Baron Antoine-Jean Gros, Napoleon Bonaparte Visiting the Pest House in Jaffa

Baron Antoine-Jean Gros, Napoleon Bonaparte Visiting the Pest House in Jaffa, 1804, oil on canvas, 209 x 280″ (Musée du Louvre, Paris)

Gros was a student of the Neo-Classical painter Jacques-Louis David. However, this painting, sometimes also titled Napoleon Visiting the Pest House in Jaffa, is a proto-Romantic painting that points to the later style of Gericault and Delacroix. Gros was trained in David’s studio between 1785-1792, and is most well known for recording Napoleon’s military campaigns, which proved to be ideal subjects for exploring the exotic, violent, and heroic. In this painting, which measures more than 17 feet high and 23 feet wide, Gros depicted a legendary episode from Napoleon’s campaigns in Egypt (1798-1801). On March 21, 1799,  in a make-shift hospital in Jaffa, Napoleon visited his troops who were stricken with the Bubonic Plague. Gros depicts Napoleon attempting to calm the growing panic about contagion by fearlessly touching the sores of one of the plague victims. Like earlier neoclassical paintings such as David’s Death of Marat, Gros combines Christian iconography, in this case Christ healing the sick, with a contemporary subject. He also draws on the art of classical antiquity, by depicting Napoleon in the same position as the ancient Greek sculpture, the Apollo Belvedere. In this way, he imbues Napoleon with divine qualities while simultaneously showing him as a military hero. But in contrast to David, Gros uses warm, sensual colors and focuses on the dead and dying who occupy the foreground of the painting. We see the same approach later in Delacroix’s painting of Liberty Leading the People (1830). Napoleon was a master at using art to manipulate his public image. In reality he had ordered the death of the prisoners whom he could not afford to house or feed, and poisoned his troops who were dying from the plague as he retreated from Jaffa.

Smarthistory images for teaching and learning:

[flickr_tags user_id=”82032880@N00″ tags=”GrosJaffa,”]

More Smarthistory images…

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:06] We’re in one of the large painting gallerias in the Louvre in Paris, looking at a canvas that is absolutely enormous. This is by Gros, “The Pesthouse at Jaffa.”

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:15] At the time, Jaffa was in Syria. Today, this is in Israel.

Dr. Zucker: [0:19] We’re seeing an event that took place, although we’re also seeing a painter take liberties.

Dr. Harris: [0:24] 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 godlike.

[0:38] Napoleon is shown visiting the victims of the plague during this military campaign.

Dr. Zucker: [0:45] 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.

[1:02] If you start in the lower-right corner and move up towards 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: [1:21] Above them, we see a figure who’s been blinded, groping his way toward Napoleon.

Dr. Zucker: [1:27] On the left, we see two men giving bread to the sick. Now, although Napoleon is represented here as a hero, make no mistake, this was a brutal war.

Dr. Harris: [1:35] 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.

[1:59] 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: [2:11] And here he is, in the land that Christ lived in, in the Holy Land.

Dr. Harris: [2:15] 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: [2:35] 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. We’re looking at a place that is controlled by the French.

Dr. Harris: [2:51] 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.

[3:13] We can think of Géricault’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: [3:26] There are numerous portraits by David, by Ingres, of Napoleon, and perhaps the grandest of all “The Coronation of Napoleon” by David.

[3:34] This is the first of a series of major paintings that celebrate Napoleon the man, the emperor, and in this case almost the god.

[3:42] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker, "Baron Antoine-Jean Gros, Napoleon Bonaparte Visiting the Pest House in Jaffa," in Smarthistory, September 13, 2018, accessed July 13, 2024,