Napoleon & charm of propaganda

This giant canvas is by all means majestic. On over 38 square meters a scene from Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign in 1799 is shown. The General visits his subordinates in a temporary hospital in the Armenian monastery of St. Nicholas in Jaffa, where they were placed after being infected by the plague. A few years later, Antoine-Jean Gros chose pathetic means to show the event – like Christ, Napoleon touches the wounds of the sick without regard for the threat of contagion and the gestures of the officers trying to stop him.

Napoleon, Jaffa
Antoine-Jean Gros, Napoleon Visiting the Plague Victims of Jaffa, 1804, Louvre, Paris

This scene is only half based on facts. Indeed, Napoleon went to the lazaret to raise the morale of the soldiers there. However, he suggested to the doctors fighting for their lives that they give the sick a lethal dose of laudanum. This would alleviate their suffering and at the same time facilitate the war campaign. The doctors rejected this proposal with outrage.


The rumours quickly reached Paris that the commander managed to partially implement this plan and, with the help of a local physician, to deprive dozens of patients of their lives. Napoleon wanted to discredit them, especially in the light of his own imperial ambitions. Hence the commission of this enormous work, showing the great interest of the leader in the welfare of his sick soldiers. This is how the machine of propaganda worked.  The facts were adapted to the needs, and the only thing the head of state had in mind was to strengthen and protect his own image.

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