Baron Antoine Gros (1771 – 1835) is a unique artist of the 19th century since he never studied antiquity. He entered Jacques-Louis David’s workshop when he was 14. When the Revolution arrived, he left for Italy for 8 years but Joséphine, Napoléon’s wife, called him back at the end of 1796. He is seen as the color master of the French school. When David was in exile, he put Gros in charge of his workshop. He was also a teacher of the fine arts, a member of the French Institute, and member of several foreign academies.
He painted Bonaparte visiting the plague-victims of Jaffa in 1804, even though this event took place on March 11th, 1799. This painting was presented in the Salon of 1804 and it is preserved in the Louvre. It was an official order illustrating an episode of the Syrian campaign to glorify the attitude of General Bonaparte visiting the plague-victims in the French army. The victims are gathered in the courtyard of a mosque, used as a military hospital, in Jaffa.
Gros doesn’t depict the reality, as this is a painting of invention. He paints a city of the Ottoman Empire from his memories and stories he heard of it. He reinvented the city and placed sick people in it. This allows him to create a centered composition. Napoléon is shown doing the Royal touch, which was believed to cure all kinds of diseases. In bright light, Napoléon is touching a sick person with his naked hands while a doctor tries to dissuade him and an officer plugs his nose. On the left, two arabs give bread to the sick. On the right, a blind private tries to get close to the general. In the foreground, in the shade, plague-victims are at death’s door and don’t have the strength to turn towards Bonaparte. The painter wants to suggest that the virtue and the courage of Bonaparte can justify the terror of the war. The artwork is neoclassical in its subject, since it shows an example of virtue. The scene is set in front of the arcades, which recalls the Oath of the Horatii by David. However, some parts of his paintings break with David’s art and announce the arrival of Romanticism. Gros insists on the sick people’s suffering, which creates a horror or sublime feeling in the spectator. The composition is divided into big parts by contrasts of light and shade. The light and the colors are warm and recall Venetian’s and Rubens’ art. Gros also paid a lot of attention to the oriental costumes and architecture.
Napoléon left the country after this encounter. When he ordered this painting, Bonaparte, who was first consul at that time, wanted to wash away the accusations made by the British press, even if those accusations were right. They said that he wanted to execute the plague-victims on his way back to Cairo. The painting was a huge success in the Salon of 1804 and worthy of the ovation the public gave to its author.