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In December 1797, France was poised to invade England. The First Republic, under the leadership of the five-man Directoire exécutif, had made peace with Spain, Prussia, and Holland.  General Napoleon Bonaparte was negotiating with Austria. Russia had not yet declared war. Only England and Portugal still stood armed against France.

In February, after he inspected the preparations for the invasion of England, Bonaparte wrote to the, Directoire, proposing a campaign into Egypt instead. He argued that the resources available for invading the island nation were inadequate. The best way to attack England, he explained, was through the East. The conquest of Egypt would both weaken the Ottoman Empire and sever England’s closest access to India.

Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign was a military disaster. The Army of the Orient sailed for Egypt on May 19, 1798. Having taken Malta on June 11, the French landed thirty-four thousand troops on the beach at Marabut on July 1. Without issuing supplies or giving his men time to recover from a grueling sea voyage, Bonaparte marched them across the Libyan Desert to attack first Alexandria and then Cairo.

Both cities fell quickly, and Bonaparte reported glorious victories to the Directoire, but French morale was low. One officer wrote home: “It was thirst which inspired our troops in the capture of Alexandria. At the point the army had reached, we had no choice between finding water and perishing.”

The morale of the conquering army would sink further. On August 1, 1798, Admiral Horatio Nelson annihilated the French fleet at Aboukir Bay, near Alexandria. He left behind a squadron of three battleships and three frigates to patrol the coast from Damietta to Alexandria, effectively cutting off all communication between the Army of the Orient and France.

Stranded with no news or supplies from France and an empty treasury, Bonaparte moved the war into Syria, leading thirteen thousand men against the Ottoman Empire. He only got as far as Acre before a combined force of British and Ottoman troops turned him back. Bonaparte camouflaged the humiliation of his retreat in his reports to the Directoire with the news of a stunning victory at Aboukir.

The French commander slipped away from Egypt on August 18, 1799, without notice to either his staff or his successor. He reached France only a few days after the news of his victory at Aboukir, in time to seize power in the coup of November 1799. He left behind a deficit of twelve million francs and an occupying army demoralized by devastating losses, illness, and lack of supplies.

The Egyptian campaign accomplished none of its goals, but was an important element in Bonaparte’s rise to power. As a result, it was a popular subject with French painters. Between 1800 and 1812, artists exhibited seventy paintings on subjects from the Egyptian and Syrian campaigns at the Paris salons. Even after Napoleon’s defeat, the subject continued to attract artists and authors. The image of Napoleon as a heroic figure in an otherwise failed campaign dominated French depictions of the invasion of Egypt throughout the nineteenth century.

Ironically, this treatment of the Egyptian campaign as a canvas for Napoleon’s personal heroism began with a contest to produce a painting commemorating General Andoche Junot’s victory at the Battle of Nazareth in 1799—the most successful episode in the Syrian campaign.

Bonaparte, well aware that paintings could shape public opinion, announced the contest from his headquarters at Acre a few days after Junot’s victory: “The General in Chief of the Army of the Orient, wanting to give a mark of particular satisfaction to the 300 brave men commanded by General Junot, who, at the combat of Nazareth, repulsed 3,000 cavalrymen, took five flags and covered the battlefield with enemy cadavers, decrees that a medal of 500 louis will be proposed as a prize for the best painting representing this combat.”

Bonaparte finally implemented the contest on the battle’s anniversary in 1801, after he had become first consul. The prize was increased to 12,000 francs, the largest public commission since the fall of the monarchy. To ensure accuracy, the government gave competing artists access to an account of the battle and a map of the battlefield drawn by General Junot. Details of Egyptian costume and local color were provided in the form of drawings by Vivant Denon, who had traveled with the French army in Egypt as part of the 167-member Institut pour les Arts et les Sciences d’Egypte and subsequently served as Napoleon’s director of museums. (Denon later assembled pictorial archives for almost every battle Napoleon commanded.) Nine artists submitted sketches, which were exhibited at the Paris Salon of 1801.

The jury unanimously awarded the commission to Antoine-Jean Gros (1771-1835). In 1801 Gros was already well known both as a leader of the Romantic revolt against neoclassicism and as a favored painter of Bonaparte. Gros had fled the violence of the French Revolution, taking refuge in Italy in 1792. In 1797 he met Josephine Bonaparte at Genoa and became a member of Bonaparte’s court during the Austrian campaign. With Josephine’s support, Gros painted Napoleon at the Battle of Arcola (1797). (Josephine forced Bonaparte to sit for his portrait by holding him on her lap.)

Pleased with the work, Bonaparte appointed Gros to the committee that confiscated Italian paintings for the Musée Napoleon in the Louvre. On his return to Paris, Bonaparte continued to give Gros commissions for private portraits and official works.

Gros displayed his sketch of The Battle of Nazareth above three documents: Junot’s map of the battle, Gros’ own pen-and-ink sketch altering the official plan, and an Extrait du programme, in which he synthesized the eyewitness accounts that he consulted for the painting. Having carefully established his claim to authenticity, Gros reversed the placement of the French and Arab troops as shown in Junot’s drawing so that the French seem to be driving the Arabs away from the Christian holy sites, presenting the Battle of Nazareth in terms of a modern crusade against Islam.

Gros never completed the finished version of The Battle of Nazareth. Instead, Bonaparte ordered him to commemorate another incident in the Syrian campaign: Bonaparte’s visit to the plague hospital in Jaffa. Circumstances had changed since the Salon of 1801. Bonaparte, returning from Egypt with a glorious victory, led a coup against the Directoire and wrote the new order to make himself first consul with two others. Royalist sympathizers, both in France and abroad, were intensifying their opposition to Bonaparte following the trials of counterrevolutionary conspirators.

Public opinion about the Egyptian campaign had soured. There was open criticism of Bonaparte’s furtive departure from Egypt. The Syrian campaign was widely recognized to have ended in disaster. Ugly rumors were beginning to spread about the siege of Jaffa.

The assault on Jaffa included two incidents that reflected badly on Bonaparte’s leadership. The Turkish garrison surrendered to two of his officers, who guaranteed the lives of the prisoners would be spared, although about two thousand had been slain trying to surrender.

Bonaparte did not honor the guarantee. At his command, his troops massacred between twenty-five hundred and three thousand Turkish prisoners. They used bayonets to slaughter the Turks, to save gunpowder. Compounding that atrocity, French forces plundered the town.

At the same time, as if in divine retribution, bubonic plague struck the French army. About thirty men died each day at the height of the epidemic. Soldiers were so demoralized by the thought of the plague that some committed suicide at the first sign of symptoms. French surgeons refused to treat the afflicted for fear of contagion.

Two months later, unable to take Acre and preparing to retreat to Cairo, Bonaparte ordered his chief medical officer, René Desgenettes, to poison the fifty remaining French plague victims. He argued that leaving them to the mercy of the incoming Turkish forces would be inhumane. Attempting to move them to Cairo would slow down and endanger the army’s retreat. Desgenettes refused, but a pharmacist named Royer administered the poison. Seven of the abandoned soldiers survived to tell the tale to the British troops who arrived ahead of the Turks.

Gros’ Napoleon Visiting the Pesthouse in Jaffa, exhibited at the Salon of 1804, is an attempt to answer the rumors regarding Bonaparte’s actions at Jaffa. Painted under Denon’s supervision, the work commemorates Bonaparte’s visit to the field hospital in Jaffa on March 11, 1799. The exhibition catalogue describes the visit as a heroic action, the general endeavoring to convince terrified French troops that the disease could not be caught by contact with the plague-stricken.

“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,” the program reads. “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 since had imitations.”

Gros’ original sketch for the painting illustrated an anecdote from Desgenettes’ 1802 memoir: “Finding themselves in a narrow and very encumbered chamber, [Bonaparte] helped in lifting the hideous cadaver of a soldier whose shredded clothes were soiled by the opening of an abscessed plague sore.”

In the final version, Gros changed both setting and action to imbue Bonaparte’s visit with mythic overtones. Gros depicts the field hospital, which was actually an Armenian monastery, with the iconographic markings of a mosque, suggesting once again that the Egyptian campaign was an extension of the historical confrontation between Christianity and Islam. Although the room is bright and airy, the foreground and left half of the canvas are dark. Cloaked by shadows, the plague is depicted in all its stages with clinical accuracy, from initial delirium to the final agonized convulsions.

Instead of holding the body of a dead soldier, Bonaparte, standing in a shaft of light and framed by one of the arches that define the foreground, stretches out his arm to touch the open sore of a half-naked plague victim. The gesture evokes imagery that would have been familiar to a nineteenth-century audience: saints performing miracles, Christ before Lazarus, and, most evocative, the legendary “king’s touch.”

For centuries, French kings had claimed the ability to heal scrofulous abscesses with a single touch. Before the Revolution, Louis XVI had still performed this rite with great ceremony at Versailles. Thus Gros presents Bonaparte as not only a heroic leader visiting his men at the risk of infection to himself but also as the new “roi thaumathurge.”

Over the next decade, Gros received both public and private commissions to paint battle scenes and military portraits. His Battle of Abukir (1806) and Battle of Eylau (1808) established him as the architect of the Napoleonic image. Napoleon closed the Salon of 1808 by presenting Gros with the cross of the Legion of Honor.

Unlike other artists acclaimed during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic periods, Gros continued to receive public commissions under the Restoration. Louis XVII appointed Gros as his official painter. Charles X made him a baron.

During the last twenty years of his life, more than a hundred young painters trained in Gros’ atelier. Although he took over Jacques-Louis David’s leadership of the declining neoclassical school, Gros found the public more interested in Romantic artists such as Eugéne Delacroix. Ironically, those artists were inspired by Gros’ use of Romantic conventions in the creation of contemporary military history painting. Delacroix, the most important of the French Romantics, praised Gros’ work in his 1848 article on the older painter: “Gros has raised modern subjects to the ideal…he has painted the costume, the manners, the passions of his time without falling into pettiness or triviality.”

In poor health, unhappily married, and unable to resolve the tension between neoclassicism and romanticism in his own work, Gros drowned himself at Meudon in a branch of the Seine on June 25, 1835.

Pamela D. Toler earned her doctorate in history from the University of Chicago.

Originally published in the Summer 2007 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here.