Building of the Napoleonic legend

Building of the Napoleonic legend

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Title: Bonaparte visiting the plague victims of Jaffa, March 11, 1799.

Author : GROS Antoine-Jean (1771 - 1835)

School : Romanticism

Creation date : 1804

Date shown: March 11, 1799

Dimensions: Height 532 - Width 720

Technique and other indications: State-controlled; engraving dated 1830) Oil on canvas

Storage location: Louvre Museum (Paris) website

Contact copyright: © Photo RMN-Grand Palais

Picture reference: 85EE1390 / INV 5064

Bonaparte visiting the plague victims of Jaffa, March 11, 1799.

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais

Publication date: August 2011


Building of the Napoleonic legend


Historical context

The Egyptian campaign (1798-1799) is part of what has been called Bonaparte's "oriental dream", one of the first manifestations of which was the annexation of the Ionian Islands during the Treaty of Campo Formio (October 18, 1797 ).

A dependency of the Sultan, Egypt was under the theoretical government of Beys dominated by the militia of the Mamelukes. The expedition - 36,000 men - left Toulon on May 19, 1798 and reached Alexandria on July 2. Two days after the Battle of the Pyramids (July 21), Bonaparte entered Cairo, but on July 23, the destruction of the French fleet by Admiral Nelson, near Aboukir, ensured England the control of Mediterranean.

The Cairo revolt and Turkey's declaration of war (September 9) forced Bonaparte to take up arms again. The general went to Syria to stop the Turkish invasion: the capture of Jaffa (March 6, 1799) is one of the episodes of this second campaign. During the siege of the city, an epidemic of plague had started to spread among the French troops.

Image Analysis

Under the arcades of a mosque converted into a field hospital, Bonaparte touches the pustules of a standing soldier, half dressed in a sheet. Desgenettes, the army’s chief medical officer, keeps a close watch on the general as a soldier tries to part Bonaparte’s hand to keep him from contagion.

On the right, another soldier, completely naked, supported by a young Arab, is bandaged by a Turkish doctor. An officer with ophthalmia groped up to him, leaning on a column.

In the foreground, a patient is dying on the knees of Masclet, a young military surgeon himself affected by the disease. Behind the general, two French officers appear frightened by the contagion: one protects his mouth with his handkerchief while the other walks away.

On the left of the composition, among the sick lying on the ground, stands a majestic group of Arabs distributing food.


The table of Plague victims of Jaffa was ordered from Gros by Bonaparte as compensation for the withdrawal of the order from Battle of Nazareth, another episode of the Egyptian campaign in which General Junot was too famous. The program was dictated to him by Dominique Vivant Denon, director of the Louvre, who had participated in the expedition, and the painting was completed in six months for the Salon of 1804, opened on September 18, a few weeks before Napoleon's coronation.

This magnificent composition, in which Gros's genius as a colourist bursts forth, aimed to showcase the courage of Bonaparte who, to appease the anxiety of his troops in the face of the ravages of the plague, had exposed himself to contagion in visiting sick soldiers at Jaffa hospital. But in 1804, this rather banal military fact could serve to accredit the legitimacy of the imperial aspirations of Bonaparte: the gesture of the general touching with sovereign serenity the pustules of a patient referred, in the conscience of the contemporaries, to this moment of the ritual of the coronation where the King of France exercised his thaumaturgical power by touching the scrofula of lepers ...

  • Egypt
  • epidemics
  • napoleonic wars
  • Napoleonic legend
  • Bonaparte (Napoleon)
  • East
  • plague
  • Turkey


André CHASTEL, French art, t. 4, The Time of Eloquence 1775-1825, Paris, Flammarion, 2000.

Roger DUFRAISSE, Roger Michel KERAUTRET, Napoleonic France. External aspects, Paris, Seuil, coll. “Points Histoire”, 1999.

Annie JOURDAN, Napoleon, hero, imperator, patron, Aubier, 1998.

Jean TULARD (dir.), Napoleon dictionary, Paris, Fayard, 1987, new. ed. 1999.

Jean TULARD (dir.), The History of Napoleon through painting, Paris, Belfond, 1991.

COLLECTIVE, From David to Delacroix, catalog of the exhibition at the Grand Palais, Paris, Grand Palais, 1974-1975.

To cite this article

Robert FOHR, "Building the Napoleonic Legend"

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