65 x 81.3 cm. (25 9⁄16 x 32 in.)
1804. Oil on canvas.
On the back of the stretcher, a Bernheim-Jeune exhibition label (Gros-Géricault-Delacroix janvier-mars 1954) and a seal in red wax PD [Pierre Dubaut]
Customs stamp on the back of the canvas.
On the back of the frame, two labels:
Kunsthalle Basel / N° 1849 [stamped, and in the upper left in pencil, 91]
H. Pottier emballeur / 14 rue Gaillon, [in ink] Exposition de Bâle / Mr Lipchitz [in pencil] N° 103
Collection of the sculptor Jacques Lipchitz (1891-1973) in 1937.
Collection of Pierre-Olivier Dubaut (1886-1968), Paris, Animal painter and curator of several exhibitions on Theodore Gericault between 1924 and 1964.
1937, Basel, Kunsthalle, Künstlerkopien, no 91 (as Théodore Géricault).
1954, Paris, Bernheim-Jeune Gallery, Gros, Géricault, Delacroix (not in catalogue).
This painting by Antoine-Jean Gros is an important rediscovery that enhances a corpus lacking still a true catalogue. His official commissions currently hung at the Louvre Museum and the Château de Versailles, those vast historical scenes and grand portraits painted while serving the Napoleonic regime, are celebrated and recognized as masterpieces of French art. However, our grasp of his sketches and studies, also of his private commissions, remains incomplete and imprecise. During the 19th century, a number of securely attributed portraits and studies were passed over by Jean-Baptiste Delestre and Justin Tripier-Lefranc, his remarkably thorough biographers. This rediscovery is all the more important for it relates to the major picture commonly titled Napoleon Visiting the Plague-Stricken at Jaffa (Paris, Louvre Museum, ill. 1). With the exhibition of this latter work in 1804, the former pupil of David established his reputation in the eyes of those in power and the public. The general praise it received allowed Dominique Vivant Denon to persuade Napoleon to fund an ambitious program of artistic commissions illustrating the most glorious episodes of the imperial narrative.
The historical circumstances of the subject commissioned from Gros, the polemical context to which the painting had to respond, and the iconographical resonances of the composition all warrant a reminder. In 1798, Bonaparte came to realize that a projected military invasion of England was bound to fail. He thus sought to shift the theatre of confrontation to Egypt, then occupied by Ottomans who granted passage to British merchants. With thirty-five thousand men enlisted in the Army of the Orient and a number of artists and scholars, he departed from France in May 1798. For fifteen months, until August 1799 when with some reluctance he returned to France, the military campaign saw gains and victories but also some calamitous setbacks. To draw attention away from the failure of the bid for conquest, Bonaparte put forward the civilizing aims of the French expedition and the unprecedented knowledge of oriental cultures gathered along the way. Indeed, the conditions of the fighting had been particularly trying for the French soldiers, and had led both sides to commit atrocities.
In early March 1799, with about ten thousand troops Bonaparte moved north from Cairo along the coast. Upon arrival at Jaffa, he laid siege to the city. Outraged that the Turkish governor had slain with particular cruelty the envoys dispatched to negotiate surrender, after three days he let his army ransack the city. Impatient to pursue his march north, he ordered the execution of the three thousand prisoners whose surveillance was a burden. These actions were meant to discourage others to resist his army, though they seem to have had a contrary impact. Thus, when Bonaparte put the city of Acre under siege late in March, the strategy failed and the Ottomans survived on supplies from the British fleet. After a two-month siege he headed back south with only about half his troops, forced to admit a costly stalemate in terms of human losses during combat and due to the bubonic plague rampant in the region,.
From the time of the siege of Jaffa, some French soldiers had been infected by the plague epidemic. Passing through the city during the retreat south, Bonaparte had to reconcile himself to abandon the soldiers who were sick and contagious. Upon leaving, he ordered that a lethal dose of laudanum be given to the plague-stricken, whom the Turks would not fail to massacre. In fact, it was the British commander Sydney Smith who occupied Jaffa after the departure of the French. He collected damning information from the survivors that inspired a great number of stories and caricatures denouncing the cruelty of Bonaparte, pictured as the “Corsican butcher” who fell afoul of the norms of humanitarian conduct by which the Enlightenment defined civilized society.
From the description of Gros’s picture in the 1804 Salon livret, it is clear that Bonaparte was desirous to neutralize such accusations with this commission. He had mentioned it in conversation with the painter and apparently also had evoked it also with Pierre-Narcisse Guérin . The title given to the painting describes the scene represented: Bonaparte, general-in-chief of the Army of the Orient, touching a pestilential tumour while on visit to the hospital at Jaffa. The livret entry informs of « an exaggerated sentiment of fear for this illness » among the soldiers that the visit of their commander was intended to appease: “To dispel more effectively the frightening idea of a sudden and incurable sickness, he had some pestilential tumours opened on the spot and touched several of them. By this magnanimous show of self-sacrifice, he gave an example of courage, the first of a sort until then unknown that has inspired imitators.”
The blame for having abandoned his army, placed in Egypt under the command of Kléber who within a year was assassinated, is visually contradicted by the concern Bonaparte appears to have for the sick soldiers that put his own well-being at risk. According to contemporary accounts, he had indeed visited the hospital at Jaffa on March 11, 1799, before leaving for Acre, but none of the narratives correspond to Gros’s depiction.
Ever since the famous article by Walter Friedlaender on “Napoleon as Roi Thaumaturge” it is generally recognized that the idea of the central group in Gros’s painting is meant to allude to the medieval ritual during which the kings of France would touch the scrofula, a performance by which they acted out their sacred status. As for the extreme desolation and the expressions of despair that surround this staging, these motifs seem to evoke the darkest passages of Dante. The care and food received by the sick does not dismiss the impression that Bonaparte and his entourage have descended to Hell. The plausibility of the recreated far-away universe, from the view of the citadel of Jaffa to the architecture of the hospital, from the variety of human types down to the clothes and accessories of the Ottomans, made a strong impression on contemporaries. Also, the flamboyant range of colours adopted by Gros, that the public had discovered in front of the portrait of General Bonaparte at Arcola (1796, Château de Versailles) at the Salon of 1801 and his prized sketch for the Battle of Nazareth (1801, Nantes Museum), came as a shock. While in Italy in the mid-1790’s, Gros had been far more attracted to the Rubenses in the churches and palaces of Genoa than to the work of Raphael that his former master David advised him to study. As is well known, his dashing portrait of Bonaparte at Arcola and the Plague-Stricken at Jaffa indicated a new direction in the history of French painting that romantic artists later explored.
From the middle of the 20th century, this Study of a Group of Figures has mostly been considered by specialists of Théodore Géricault, whose works prompted a sustained art historical and commercial interest left wanting for Gros. In his catalogue raisonné published in 1987, Germain Bazin devoted an illustrated entry to it, but was unable to specify its whereabouts probably because he had not seen it. He notes that the painting had been presented as by Géricault at the Gros, Géricault, Delacroix exhibition organized by the Galerie Bernheim-Jeune from January to March 1954, without however mention in the catalogue. This is confirmed by a label on the stretcher, and also the reproduction accompanying Louis Aragon’s article, “Géricault et Delacroix, ou le réel et l’imaginaire”, in Les Lettres françaises issued on January 21, 1954. Bazin catalogues it as the work of an unknown author. Previously, in 1976 and 1979, Philippe Grunchec had already shown caution and refrained from taking a position on the matter of the attribution. Since these brief remarks that avoid any discussion of the style of the painting, it has been generally ignored. One might mention that the inventory of Géricault’s studio after his death lists a copy after Gros on three occasions, without further detail, as well as “three large pictures including two copies after monsieur Gros by a pupil of monsieur Géricault” . Certainly the dimensions of the painting, with figures about a third life-size, do not correspond to known copies by Géricault that tend to be small. As for the possibility that it might have been executed by a pupil, the confident handling and the freedom taken with regard to Gros’s large-scale picture make this hard to fathom.
This painted study, until now considered with respect to the art of Géricault, merits a closer look as to its relation to the definitive version of the Plague-Stricken at Jaffa. Several details suggest that it is not a copy of the group with the plague-stricken nude and the Turkish doctor who attempts to care for him, but a finished study preparing its integration to the composition. The handling, without the least hint of an intent to replicate precisely a model, pleads in favour of inserting the picture in the process by which Gros finalized the large-scale version.
“I hold from M. Gros that his picture of the Plague of Jaffa was roughly sketched in 21 days after his drawn and painted studies, then leaving it turned around for 3 months in his studio so as to no longer see it for that time and thus better judge (upon seeing it again) the revisions necessary; […] Jaffa was finished in 42 days.” This testimony of a pupil of Gros, Pierre-Roch Vigneron, dates from 1849 and though belated it has a tone of sincerity . Some of the steps in composing the Plague-Stricken at Jaffa, before it was sent to the Salon in September 1804 and won general admiration, need to be traced. A first version of the composition is revealed by a pencil drawing in the Louvre and a painting in the New Orleans Museum of Art (ill. 2). Given its size (72 x 92 cm.) this canvas is both an exploratory sketch and an unfinished modello the painter most likely had intended to complete. The composition showing Bonaparte with a dead plague-stricken in his arms is said to have displeased him since he had just donned the title of “Emperor of the French” and was seeking to project a new public persona, less impetuous a figure than at the time of his military campaigns. Gros reworked the composition and gave an appropriately royal loftiness to the comforting, indeed the salvific action retained in the final painting.
Along with the significant modification of the main action and of the architectural setting, the major change was the inclusion of a group in the lower right, with a man near complete exhaustion on his knees attended to by an ottoman doctor concentrated on his task. The grouping of these two figures creates a striking contrast. On the left is displayed the morbid flesh of a muscular but drained body, unable to maintain itself upright. Just behind this invalid is a man, whose leg comes forward between the two figures. He holds him up by the underarms, hands carefully wrapped in his red garment so as to not come into contact with the infected skin. On the right, the weathered-face doctor, insensitive to the danger of the plague in spite of his old age, wears a costume of bright layers of red, green, yellow, blue and white fabrics and embroideries.
The group of the plague-stricken and the doctor appears first in the picture at the Château de Chantilly (signed, 91 x 119 cm., ill. 3). Though not mentioned in the early biographies of Gros, it must be acknowledged as the finished modello, preparatory to the reprise of the composition on the monumental canvas. The priority of its execution is confirmed by the many variants with respect to the final composition and by the painter’s mannerisms that are later attenuated (somewhat tense figures that overplay a contrapposto or an inclination of head) . The figure of the kneeling plague-stricken on the Chantilly modello, unlike the other figures that appear to be definitively posed, is not yet fully resolved: the body is singularly thwarted, with monstrously long legs and a left arm that disappears behind the head of the doctor. These approximations, the probable result of a rapid execution, are largely rectified on the huge canvas: the depiction of the legs seems more credible and the left arm of the invalid is visibly outstretched above the doctor. In spite of these adjustments, during the Salon many critics found this figure out of proportion, much too big in relation to the others, an indication that the painter had some trouble fixing it onto the canvas (ill. 4).
The present study for the plague-stricken and the doctor seeks to better adjust the group added to the initial conception. The evolution of certain details is revealing. On the Chantilly modello, the ground is loosely-strewn with straw, while on the Louvre canvas one sees a woven mat, a covering that this intermediary study only suggests. Likewise, on the Chantilly modello the heel of a figure standing behind the kneeling man seems to touch his thigh, a visual foreshortening that Gros later eliminates to clarify the position of the figures. In the study he introduces a considerable gap, and then reduces it on the final canvas. The infrared images of the study show a number of pentimenti, in particular for the left arm of the plague-stricken, another sign that Gros had difficulty arriving at the definitive pose. No doubt because of these reprises, the paint in this area of the picture looks as if rubbed. The doctor’s costume is more loosely painted than on the huge canvas, for instance in the way the embroidered sash around his neck curves along his back rather than finally falling straight. Painted without the pressure that the Salon pictures entailed and on a more comfortable scale, the painting shows fluency and an execution more daring at times than on the monumental reprise of the composition.
The well-preserved condition of the picture accounts for the intensity of the colours and the sprightly brushwork that might come as a surprise to some. This corresponds to Gros’s manner of painting as described by his biographer Delestre: “Gros first blocked in the local colour under its proper light and by contrast the shadow of the form; not with insignificant tones, like a bituminous scumbling or some other conventional hue, but with the right colour, heightened to such intensity that once the canvas painted over, this frankly applied colour would lose nothing of its visual force. He moved from one of these extremes to another, successively applying intermediary half-tones next to one another .” The transparency that Gros often likes is found in the spontaneous treatment of the woven mat and the motifs and fringes of the doctor’s sash. Pure dense highlights of white and red dot the costume of the latter, close to what one observes in the portrait of Bonaparte at Arcola. The body of the plague-stricken is handled with greater attention, treated with nuance as in its definitive reprise. Thus, in 1804 Gros shows himself torn between two manners of painting: a frank manner that resonates with the Napoleonic imagery and a softer and more refined manner adopted for his classicizing portraits and his miniatures, a manner similar to the one that ensured the fashionable success of François Gérard and Anne-Louis Girodet, his former comrades from the studio of David.
Gros conceived of this study most effectively to highlight the two principal figures. Around them, the brushstrokes are notably broader and show a more synthetic approach to form, probably the reason why an attribution to Géricault was once proposed. This summary treatment of the drapery on the outer parts of the compositional fragment may have been intended to turn the canvas into a self-sustaining work of art, even though the two figures standing in the back are truncated. Since the end of the 1790’s, young painters had developed the habit of turning their academies into full-fledged history subjects. In front of this canvas undertaken as a finished study, one suspects that Gros had such an ambition. The figures, from left to right, seem to come out of darkness.
According to David O’Brien’s penetrating observation, the political genius of the painter was to present the plague as some inevitable fate beyond the scope of human action, thus relieving the protagonists of any responsibility in the matter. Trained in David’s studio to paint historical subjects, Gros sublimates the effect of Bonaparte’s presence on his soldiers and introduces a glimmer of hope in the tragedy. But a more spontaneous show of sensibility and hence one that is more modern, imbued by the universalism of the ideals of 1789, inspired his image of the humanity that united two strangers, the agonizing French soldier and the Ottoman healer who wants to bring him back to life.