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Gros, Napoleon Bonaparte Visiting the Plague-Stricken in Jaffa

Video transcript
(jazzy music) Male: We're in the Musee du Louvre, and we're looking at Gros' massive canvas of Napoleon at the Pest House in Jaffa. Female: We're clearly not in Paris. Male: No, this is the Middle East. What's happening is the forces under Napoleon are fighting the British. In doing so, they came into contact with the plague. What Napoleon has done with his soldiers that have contracted plague is to put them in a kind of quarantine in a makeshift hospital in a mosque in Joffa, and according to the story, visited them in 1799. This painting was made five years later and is a really romantic and somewhat sanitized view of apparently what really happened. Female: By the time Napoleon commissions this, Napoleon is emperor of France where he had been just the general of the army when it actually happened. Napoleon obviously recognizes the enormous value of art as propaganda and so shows himself almost Christ-like visiting this makeshift hospital, disregarding the doctors and the fellow soldiers around him who are saying cover your mouth, don't breathe in the air here, this is very contagious. He walks through, Christ-like, unafraid of contagion, and even touches the sores of one of the plague victims. Male: Gros has actually borrowed directly from the [Belvedere] in his rendering of Napoleon. Napoleon is functioning as both Christ-like and borrowing directly from the greatest Classical tradition. The story itself is actually apparently a really nasty one because there were reports that Napoleon had actually forced his sick troops to drink laudanum in order to kill them. The other part of the story is that Napoleon had the prisoners that he had taken in battle bayoneted in part because he didn't want to have to be slowed down by them and he didn't want to waste his gunpowder on them. Female: So we have none of that sense of the truth of battle and war here. Male: No, this is pure propaganda. Female: This is pure propaganda for Napoleon who makes himself look like a divine leader. When I said at the beginning, "This isn't Paris," I said that in part because this would have looked very foreign and exotic to the viewers at the Paris Salon in 1804; clearly Islamic architecture, clearly a very far away place, figures wearing turbans and exotic clothing. In a way, part of the appeal of this painting was its exoticism and the beginnings, really, of orientalism. Male: It's interesting to see how Gros has handled the composition You have the figures in the foreground, a kind of stage set, that is really organized by the architecture and by that frieze of the Islamic arches that you had mentioned. Then, of course, we have this extraordinary expanse beyond it. We have the figures that have died or that are terribly sick in the shadows. Of course, Napoleon is lit by the sun. Female: We have that feeling of kind of Caravaggio lighting, extremes of light and dark, of strong dramatic contrasts in light, and that borrowing from Baroque art that we see in Romanticism. This is early for Romanticism, but still, we've clearly left Neoclassicism behind and we see artists beginning to take on this contemporary subject matter at the request of Napoleon who wants to document his rule and to use art as a kind of way to aggrandize himself. Male: He is hero, home and abroad. (jazzy music)