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Friday, February 3, 2023
Eye for Art: Napoleon visits plague victims

Penny-Lynn Cookson
Special to Niagara Now/The Lake Report

In the days when nothing went viral except disease, how authorities dealt with crises and communicated their message was a matter of concern as great then as it is today. 

A case in point is the Egyptian campaign of Napoleon Bonaparte in the Levant and North Africa in 1799.

In the painting, “Napoleon Visiting the Plague Victims of Jaffa” by Antoine-Jean Gros, we see the brilliant young general from Corsica who had not only led victorious French armies to conquer most of Europe but was challenging the Ottoman Empire in the east. 

The French had taken Egypt, Syria and, after a five-day siege, the Mediterranean port city of Jaffa, but they hadn’t reckoned on another enemy, the bubonic plague.

The scene is set in a French army plague “hospital” in the arched courtyard of the Armenian Monastery of St. Nicholas in Jaffa. 

In the foreground are sprawled bodies too weak to look up at the visitors. To the left, a wealthy Arab distributes bread into the thrusting hands of beggars. On the right, a collapsed delirious French officer rests his arm on a dying compatriot. A blind man, seeking help, inches forward.

 In the centre, in a blaze of light, Napoleon, resplendent in his uniform, body full frontal, his head turned to face an emaciated soldier, reaches out his hand to touch the man’s open sore. His aide, reacting to the smell and fear of contagion, holds a handkerchief to his nose. His personal physician, lifts a restraining hand, which Napoleon ignores. 

The message is clear. Napoleon as hero, invincible, brave, god-like, with a strong reference to the compassionate Christ when he touched and cleansed the lepers thereby spreading the message of faith in his healing power.

Was the painting true to facts? Yes, the French had taken Jaffa but had been thrown back in the north by the Ottomans and were retreating to Cairo.  Napoleon had ordered over 2,500 prisoners of war to be killed as guarding them would delay the retreat and freeing them would create more enemies to fight. 

What about the sick French soldiers? Debatable. British propaganda was that Napoleon ordered they be given laudanum to hasten their deaths as they would be left behind to their fate. Denied. Did this scene actually take place? Again debatable.

The importance of the painting, commissioned by the state, was its propaganda value to celebrate Napoleon’s divine power for posterity. It was unveiled in 1804 in the period between Napoleon’s proclamation as emperor of France in May and his coronation in December. 

The Egyptian campaign ushered in the late Neo-Classicism “Empire Period” in French decorative and visual art. It was to become a boon for Egyptian travel and archeology and was a precursor of “Orientalist” art in the 19th century.

Penny-Lynn Cookson is an art historian who taught at the University of Toronto for 10 years. She also was head of extension services at the Art Gallery of Ontario. See her upcoming lecture series “Art and Revolution, From Cave Art to the Future Thursdays” on Zoom, March 11 to April 29 at RiverBrink Art Museum in Queenston.

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