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.