Bonaparte touching the plague victims

Bonaparte touching the plague victims

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Title: Bonaparte touching the plague victims.

Author : THIEBAULT Jean-Baptiste (1809 - 1839)

Date shown: March 11, 1799

Dimensions: Height 41.8 - Width 64

Technique and other indications: Wood stencil colored on paper Edited in Epinal at Pellerin

Storage location: MuCEM website

Contact copyright: © Photo RMN-Grand Palais - D. Adam

Picture reference: 01.2.49 / Inv.50.21.544 D

Bonaparte touching the plague victims.

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais - D. Adam

Publication date: March 2016

Historical context

During the Syrian expedition, an epidemic of plague ravaged the French army after the capture of Jaffa. The bravery of the commander of the armies, his duty to stop at nothing, not even in the face of illness, will be retained by Napoleon himself to illustrate one of the most remarkable episodes of his reign; the anecdote will then become a legend.

Image Analysis

This engraving is part of a series produced by Imagery Pellerin [1] on the theme of the Napoleonic epic, from the great battles to the apotheosis of the Emperor. The firm was founded under the Empire. Alongside religious and traditional themes, the achievements of Napoleon and his army will fuel the imagination of the French for a long time, long after his reign. Jean Charles Pellerin and Antoine Réveillé, former soldier of the imperial army, will be the initiators of this production inspired, according to Spinalian legend, by memories of the latter's campaigns.
Their models were sometimes inspired by famous paintings. Here it seems to be Antoine Gros's canvas The Plagued of Jaffa. Presented a few months before the Emperor's coronation, it was carried out at his request to ensure his propaganda strategy and to consolidate and legitimize his power. Engraving will ensure his fame.
Although simplified, the overall composition of the print is similar, which underlines Bonaparte's symbolic gesture. However, the position of the plague victim's half-naked body is not that of the painting but rather that, stereotypical, of the hero's death as fixed by Jacques Louis David. On the eve of the Revolution, he modeled several times on Hector in The Pain of Andromache, to represent the body of Le Peletier de Saint-Fargeau or to magnify the death of Marat. The half-lying naked body, draped in the antique style, the bas-relief composition making the characters particularly visible and the system of arches closing the backdrop as on a theater stage are as many neoclassical elements as one finds in Epinal half a century later. The durability of the style imposed by the Emperor's first painter corresponds to the Napoleonic legend as it is also narrated in popular imagery through visual codes that are unique to it. These codes make it possible to serve an ideal received, expected and understood by the greatest number.


Napoleon's symbolic gesture nourished his legend thanks to the dissemination of the image and its expressive force. The latter helped crystallize the imperial political design in the collective unconscious. While once the prerogative of miracle kings, the Emperor appropriated a monarchical iconography that goes beyond heroic character to take on pseudo-religious overtones.
The cult in his memory would develop later, revived when the ashes returned in 1840. This image of Epinal testifies to the preponderant role that the Pellerin factory played in the dissemination of Bonapartist ideals at that time. Alfred de Musset in Confession of a Child of the Century testifies to the fervor of the Romantic generation for the Emperor: “Only one man was alive then in Europe; the rest of the beings tried to fill their lungs with the air they had breathed. ”

  • Egypt
  • epidemics
  • Napoleonic legend
  • Bonaparte (Napoleon)
  • East
  • propaganda
  • plague


Marc BLOCH Kings thaumaturges: study on the supernatural character attributed to royal power, particularly in France and England Paris, Gallimard, reprint 1987, Jules DESCHAMPS On the legend of Napoleon Paris, Honoré Champion old bookshop, 1931 Exhibition catalog Triumph and Death of the Hero: History Painting in Europe from Rubens to Manet Wallraf-Richartz Museum, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Lyon, 19 May-17 July 1988, Lyon, Electra-Musée des Beaux-Arts, 1988.Nicole GARNIER French popular imagery volume II, "The image of Epinal engraved on wood", RMN, Paris, 1996. Jean LUCAS-DUBRETON The Cult of Napoleon. 1815-1848 Paris, Albin Michel, 1960.Annie JOURDAN Napoleon, hero, imperator, patron Paris, Aubier, 1998.Denis MARTIN Images of Epinal, Quebec Museum Paris-Québec, RMN, 1995 Jean TULARD (dir.) Napoleon dictionary Paris, Fayard, 1989, new. ed. 1999. Jean TULARD Napoleon or the Myth of the Savior Paris, Fayard, 1977, new. ed. 1993.


The PELLERIN factory in Epinal Between 1822 and 1854, Nicolas Pellerin and Pierre-Germain Vadet exploited the Pellerin imagery founded in Epinal a century earlier and made prosperous by Jean-Charles Pellerin (1756-1836), father of Nicolas and father-in-law of Pierre-Germain. Pellerin and Vadet will develop imagery and distribute its production abroad in the 1830s. Vadet, a former soldier of the Empire, contributes to the dissemination of images linked to the cult of Napoleon I and created by François Georgin. For his part, Nicolas Pellerin expands production and modernizes the factory. He then hired a hundred workers and young engravers including Jean-Baptiste Thiébault. Between tradition and modernity, the second quarter of the nineteenth century is a period of transition for Spinalian imagery, which marks both a desire to continue a production which has already proven itself both in its themes and in the technique of woodcut. and the need to extend this production to new subjects, treated according to processes allowing the increase of prints such as stereotyping and lithography.

THIEBAULT Jean-Baptiste (Nancy, 1809-Metz, 1839) The stay of this Nancy artist in Epinal was brief. Mainly historical, his engravings, often taken from drawings by François Georgin, his predecessor, were produced between 1834 and 1835, his activity then continuing in Metz at Dembour. He died suddenly at the age of 30. However, beyond his period of Spinalian creation, his woodcuts continued to be edited and distributed by the Fabrique Pellerin until the middle of the 19th century.

To cite this article

Nathalie JANES, "Bonaparte touching the plague victims"

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