Given the political climate in the Middle East since January, I have found some interesting parallels between this exploration of Napoleon and current discussions of despotism in the Middle East.
Oriental Nationalism: Gros’ Napoleon at the Pesthouse of Jaffa
Napoleon at the Pesthouse of Jaffa, Antoine-Jean Gros, 1804. Oil on canvas. Musée du Louvre, Paris.
In his now seminal canvas, Napoleon at the Pesthouse of Jaffa (1804), Antoine-Jean Gros depicts Napoleon Bonaparte visiting French soldiers sicken by an outbreak of the bubonic plague in a mosque in Jaffa that had been converted into a hospital for plague sufferers. Napoleon stands just right of center, bathed in light, surrounded in front and to his right by Frenchmen succumbing to disease. At his immediate back stand two well Frenchmen in uniform, aghast at his bare, outstretched hand investigating the pustules in a sickened man’s armpit. To his right stand robed and turbaned men attending to the sick seated, slouched, and lying on straw mats on the floor of the mosque. In fact the few scattered non-European figures in the painting are all well-dressed and well-mannered figures attending to the needs of the sick. None of the sick are non-European. The human interaction between the well and the ill takes place in front of an arcade that opens onto the mosque’s courtyard. In the distance, the viewer discerns the other arcaded sides of the courtyard, the mosque’s minaret and the rise of a hilled and walled site in the distance, presumably the city’s citadel, complete with unfurled and full-masted French flag atop. The sky is turbulent with clouds, the sun breaking through only in scattered places, and the mysterious light source bathing Napoleon and those immediately around him in light is indiscernible and does not extend to the front or edges of the picture plane which are shrouded nearly entirely in darkness.
Napoleon at the Pesthouse of Jaffa, detail, Antoine-Jean Gros.
Napoleon at the Pesthouse of Jaffa was commissioned by Napoleon Bonaparte and overseen by the arts administrator Vivant Denon. The painting was an “epic machine tasked with depicting, retrospectively, the Egyptian campaign to the French people.” A carefully controlled amalgam of Napoleon’s Syrian campaign, the painting has served many historians in their bids to read Gros’ work as hero-worship of Napoleon and propaganda for his regime. It is easy, as many have done, to read Messianic imagery in Napoleon’s upright, contraposto stance with the out stretched hand touching, fearlessly, the wounds of the ill. He is, for all intensive proposes, Christ reaching out and laying hands on Lazarus. Similarly, as noted by Darcy Grimaldo Grigsby, he is Rationality touching irrationality. Instead of a monarch touching the ill as means of healing through divine intercession, Napoleon is a mortal man reaching out and touching the sick to show his fearlessness in the face of the disease, but also to show that the disease was not transmitted through touch. Napoleon and his doctors, fearful of an even worse plague of fear and imagination among the troops, had long denied that the plague was what sickened soldiers but rather a fever, and that it was not contagious by touch.
Napoleon at the Pesthouse of Jaffa, detail of Napoleon's hand, Antoine-Jean Gros.
Grigsby eschews the scholarship before her, which elucidates only a Christ-like reading of Napoleon without proper contextualization of why such an image was important at that time. This paper, unlike Grigsby’s theses of sexualized imagery and homoerotic subtext, is not concerned with the Orientalizing and feminizing of the sickened French soldiers but with the political and artistic climate of France, which made such an image successful. As Grigsby notes fleetingly, and off-handedly answers at the end of her essay: “What, one must ask, are the terms to which Napoleon’s authority are opposed?” The answer lies, not in the French troops slouched, crumpled and supine on the floor of the mosque in the painting, but in the tightly controlled message of why the Egyptian expedition was embarked upon and what happened during the trip. The truth of what happened at Jaffa was controlled in France until Napoleon’s deposition when it became a rallying cry for his detractors. Gros’ painting, as with Napoleon’s reign, was a amalgamation of dichotomies: rooted in classical language but also a deviation, heroic depiction of a leader while also revealing the crime, truth and spun propaganda. In the end it is not just the sick French soldiers who serve as the Other, it is Napoleon himself who is Othered, for he becomes the spitting image of the despot he rallied his troops against in Egypt.
Map of Napoleon's campaign in Egypt.
England and France had been vying for control of territories from India to North America to the South Seas since the 1600s. The advantages of such control were obvious to all involved. France’s interest in Egypt has been noted by some to come after a consideration of invading the British Isles, which was dismissed given the size and might of the British Navy. Rather, the French government entertained at least a dozen proposed exhibitions into Egypt between 1774 and 1798. After all, as noted by a counselor to Louis XVI, “Egypt belongs to nobody.” Napoleon’s plan was brazen and ill timed. After all France was coming out of a Revolution that had left it’s economy and its streets trashed. The streets and alleys of Paris ran with sewage and smelled worse than they had in the Middle Ages. The anti-monarchist country that had killed its king was still faced with royalist nations pushing at its borders, a climate not traditionally conducive to launching a large military and academic campaign so far from the homeland. But the French wanted their piece of the colonial pie, and the hope was that Egypt would be the penultimate gateway to large swathes of Asian and African territories under French control. As such Napoleon Bonaparte launched his campaign into Egypt, achieving early success in Lower Egypt but losing later when Admiral Nelson destroyed the French fleet, isolating Napoleon’s army from Europe. Napoleon turned his attentions and his troops to the north, to Syria (modern day Israel), following the disastrous loss to Nelson. He advanced as far as Acre but could not take the city, even after a two-month siege. It was during this campaign that the plague struck, especially hard in Jaffa to the south, and forced Napoleon to retreat. Almost half of the men he had left Cairo with did not return.
This brings us back to Gros and the now infamous depiction of Napoleon’s visit to the hospital in Jaffa where his sick and dying men were treated. The scene, purportedly, depicts an actual occurrence of Napoleon visiting his men. The battle of Jaffa was launched on March 7, 1799, where French soldiers killed at least 2,000 Ottoman soldiers prior to two days of raping and slaughtering of civilians. Approximately, 2,500 to 3,000 Ottoman soldiers took to the citadel for refuge, refusing to surrender until the French assured them that they would not be killed. Napoleon, however, promptly ordered their slaughter once they left their refuge. To conserve gunpowder, Napoleon ordered his troops to take the Ottoman soldiers to the sea and kill them with their bayonets. The most scandalous part of the Syrian expedition to Europeans was not the horrendous treatment of Syrian civilians and Ottoman soldiers, but Napoleon’s treatment of his own men.
The plague had initially broken out in the summer of 1798 while the French were still in Egypt. The plague became a significant problem for the French army only while in Syria when 1,300 of the 13,000 French troops contracted the disease with 1,000 of them dying. A makeshift hospital was set up in Jaffa, but not in a mosque as is depicted by Gros, but in an Armenian monastery. The magisterial image is constructed by Gros in more ways than just location. Upon retreat from the city in May of 1799, Napoleon ordered his doctors to poison all bed-ridden soldiers who remained. Doses of laudanum were administered to all who remain, but as noted by David O’Brien, some men vomited the dosage and lived to tell their tales to the English who occupied the city after the French.
Napoleon I on His Imperial Throne, Antoine-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. 1806, Oil on canvas. Musée de l'Amée, Paris.
The Jaffa legend extends beyond the crimes committed by Napoleon and his men while they were there, especially for Napoleon’s detractors. As David O’Brien notes, “when Bonaparte abandoned his army in Egypt, leaving it to certain destruction, Jaffa became a synecdoche for the entire expedition, encapsulating the acts of betrayal and callous disregard for human life that characterized the whole affair.” The Napoleon of Gros, Ingres, and David – a regal man, a messianic figure – is not representative of the fierce political environment of France at the time. Napoleon was presiding over a deeply divided country, torn between scheming Jacobin and Royalist groups both angling for power. France’s political and art worlds were equally torn between what was before Napoleon and what was during Napoleon. Politically, Napoleon wasn’t the secure authoritative figure presiding over a unified country. There were numerous failed assassination attempts and conspiracies, which “undermined the government’s ability to present an image of stability and permanence.” The post-Revolution art world of France was weary of history painting, which it no longer trusted and was the subject of intense derision amongst Salon painters. The lack of government intervention into Salon artists’ work during and since the Revolution suited a cadre of Jacobin painters just fine, while others David included still sought up front government commissions with little intention of completing the work. Even though the Salon itself was unclear on whether or not modern events belonged within the scope of history painting, Napoleon sought to invigorate such work. With his decree of October 1802, he wanted four large canvases produced every year devoted to French history. Even with the decree, no significant works were completed.
Napoleon Crossing the Alps, Jacques-Louis David. 1800, Oil on canvas. Musée National du Château de Malmaison.
The enormous success of Gros’ painting at the Salon of 1804 changed the game entirely. The immediate embrace of the painting by his peers established Gros as a major painter of his day and established the visibility of large-scale propagandistic representations of contemporary events depicted in the language of classical history painting. The chaos of the arts scene during the Revolution seemed over in 1804. Not only due to the appearance and success of Gros’ canvas at the Salon but also because Napoleon became a protector, of sorts, for artists, so long as they “only had eyes for him.”
Napoleon at the Pesthouse of Jaffa was not Gros’ only work depicting Napoleon during the Egyptian campaign. Gros painted the Battle of Nazareth (1801), Battle of Aboukir (1806), and Napoleon Haranguing the Army Before the Battle of the Pyramids (1810). In these images, unlike Jaffa, Napoleon and his troops are violently clashing with Arab soldiers in with bloodshed and horrific carnage strewn around the picture plane. The intention in the battle scenes is clear: make Napoleon look like the triumphant general fearlessly leading his troops into battle. Do not let the salacious bloodshed fool you; these war scenes are as much operatic constructions of the Napoleon legend as Jaffa. As O’Brien notes, “Bonaparte was defeated in Egypt, and on some level that failure had to be explained in his propaganda.” Gros and his fellow Napoleonic painters as well as the significant painters of the Restoration (1815-1830) never traveled to the Orient. These images were ordered by Napoleon, overseen by his administrator and then
The Battle of Nazareth, Antoine-Jean Gros. 1801, Oil on canvas. Musée des Beaux-Arts, Nantes.
carefully, purposefully positioned in the Salon in such an arrangement as to effect the biggest impact on the public. His [Gros’] later paintings were no exception to this arrangement. In the case of Jaffa, and the battle scenes, the aim of Gros’ brush was to craft an image that spoke to the larger cultural contrasts between the French and the Arab Other that they engaged while on the campaign. In the case of Battle of Nazareth, Napoleon skillfully insisted on naming the battle after the city of Nazareth (even though it actually took place in Loubia) so as to conjure images of the Holy Family and to reinforce the notion of the campaign as a latter-day crusade.
The Battle of Aboukir, Antoine-Jean Gros. 1806, Oil on canvas. Musée du Château, Versailles.
Similarly, in the case of Jaffa the painting countered a number of charges lobbed against Napoleon: “instead of a general abandoning his army in a foreign land, it represented a caring leader risking his life to raise the troops’ morale, and instead of a ruthless, self-interested executioner, it showed a compassionate, humane man with seemingly supernatural healing powers.” Unlike the Nazareth of Aboukir, where Napoleon is calm in the face of danger, valiantly leading his men into battle against fatalistic Arabs (their faces drawn in scowls to further set them apart), here Napoleon is not calm in the face of confrontation from an Other, but rather in the face of disease. It is his own men he must fear. O’Brien latches onto Grigsby’s astute theory that it is the sickened Frenchmen who are the Other, but neither discuss the presence of the Arab figure; which is present, is not threatening or attacking, and is upright, a point glaringly missed by Grigsby. In fact, here in Jaffa, by the brush of Gros, the fearsome Arab is turned savior, for he is the Turkish doctor lancing the bubo of the sickened Frenchman kneeling before Napoleon.
Napoleon Haranguing the Army Before the Battle of the Pyramids, Antoine-Jean Gros. 1810, Oil on canvas. Musée National du Château, Versailles.
Gros’ roots in the Neoclassical tradition, particularly due to his tutelage in the atelier of Jacques-Louis David, are noticeable in the composition of Jaffa. While Grigsby uses Oath of the Horatii as evidence of a tradition Gros deviates from in Jaffa, I will use David’s masterpiece as a tradition Gros grows out of and whose charged narrative Gros capitalizes for his veiled critique of Napoleon.
Oath of the Horatii, Jacques-Louis David. 1785, Oil on canvas. Musée du Louvre, Paris.
The interior scene is set with an arcade in the background past which the viewer is unable to discern. Center stage: a man holding three swords aloft between his person and those of three Roman soldiers. Behind the central man, swooning, despondent women lean on one another, their eyes down cast, avoiding the scene. Though based on the account of the Roman salute by Livy, the scene is of David’s own creation. The men are upright and active, engaged in some kind of ceremonial process. A light shaft rakes across the scene from a source unknown to the viewer, filling the room with light casting the shadows to an even dark black. Gros, David’s student, takes up the foreground scene, employing the arcade as divider between that which is essential and important to the scene and that, which is not. A similar unknown light shaft rakes across Gros’ scene, though David fully illuminates nearly his entire cast while Gros leaves all but the central figures in shadow. Gros color palette is not the somber, subdued palette of the Neoclassical, which places the narrative above the painting itself. Rather, Gros embraces warm saturated hues, tones that feed a celebratory, Messianic reading of Napoleon.
The warmth of reds and golden ambers in Jaffa as well as the mysterious glow surrounding Napoleon further separate student from master. But the charged narrative remains in Gros’ work. In David’s painting it is a familial oath pledged before battle, in Gros’ painting the agonizing deaths of soldiers from the plague and the possibility of recovery at the hands of their leader.
It is here that Grigsby’s work fails most significantly. In her pursuit of evidence to support her claim that the sickly and dying French soldiers represent a feminized Other, she distorts the relationship between master and student. Gros was not deviating from the Neoclassical; he was implementing classical language and traditions anew. His painting of Napoleon at Jaffa was equal parts glory-filled propaganda, for the Messianic connections cannot be missed, and critique. Gros benefited from his relationship to power. He was repeatedly asked to paint problematic subjects in which Napoleon’s crimes needed to be concealed and his triumphs exalted, or in this case created. In this vein, Gros was a sharpened tool of propaganda and of the nationalism prevalent in France during and after the Revolution. However, Gros’ response to these requests was a blending of both the heroizing of Napoleon and graphic depictions of violence. For as much as Jaffa is about Napoleon visiting his troops, laying his hands on the sick, it is about the horrors of the Syrian campaign and France’ involvement in Egypt, and the process of colonialism generally, too.
Though Grigsby was right to identify the lack of explication of this work by Gros by other scholars and appropriately sought and elucidated alternative readings of the painting, she misses, nearly entirely, the political climate in France post-Revolution as well as the act of colonialism and the fallout thereof until the very end of her essay when the body politic is shoved gracelessly into the concluding paragraph. The wounded and battered body politic of France should, I believe come first. Any readings of the feminization of homoerotic subtexts of the painting should be second to the discussion of why Napoleon needed such a glorifying depiction of himself. The highly censored, repressive regime that Napoleon created had to be dominated by his message and his images to avoid unrest and to control his troops and the public at large. Napoleon became the very despot he went to Egypt to destroy. It is this contribution that keeps Jaffa from slipping into arid propaganda. It is easy after Grigsby to read the plague ridden French soldiers as the Other, as the object of Gros’ Orientalist gaze; but it is harder though more important to see Napoleon in the same gaze. This time France had instead of a monarchy with divine pretenses an Enlightened despot who ruled with the same barbaric fist that colonialism was supposed to root out in the Orient. Therefore, it is of little surprise that anti-Napoleonic sentiment and detractors turned to this painting as a basis of protest against the Napoleonic regime.
The authors cited in this paper, with the exception of selected primary sources in footnotes and the inclusion of J. Christopher Herold, are all post Edward Said’s Orientalism. Be that as it may, none of the author’s question Said’s discussion of the French campaign in Egypt, nor is a critical light shone onto narrowness of Said’s telling of the French involvement in Egypt. Grigsby not only cites Orientalism, but she also cites a passage from Joseph Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness, a book and author Said worked with extensively prior to Orientalism. Heart of Darkness also deeply impacted Orientalism for Said, and for Grigsby, apparently. Grigsby’s argument benefits from the binary construction of Orientalism; she revels in flipping what she calls the Neoclassical binary of strong man-weak woman around and present dominate vertical Frenchman-supine subordinate Frenchman. But in doing so, as previously noted and cited above, Grigsby weakens her argument by not breaking out of binary blinders, as it were, and placing both Gros’ painting and the French Egyptian campaign in a broader context of French political upheaval during the Revolution that had to be squelched in order for Napoleon to be successful. Grigsby’s rush to seek an alternative reading on Gros from the previous (stale) scholarship labeling him a propagandist and nothing more, takes her out of range for a valid and needed discussion on the fraught tension between French Enlightenment despot and his public.
David O’Brien, writing after Grigsby, errs on the opposite side, too conservative. His introduction pushes at the tension between Napoleon and his deeds and the image he desired to present the public, but still perpetuates Gros’ role as propagandist.
Stuart Harten picks up Orientalism and agrees, whole cow, with Said’s position that “Bonaparte’s expedition to Egypt was the enabling project for all subsequent Orientalist enterprises.”
The result is, that even after Said, even after a discourse has opened up to more honestly explicate Orientalist images, no such dialogue – with the exception of Grigsby – has dared to draw a new line in the sand. Grigsby’s argument may verge on irresponsible at times – with the lack of larger contextualization and political awareness – but at least her argument opens up new frontiers. The same cannot be said for other scholars operating with the same material.
Napoleon had to control his public French citizens were wary of political propaganda, tired of monarchical power gone too far, and thirsty for a champion of the people. With his ever-present starched uniform and fearless quest for France’s new frontier, Napoleon was the Messiah France needed. But all roads did not lead to Paris for Napoleon and the detours had to be glossed over if he was going to avoid the guillotine. Gros, eager to become the prominent painter he had toiled to become in David’s atelier, was all to eager to please. But Napoleon’s pleasure came at a higher cost than Napoleon bargained for. Jaffa was equal parts the desired gloss Napoleon needed to keep France’s attention tuned to the cultural accomplishments of the campaign and away from the failures, and scathing critique of a general who abandoned his troops in the care of the fearsome Turks they had fought.
 The oil on canvas, now housed at the Museé du Louvre, Paris, France, is 17 feet 5.5 inches by 23 feet 7.5 inches in size. It should be noted that the painting is known by a variety of titles: Bonaparte Visiting the Plague House of Jaffa, Napoleon Visiting the Pesthouse at Jaffa, etc. The title used in this project is the most frequently used title and the closet to the most popular variations.
 This point was clarified by David O’Brien in “Antoine-Jean Gros in Italy,” Burlington Magazine 137, no. 4, October 1995, 651-660. Prior to the publication of this article scholarship asserted that the painting was commissioned not by Bonaparte but by his wife Josephine. This was the case due to, as noted by Darcy Grimaldo Grigsby in Extremities: Painting Empire in Post-Revolutionary France (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002), 66 n9, a letter previously published between Napoleon and his wife in which he chastises her for not getting Gros to agree to a better price. Further more, the O’Brien article reiterates the point that oversight of the commission was handled by Vivant Denon, Director of the Musée Central des Arts at the time. Grigsby also notes that Denon had previously promised the commission to another artist, Guérin, but that Napoleon announced one day in the Louvre that he wanted Gros to execute the work and as such Gros was given the commission. It should be noted, as David O’Brien does in After the Revolution: Antoine-Jean Gros – Painting and Propaganda Under Napoleon (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2006), that Denon forged a relationship with Napoleon by “securing a position as a savant in the Egyptian expedition.” (92) O’Brien notes further that when he [Denon] returned to France in 1799, he wrote the immensely popular work: Voyage in Lower and Upper Egypt During the Campaigns of General Bonaparte (1802). Despite this accomplishment, when he received his post as Director it was quite a coup. He was put in charge of not only overseeing works of art commissioned by Bonaaparte but he was also in charge of selection and display on works in the Salon.
 Grigsby 72-73 n34: “Emmanuel Comte de Las Cases: “Fear caused [the disease’s] spread more than anything else. The principal seat of the plague was in the imagination. During the Egyptian campaign all those whose imagination was struck by fear died of it. The surest protection, the most efficacious remedy, was moral courage.” … An Enlightenment model of rationality has been superimposed on the sacred tradition of the healing king…Physical contact with an ill man appears to be rationally justified (if ineffectual), not courageous…Napoleon’s heroism does not reside in his willingness to touch an ill man, who is, after all, not contagious. Rather, his heroism lies in his “moral courage” and his conviction – that is, his capacity to maintain his rationality – in the midst of horror.”
 Fear, notes Grigsby, was “palpable and pervasive.” She insists that this is the context with which the viewer must read the painting. The livret that accompanied the painting at the Salon read: “Bonaparte, general in chief of the army of the Orient, at the moment when he touches a pestilential tumor while visiting the hospital at Jaffa…To distance further the frightening idea of a sudden and incurable contagion, he had opened before him some pestilential tumors and touched several. He gave, by this magnanimous devotion, the first example of a genre of courage unknown until then and which has had imitators.” Grigsby, 72 and n30.
 See above, n4. Grigsby sees the heroism of Napoleon as an Enlightenment manifestation, not as a Messianic “laying of hands.” In this shift she negates all previous scholarship so as to assert her theories of eroticism and sexualization of figures, which she offers, in the succeeding pages of the chapter. Her failure to see that the ideas do not necessarily have to be mutually exclusive is one weakness in the chapter and in her thesis.
 Grigsby’s argument really begins in earnest with her discussion of Gros’ deviation from David (75-top of 76) by changing the male-female binary into a male-binary. This discussion feeds into her reading of the strength and phallic nature of Napoleon and his fellow upright, vertical troops juxtaposed with the nude, ‘reclining’ soldiers on the ground (76-77). Finally, the last piece of the initial argument is the argument that touching a male nude is laced with eroticism. Here (78-82) Grigsby creates a circle of nudity: Napoleon’s nude hand touching the pustule of a nude soldier, and the horizontal body of a nude soldier on the ground connecting the two vertical men.
 David O’Brien, After the Revolution, 97-98.
 Nina Burleigh, Mirage: Napoleon’s Scientists and the Unveiling of Egypt (New York: Harper Collins; 2007), x-xi.
 Stuart Harten, “Rediscovering Ancient Egypt: Bonaparte’s Expedition and the Colonial Ideology of the French Revolution.” In Napoleon in Egypt. Edited by Irene A. Bierman (Reading, UK: Ithaca Press; Los Angeles: Gustave E. von Grunebaum Center for Near Eastern Studies, 2003) 33. “Bonaparte’s goal of setting sail for Egypt in May of 1798 was to establish a military protectorate in the Near East in order to impinge on Britain’s commercial trade routes to India…Egypt was also envisioned as a replacement for Saint-Domingue, the pearl of the French mercantile empire and by far the richest colony in the world. With the collapse of the Atlantic economy and the abolition of slavery during the Revolutionary wars, France increasingly looked to Egypt as a viable colonial alternative to what had been the most dynamic sector of French overseas commerce in the eighteenth-century.”
 O’Brien, After the Revolution, 94-95.
 Ibid. Also, J. Christopher Herold, Bonaparte in Egypt (New York: Harper and Row, 1962) 274-278; Joseph-Marie Moiret, Memoirs of Napoleon’s Egyptian Expedition, 1798-1801 Edited and translated by Rosemary Brindle (London: Greenhill Books; Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2001) 21-22.
 This figure, notes Herold, does not include a bevy of Egyptian and Arab personnel attached to the army. Likewise, it does not include additional French personnel such as civilian commissioners. Herold, 264.
 O’Brien, After the Revolution, 97-98.
O’Brien, After the Revolution, 97-98.
 O’Brien, After the Revolution, 98.
 O’Brien, After the Revolution, 91-92.
 O’Brien, After the Revolution, top of 92.
 O’Brien, After the Revolution, 90.
 O’Brien, After the Revolution, 92. O’Brien quoting Quatremère de Quincy.
 O’Brien, After the Revolution, 96.
 O’Brien, After the Revolution, 96.
 O’Brien, After the Revolution, 98.
 O’Brien, After the Revolution, 10.
 Ibid. “Gros also benefited from his unusual relationship to power. The government repeatedly asked him to treat problematic subjects in which Napoleon’s crimes were concealed and his failures construed as moral triumphs. Gros responded by combining the requisite, idealized vision of Napoleon with an astonishingly graphic depiction of the violence, suffering, and death that resulted from the French leader’s actions. It is especially this unexpected combination of elements that saved Gros’ work from lapsing into arid propaganda and that continues to fascinate viewers.”
 Said’s discussion of Egypt: Edward Said, Orientalism (New York: Vintage Books, 1978) 79-88.