Napoleon Bonaparte Visiting the Plague Victims of Jaffa

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Antoine-Jean Gros, Napoleon Bonaparte Visiting the Plague Victims of Jaffa, 1804
By KATHERINE GRABOWSKY

At 17 feet high and 23 feet wide, Jean-Antoine Gros created a masterpiece to last for the ages. This piece of artwork was displayed at the salon in 1804 and was the first Napoleonic history painting. Gros fostered a relationship with Napoleon and his wife in 1793. In 1796, he recreated an event he witnessed of Napoleon’s army outflanking the Austrian troops at the Battle of Arcole. Napoleon enjoyed how the painting represented the French army, and allowed Napoleon to follow the army to paint future French victories. For this reason, Gros created this depiction of the army.

Because Bonaparte commissioned this painting, Gros had the task of illustrating him in a favorable way. The light illuminates the picture to draw the eye towards the scene of Napoleon. Hidden in the darker areas are the dead or dying army victims of the bubonic plague. Napoleon stands in the Jaffa mosque, which has been transformed into a military hospital. With his bare hands, he touches a plague sore on one of his troop members. This courageous act seems to suggest that Bonaparte has no fears or concerns for his own health. He appears as a man dedicated to his troops. Historians often question his motives for visiting the mosque. Was he there to boost morale because of his dedication to his troops (as Napoleon would like you to think)? Or was he simply there to assess the situation and decide whether he should abandon his troops? History suggests that sometimes Bonaparte even ordered the death of prisoners he could not afford and poisoned troops dying from the plague. Yes, Gros paints a masterpiece and symbolizes Bonaparte as a saint, but he also rewrites history. 

“Ozymandias” by Percy Bysshe Shelley presents all of Napoleon’s fears. Though the painting shows him as fearless, the fact that he commissioned this to be painted presents one of his concerns. Napoleon did not want to be a figure who fades away into the never-ending cycle of history. He wanted to stand out and be remembered, years from now. The fact that I am sitting here writing this blog post attests to the fact that his goal was met—to an extent. “Round the decay; Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare; the lone and level sands stretch far away,” Shelley writes, suggesting that Ozymandias, supposed “king of kings” has not left a legacy. To the poet, he appears as a lost traveler; the kind of lost traveler that Napoleon does not want to become.

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