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Gros, Napoleon Bonaparte Visiting the Plague-Stricken in Jaffa

Video transcript

(cheerful music) - [Dr. Zucker] We're in one of the large painting galleries in the Louvre in Paris looking at a canvas that is absolutely enormous. This is by Gros, "The Pesthouse at Jaffa." - [Dr. Harris] At the time, Jaffa was in Syria. Today, this is in Israel. - [Dr. Zucker] We're seeing an event that took place, although we're also seeing a painter take liberties. - [Dr. Harris] This is a piece of propaganda. This painting was commissioned by Napoleon, both to counter some bad publicity, but also to present an image of himself as noble, heroic, and even God-like. Napoleon is shown visiting the victims of the plague during this military campaign. - [Dr. Zucker] Napoleon touching the man with plague against his doctor's advice, who's trying to warn him away from doing this, is a reference to the biblical story of Christ healing the sick or Saint Thomas putting his finger in the wound in Christ's side as proof of Christ's resurrection. If you start in the lower right corner and move up towards the Napoleon, you get almost a spectrum from death and dying to just terrible sickness, to the heroic, completely unaffected figure of Napoleon. The figure at the bottom right clearly dead. The French soldier just above him is so sick he can't even look at Napoleon. - [Dr. Harris] Above them we see a figure who's been blinded groping his way toward Napoleon. - [Dr. Zucker] On the left we see two men giving bread to the sick. Now, although Napoleon is represented here as a hero, making no mistake, this was a brutal war. - [Dr. Harris] Gros is drawing on a tradition of Christian iconography, of Christian subject matter, using that as a way to communicate not Christ's divine status or ability to perform miracles, but Napoleon's superhuman powers. Napoleon is resistant to disease. He can walk through this hospital unafraid. The soldier next to him can't stand the stench of the sick and the dying and holds his handkerchief up to his nose. But Napoleon walks with a sense of complete confidence. - [Dr. Zucker] And here he is in the land that Christ lived in, in the holy land. - [Dr. Harris] Yet, for a French Christian audience, this scene was very exotic. It was not something at all familiar to French audiences. This is decades before the invention of photography. And so, the details here would have been fascinating to the Salon goers, those who attended the exhibition in Paris. - [Dr. Zucker] The artist does certain things to make the foreignness of this of this place more familiar to the French public. He raises a French flag on the hill behind, framed in the central arch, and he places men in French military uniform. So we're looking at a place that is controlled by the French. - [Dr. Harris] Napoleon asking Gros to commemorate this event begins a process of freeing artists from the typical subject matter that was favored by the Royal Academy of history paintings, paintings of historical events from ancient Greece and Rome or biblical subjects, and begins to give them the freedom to paint contemporary events. We can think of Gericault's "Raft of the Medusa" or Delacroix's "Massacre at Chios." Napoleon understood the value of the visual arts in terms of conveying an ennobled, idealized, heroic image of himself. - [Dr. Zucker] There are numerous portraits by David, by Ingres of Napoleon, and perhaps the grandest of all "The Coronation of Napoleon" by David. This is the first of a series of major paintings that celebrate Napoleon the man, the emperor, and in this case almost the god. (cheerful music)