Bonaparte Visiting the Plague Victims of Jaffa is an oil-on-canvas painting that Antoine-Jean Gros painted in 1804 after receiving a commission from Napoleon Bonaparte and depicting a scene from the French invasion of Egypt. Before examining the picture in detail, the canvas dimensions are 532 cm by 720 cm (209 in × 280 in), and the painting is now a part of the Louvre Museum’s collection of French artwork in Paris, France. The picture depicts Napoleon Bonaparte at a dramatic event that is said to have taken place in Jaffa on March 11, 1799. The French general can be seen visiting his sick soldiers at the Armenian Saint Nicholas Monastery.

Story behind the art- Bonaparte Visiting the Plague Victims of Jaffa - Sheet1
Bonaparte Visiting the Plague Victims of Jaffa_©
Story behind the art- Bonaparte Visiting the Plague Victims of Jaffa - Sheet2
Self-portrait Antoine-Jean Gros_©RMN-GP (Château de Versailles)

French Romantic painter Antoine-Jean Gros was born on March 16, 1771, and died on June 26, 1835. He was born in France, in the city of Paris, and he also passed away there. He is primarily famous for his historical images that capture key moments in Napoleon’s military career. In his career, he had great success with his picture Bonaparte Visiting the Plague Victims of Jaffa, which was meant to end rumours that the conqueror had abandoned the sick in Syria.


After Napoleon was proclaimed emperor, the government commissioned the picture, which was done for propaganda purposes. Napoleon Bonaparte (1769–1821), then 29 years old, urged to see his troops who had been infected with the plague in 1799 when they stormed the castle at Jaffa, Palestine (modern-day Tel Aviv, Israel). His objective was to calm the hysteria that had gripped his men due to fear of disease. In the book Bonaparte in Egypt Herold  J. Christopher declared as, in the visit members of his staff documented the visit. One wrote, “This action, which shows a deep political instinct, has produced an excellent effect. Already there is less fear.” 

When Napoleon’s army attacked the walled fortress in Jaffa, they slaughtered soldiers, women, and children who were Christians and Muslims. Therefore, the Ottoman Empire formally declared war on France in response to Bonaparte’s invasion. He was not able to push the Turks out after a two-month siege. After his final attack’s failure, Bonaparte declared that his army would retreat from Acre. Although plague had followed the French from Jaffa to Acre and was present there as well, the failure to capture Acre was not due to the sickness; rather, military considerations drove the French to retreat. However, the epidemic was an excuse Bonaparte used to justify his failure at Acre. 


Story behind the art- Bonaparte Visiting the Plague Victims of Jaffa - Sheet3
Apollo Belvedere_©

Artists had been allowed to paint as they pleased during the revolution, but Bonaparte established a desirable government patronage. Antoine-Jean Gros uses Christian iconography. He also shows Napoleon in the same pose as the Apollo Belvedere, an old Greek sculpture. Napoleon is given celestial attributes in this way while also being portrayed as a military hero. But unlike David, Gros focuses on the dead and dying people who are in the painting’s foreground and employs warm, sensual hues. It is clear in the artwork that Bonaparte, by treating plague victims with disregard for the illness, places himself alongside the kings who did miracles and whose touch could heal. The Holy Land scene in which heavenly might is invoked accurately captures the dynasty’s aspirations for legitimacy. 

For further analysis of the painting, The Armenian Saint Nicholas Monastery can be seen in the background in the courtyard. The walls of Jaffa are visible further in the distance, and a tower in the distance is displayed with the flag of France. Either strong cannon smoke or fire smoke dominates the town. A man of a highly attired oriental type is handing out bread and is assisted by a servant carrying a bread basket on the left, which is dominated by a classic Egyptian horseshoe arch. Two black men are carrying a cadaver behind them. The gallery of sick people is visible when the two-coloured arcade is opened.

With his officers by his side, Napoleon is seen tending to one of the sick people in the right foreground, between two arcades. A blind guy tries to approach the general, but also, an Arab doctor is tending to another sick man in front of him. Men are positioned prostrate and extended at the bottom of the artwork. The painting’s lighting and color composition give the finest possible representation of Bonaparte’s gesture. 

Additionally, it said the significance of the number “32” on one of the patients’ hats has long been a debate on how to interpret the picture. On the right side of the painting, the prisoner standing behind the patient and lifting his arm in front of Napoleon may be a hidden self-portrait for Gros, the artist, who was 32 at the time.

British Caricature_©

Therefore, it can be said that Napoleon was a master at manipulating the public’s perception of him through art. In actuality, it said that he had poisoned his troops, who were suffering from the plague as he fled Jaffa, and had ordered the execution of the prisoners, whom he could not afford to shelter or feed. In printed caricatures of the scenario, the British used this as anti-Bonaparte propaganda. One depicts Napoleon in the Jaffa ward in 1803, instructing a horrified doctor to give opium to “Five Hundred and Eighty of his wounded Soldiers” to poison them. 

Reference List: 

  1. Encyclopedia Britannica. (n.d.). Antoine-Jean Gros | Biography, Paintings, & Facts. [online] Available at:
  2. Palace of Versailles. (2018). Antoine Jean Gros. [online] Available at:
  3. Harris, J.C. (2006). Napoleon Bonaparte Visiting the Plague-Stricken at Jaffa. Archives of General Psychiatry, 63(5), p.482. doi:
  4. (n.d.). Bonaparte visiting the plague victims of Jaffa. [online] Available at:
  5. Wikipedia. (2021). Bonaparte Visiting the Plague Victims of Jaffa. [online] Available at:
  6. WHAT ‘BONAPARTE VISITING THE PLAGUE-STRICKEN IN JAFFA’ TEACHES ABOUT OUR OWN PLAGUE-STRICKEN TIME-bonaparte-visiting-the-plague- stricken-in-jaffa-teaches-about-our-own-plague-stricken-time/ A famous and sorely misunderstood painting of Napoleon touching plague victims in Palestine illuminates the current moment. (n.d.). Available at:

İnci is an architect who is passionate about interdisciplinary discussion in the field of architecture.In her point of view architecture is not only about aesthetics and art but is an understanding and constant thinking of creating space for living thing.She loves to research,read,learn and write about different perspectives of architecture.