plague victims are Muslims, and they have given themselves up to despair—their clothes are torn and shabby, much like previous paintings of plague epidemics. Meanwhile Napoleon appears statuesque and brave, fearlessly venturing into a veritable plague pit and helping the sick, thus combining the Enlightenment virtues of heroism and philanthropy.

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