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Commentary: Napoleon has it all over Trump when it comes to spinning plague propaganda

Napoleon ostentatiously touches a plague victim in this detail of a painting copied from Antoine-Jean Gros.
(Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

Think President Trump is great at spinning plague propaganda? Try Napoleon Bonaparte instead. That’s a guy who had it down.

Trump has the inarguable skills of a game-show host. That ratings-approved talent is now on entertaining display during the daily 5 o’clock follies, the disdained health-crisis version of those tragi-comic military press briefings held during the Vietnam War. People tune in to watch the same way they slow to gape at a freeway crash.

Napoleon had something else — the services of a first-rate artist, one who could paint a colossal and impressive picture that would completely obliterate a troublesome story and transform it into something epic.

Changing a damning negative into a flattering positive that gussied up Napoleon’s reputation, making him suitable for military dictatorship, was a skill perfected by the talented Antoine-Jean Gros (1771-1835). His painting “Bonaparte Visiting the Victims of the Plague at Jaffa, March 11, 1799” launched his propaganda career.

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A monumental picture, more than 17 feet high and 23 feet wide, it has long hung on a giant wall in the Denon Wing at Paris’ Louvre Museum. Most of the more than two-dozen figures are larger than life — none more so than Napoleon himself. At 5 feet 2, he was hardly a towering personage. Gros painted the extravagantly uniformed general, swathed in gilded sashes and crowned with a red-plumed hat, closer to 6 feet 8.

The scene is a makeshift plague hospital in the Middle East. Strewn in the shadows across the foreground are the dead and dying, while Arabs at the left pass out bread, one turning back to witness the central scene. There, Napoleon is flanked by two soldiers.

Antoine-Jean Gros, "Bonaparte Visiting the Plague Victims of Jaffa," 1804, oil on canvas
(© Musée du Louvre)

One holds a protective scarf to his face while the other tries in vain to deter the general from what he is doing. Napoleon is reaching out to lay his hand on an open sore of the ravaged body of a plague sufferer propped up before him.

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General and victim stare eye to eye. No social distancing here.

The plague sufferer, with one hand raised above his head and the other pressed to his chest, evokes Michelangelo’s poignant sculpture of a “Dying Slave.” By contrast, in the painting’s warm, dusky hues, Napoleon is a florid pillar of unperturbed, even heroic strength. Amid a grim, foreign tableau of misery and woe, he radiates light at center stage.

It’s quite a scene. The painter has portrayed the soldier in a way that any contemporaneous viewer in historically Catholic France would recognize immediately as a secular Christ. Set flamboyantly in the Holy Land, a miracle worker has arrived — just as one who, centuries before, healed a desperate leper who came before him after delivery of the Sermon on the Mount.

Napoleon’s superhuman power is offered as his prophylactic against contracting plague. The composition, not unlike the sermon’s lessons, is a morality play with the general as the star.

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It’s also a wild fiction — propaganda of the highest order. In Jaffa, the actual episode unfolded very differently.

The 1799 plague in the ancient coastal Mediterranean city — then in Syria but now in Israel, just south of modern Tel Aviv — threatened to permanently stain Napoleon’s reputation. Fresh from the siege of Egypt, the general’s army was moving north to Syria to fight the Ottoman Turks.

When the walled city of Jaffa fell to the French army, thousands of enemy soldiers were captured. Napoleon, unable to imprison or control such a multitude, ordered them all beheaded or shot.

Some believe the wanton slaughter produced the unsanitary conditions that triggered the plague. Whatever the case, an epidemic raged. Napoleon’s own soldiers were hardly immune.

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With the help of local Armenian priests, a makeshift hospital to care for the sick was set up at Saint Nicholas Monastery. That’s the fantastically elaborate building with Moorish arches and crenellated walls depicted in Gros’ painting.

And that is where the scandal comes in. Dire events needed an artist to paper over them.

It appears that not only was Napoleon not a miracle worker, he instead ordered fatal doses of opium be given to his own sick and dying soldiers. “It was thought it would be an act of charity to anticipate their death a few hours,” claimed his friend and memoirist, the diplomat Louis Antoine Fauvelet de Bourrienne.

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The Turks were closing in on Jaffa and Napoleon had to hurry back to secure Cairo. Transporting sick soldiers was out of the question. Euthanasia was ordered.

Bourrienne had accompanied Napoleon on the siege of Egypt and Syria. He was an eyewitness. “I never saw him touch any one of the infected,” he wrote.

Gros painted the false picture in 1804, five years after the event it purports to portray. The enormous canvas was unveiled at the Salon, a convenient national art occasion that fell between Napoleon’s May declaration of his emperorship and his December coronation. It caused a stir.

Rumors of Napoleon poisoning his own soldiers in Jaffa had been swirling, but Bourrienne’s explanatory memoir wouldn’t be published for another 20 years. The imaginative propaganda painting told the story instead. The rumors were shut down, the artist’s career secured.

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Gros had been introduced to Bonaparte in 1796 by Napoleon’s sweetheart, Josephine. He promptly painted a dashing portrait of the future emperor, one that flattered the sitter as surely as would the posthumous, full-length portrait of devastatingly handsome young Charles Legrand, a 25-year-old French second lieutenant killed during Napoleon’s adventuring in Spain. Showing Legrand as a virtual golden boy, the painting, now in the collection of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, was commissioned as a memorial by the lad’s grieving parents.

Antoine-Jean Gros, "Portrait of Second Lieutenant Charles Legrand," circa 1810, oil on canvas
(LACMA)
Attributed to Antoine-Jean Gros, "Napoleon at the Battlefield of Eylau," 1807, pen and ink over graphite
Attributed to Antoine-Jean Gros, “Napoleon at the Battlefield of Eylau,” 1807, pen and ink over graphite
(J. Paul Getty Museum)

As Napoleon’s military chronicler, Gros could be formulaic. When he won the 1807 commission to memorialize a gory battle fought to a bloody draw with the Imperial Russian army in East Prussia, he divided up the canvas into zones similar to the Jaffa painting. (Another monumental canvas, it’s also in the Louvre.)

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“Napoleon at the Battlefield of Eylau,” a brusque, firmly drawn ink and graphite sketch for the painting at the Getty Museum, piles bodies in the gruesome foreground. Then comes the powerful general, shining on a prancing steed amid the middle-ground chaos, where he offers succor to a fallen soldier. In the background, a vast landscape unfurls.

The early success the artist enjoyed eventually withered, along with his patron’s dream of a continent under French dominion, destroyed after the calamity at Waterloo. Gros grew despondent. He died of suicide, drowning himself in the Seine in 1835.

Yet, a peculiar last hurrah happened a dozen years before his death. Gros’ student, the prodigy Auguste-Hyacinthe Debay, painted a smaller, brighter, less grim easel-copy of the giant Jaffa painting, now in the collection of Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. Debay was just 19, born the year the original was painted, but the timing of the copy was telling: Napoleon had recently died, and Bourrienne’s damning memoir had finally just been published.

Auguste-Hyancinthe Debay, after Antoine-Jean Gros, "General Bonaparte Visiting the Plague-Stricken at Jaffa," 1823, oil on canvas
(Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

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The eyewitness book exposed the lie of the plague-proof miracle at Jaffa.

It didn’t matter. By then, Gros’ triumphant propaganda painting was no longer a mere narrative of far-off historical events. As Victor Hugo would put it in “Les Misérables,” fiction had power over fact, scripted myth over reality: “A great man had to disappear in order that a great century be born.” Debay’s burnished picture, painted for his mentor, underscored it.

Gros was so good at what he did that after Napoleon was dead and buried, he was awarded an aristocratic title by the King of France. Antoine-Jean Gros became Baron Gros.

Donald Trump, on the other hand, had to fabricate his own aristocratic name. “John Baron” was his made-up publicist, a go-to alias he used in the 1980s when he telephoned reporters to tout himself. Disinformation would get the failing real estate developer’s name printed breathlessly in the tabloids, propaganda that later begat the scripted reality of “The Apprentice.” A puffy, gilded fiction helped lay the groundwork for a presidency of alternative facts, floundering through a time of actual plague.


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