Bonaparte Visiting the Plague Victims of Jaffa

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Bonaparte visitant les pestiférés de Jaffa
Antoine-Jean Gros - Bonaparte visitant les pestiférés de Jaffa.jpg
Artist Antoine-Jean Gros
Year 1804
Type Oil on canvas
Dimensions 532 cm × 720 cm (209 in × 280 in)
Location Louvre, Paris

Bonaparte Visits the Plague Stricken in Jaffa (French: Bonaparte visitant les pestiférés de Jaffa) is an 1804 painting commissioned by Napoleon Bonaparte from Antoine-Jean Gros to portray an event during the Egyptian Campaign.[1] The scene shows Napoleon during a striking scene which occurred in Jaffa on 11 March 1799, when then General Bonaparte made a daring and spectacular visit to his sick soldiers. It was an attempt to quell unsavory rumours after Napoleon ordered that fifty incurable dying plague victims in Jaffa be poisoned (without complete success) during his retreat from his Syrian expedition.

This is part of the collection of French paintings at the Louvre.[1]

Context of its creation[edit]

On 18 September 1804, the painting was exhibited at the Salon de Paris, between Napoleon's proclamation as emperor on 18 May and his coronation at Notre-Dame de Paris on 2 December. Dominique Vivant Denon, who participated in Bonaparte's expedition to Egypt and was now director of the musée du Louvre, acted as advisor to Gros on it.

Composition[edit]

This painting uses elements of the composition of Jacques-Louis David's 1784 Oath of the Horatii, also held at the Louvre, such as the three arcades from Oath which defined three different worlds (the three sons making the oath in the left one; the father brandishing the swords in the middle; the women abandoned to sadness in the right-hand one), a principle taken up in this painting too.

It is set in a mosque, whose courtyard and minaret we can see in the background. Further into the background are the walls of Jaffa, with a breached tower above which flies an oversized French flag. The smoke from a fire, or excessive cannon smoke, dominates the town.

To the left, dominated by a typically Arabic art, a man richly-dressed in the oriental manner hands out bread, aided by a servant carrying a bread-basket. Behind them, two black men carry a stretcher, on which is a form, probably a cadaver. The two-coloured arcade opens out on a gallery full of the sick.

To the right, under two arcades, under a broken arch, is Napoleon, accompanied by his officers, touching the armpit bubo presented to him by one of the sick. In front of him, an Arab doctor is caring for another sick man, while a blind man struggles to approach the general. The bottom of the painting is occupied by prostrate and extended men. The light of the painting and the play of colours all paint Bonaparte's gesture in the best possible light.

Analysis of the scene[edit]

The capture and violent sack of Jaffa by the French army under Bonaparte on 7 March 1799 were rapidly followed by an outbreak of bubonic plague, identified by January 1799, which decimated the army. On 11 March, Bonaparte made a spectacular visit to his sick soldiers, touching them, which was considered to be either magnificent or suicidal according to one's point of view on the Napoleonic legend or of the terrors of an age of plagues.

The sick man with bandaged eyes on the right is suffering from blindness as well as plague. Since the army's arrival in Egypt in July 1798, several French had suffered serious eye problems due to the sand, dust and extreme light of the sun.

In 1804, there was no question of representing this as other than a daring deed by Bonaparte, but the officer behind Napoleon tries to stop him touching the bubo. The means by which bubonic plague spread were still unknown at the start of the 19th century, and the flea's role in its transmission was unknown until Paul-Louis Simond found evidence for it in 1898. Touching a bubo with a bare hand was not particularly risky, since all the other actors in the scene are (we now know) running exactly the same risk of transmission of the disease by fleas. The left-hand officer's action of holding something over his mouth and nose is not entirely unjustified, however - certain cases of bubonic plague can evolve into a pulmonary plague, with a highly elevated risk of infection from aerosols emitted by patients' coughs.

Medical efforts to stop the plague, seen a little further to the right, were unchanged since the Middle Ages - an old doctor is incising the bubos to let the pus flow out, which is in fact inefficient in terms of treating the disease, and also weakens the patient. He has already operated on a bubo under the raised right arm of his patient, who holds a bloodied compress under his arm, and is wiping his blade ready to incise a second bubo. The doctor's assistant supports the patient during the operation. The bodies are sick, languishing, and the hero is less heroic for being surrounded by ordinary people. Idealism and classicism were abandoned in favour of a certain romanticism. In effect, this is suffering in painted form, which was a novelty - previously only noble deaths were painted.

On 23 April 1799, during the siege of Acre, Bonaparte suggested to Desgenettes, the expedition's chief doctor, that the sick should be administered a fatal-level dose of opium - that is, mercy-killed. Desgenettes refused. On 27 May that same year, Napoleon made a second visit to the plague victims.

In the context of the Troubadour style, and especially at the moment when Napoleon was becoming emperor, this episode evoked the tradition of the thaumaturgical royal touch which the French kings carried out with sufferers of scrofula.

The Mysterious "32"[edit]

External video
Napoléon visitant les pestiférés de Jaffa.jpg
Gros's Napoleon Bonaparte Visiting the Plague-Stricken in Jaffa, Smarthistory[2]

A longstanding question concerning the interpretation of the painting is the significance of the number "32" on the hat of one of the patients. Since Gros, the artist, was 32 years old at the time at the composition, the shy, naked prisoner may in fact be a hidden self-portrait.

See also[edit]

Footnotes[edit]

Sources[edit]

External links[edit]

This article incorporates information from the German Wikipedia.