After the Revolution
Antoine-Jean Gros, Painting, and Propaganda Under Napoleon
After the Revolution
Antoine-Jean Gros, Painting, and Propaganda Under Napoleon
David O'Brien“The masses . . . must be guided without their noticing it.”—Napoleon to Joseph Fouché, his minister of police
- Table of Contents
- Sample Chapters
Napoleon and Antoine-Jean Gros first met in 1796 in Italy, where the young French painter was working as a portraitist and attempting to recover from the upheavals of the French Revolution. The meeting changed Gros’s life. Soon thereafter, he was making paintings—Napoleon Visiting the Battlefield of Eylau, Napoleon Visiting the Plague-Stricken in Jaffa, and others—that commemorated the great deeds of “the Corsican upstart” and have come to be regarded as masterpieces of both art and propaganda.
After the Revolution by David O’Brien is the first account in over a century to trace Gros’s meteoric career, from its beginnings in Paris in David’s studio to its Napoleonic successes and its end in a mysterious suicide. Drawing on letters from the artist to his mother, many of which O’Brien discovered, this book gives the reader a compelling account of the opportunities and conflicts faced by a brilliant, sensitive artist working for an increasingly autocratic regime. O’Brien’s highly original book weaves a comprehensive biography of Gros together with a history of the institutional machinery through which Napoleon encouraged but also regulated the arts. Here again, O’Brien introduces the reader to new documents—this time, records from the Archives Nationales—that illuminate the personalities and policies directing the representation of Napoleon and his era.
The many color illustrations in After the Revolution enable the reader to follow O’Brien’s informative analysis of the mixing of fact and fiction in such famed paintings as the Battlefield of Eylau. Written in a clear, engaging style, this book will be of great interest to art historians, students of political and military history, and all those fascinated by Napoleon.
“Admiration for everything that is great made tears come to my eyes.”—Antoine-Jean Gros, upon learning that Bonaparte had returned to France from Egypt
David O'Brien is Associate Professor of Art History at the University of Illinois and the author of numerous articles on American and French art.
List of Illustrations
1. An Education in Italy
2. Art and the New Order in France
3. Divisions and Unities in 1804
4. The Propaganda Machine
5. Eylau, the Empire, and the Republic of the Arts
6. Second Thoughts
Artists working in Paris rallied to the French Revolution in disproportionately large numbers. Their support for political reform hinged partly on the belief that the reign of liberty would regenerate the arts by freeing them from the restrictive institutions and arbitrary dictates of absolute monarchy. Revolutionary artists commonly linked the quality of art to larger social developments using a crude but widely accepted theory: political liberty would lead to artistic liberty, and this in turn would create a new golden age for the arts. This idea was implicit in a statement made by Jean Restout in 1789: “Liberty: by this sublime word, all spirits are awakened, all souls are moved. If liberty forms the essence of something, it belongs especially to those who practice the arts, which should never have been debased by servitude.”
In 1793 this logic led to the destruction of the very body to which Restout was speaking, the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture, and to the dismantling of the small state bureaucracy that oversaw its operations. An anonymous writer argued for the suppression of the Academy in this way: “Artists, who feel the benefits of the liberty they enjoy so much as citizens, regret that, as artists, they are still enslaved by ministerial power and hemmed in by the narrow circle of the Academic regime, a despotic and absurd regime which, reuniting all power in the hands of a small number of artists, makes them the arbiters of the fate and reputation of all their fellow citizens who, like them, pursue the difficult career of the arts.” The Academy was an exclusive body of artists whose authority had derived from the monarchy. According to its opponents, the Academy unfairly limited artistic careers by reserving both official commissions and the right to appear at the Salon—the only major, regular forum for exhibiting art in eighteenth-century Paris—to its own membership. Rather than deferring to the arbitrary judgement of this privileged group, reformers proposed alternative systems in which “all artists can have a part without regard to distinction, judged in public and by public opinion.” In 1798, five years after the destruction of the Academy, a critic praised the new situation of artists: “Liberty has freed Artists from both the constraints on their genius and the humiliations of all sorts that they had to endure in order to become members of a body [the Academy] which alone allowed one to establish a reputation: the birth of liberty has delivered them to the public, the natural judge of their work, and the public has become the equitable dispenser of their fame.” Public opinion, the newly sovereign judge of the arts, would light the path to artistic regeneration.
For history painting, the most esteemed and prestigious genre of painting, the Revolution also ushered in a more specific expectation: the great contemporary events taking place in France surpassed the events of antiquity in both moral and dramatic grandeur, and therefore should replace classical narratives as the primary subject of the high genre. Jacques Lebrun put it this manner in 1794: “Now that tyranny no longer weighs us down, now that the powerful wind of liberty has blown away all the various obstacles which could stop our rise, what a vast and fecund field spreads out before us! We no longer need to search through the history of the most distant ages in order to stimulate our imagination. Such heroic feats take place before our eyes, rivaling the most marvelous things that the republics of Athens and Lacedaemonia can offer.” Artists and critics regularly predicted that the Revolution would lead to a new kind of large-scale painting—canvases of great Revolutionary events—but they did so with greater frustration as time went by. French painters failed to produce many canvases of national events for a variety of reasons; for the moment let us mention only the most obvious one: the failure of a financially strapped government to fund the arts. The critic Polyscope, who may stand here for dozens of similar voices, wrote of walking to the Salon in 1795, dreaming that history painters would have “drawn from our own history. For several years it has offered terrible or touching scenes which future painters will regret not having witnessed in order to render them with greater truth.” He was sorely disappointed by what he found upon his arrival, for few painters had taken up such subjects.
By 1799, the year Napoleon Bonaparte’s coup d’état established the Consulate (1799–1804) and effectively brought the Revolution to an end, growing numbers of artists and critics recognized that the Revolution had failed to regenerate French history painting. The number and quality of large-scale canvases had declined sharply, and hardly any of them depicted national subjects. In contrast, after Bonaparte established himself as Emperor in 1804, large-scale paintings of contemporary events filled the Salon, where they usually met with lavish praise. While a few commentators attributed the rebirth of history painting to the guiding lights of liberty and public opinion, most connected it with renewed state funding that surpassed even that of the Old Regime. The importance of artistic liberty was not discussed much, and at least some artists felt that it was all but absent from their lives. In a letter to his confidante Julie Candeille, the painter Anne-Louis Girodet complained about the work that kept him away from her: “Alas, my friend, what you call my preference [i.e. his work] is nothing more than the pain, which I feel acutely, of having to finish what is asked of me by a certain deadline. We have all been enlisted, even if we don’t wear a uniform—paintbrush to the right, pencil to the left, forward march—and we march.” Girodet wrote these lines sometime during the Empire (1804–14), perhaps when he was working on his Napoleon Receiving the Keys of Vienna (fig. 1), a technically stunning but boring example of Napoleonic propaganda, or perhaps when he was in the midst of a commission to paint thirty-six identical state portraits of Napoleon. Painting on the grand scale was back, filled with contemporary events, but its form and content were strictly dictated, more than ever before, by a small, autocratic bureaucracy within the government, and critical reactions were tightly policed by a remarkably efficient system of censorship.
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Antoine Quatremère de Quincy had advocated the abolition of the Academy early on in the Revolution, but after the fall of the Empire, when he had become an outspoken political and aesthetic conservative, he bitterly lamented the effect of Revolutionary reforms on large-scale painting:
The Revolution, having dissolved the Old Regime of the arts, replaced order with the chaos of equality. All levels of talent were confounded on a single level, a confused crowd, in which the suffrage of a numerical majority led inevitably to mediocrity. [. . .] The traditional form of government commissions had been suspended for some time. [In about 1804] there was a move to restore it, but from a new point of view, subordinate to new interests. In effect, soon the new era began, when all forms of anarchy would abdicate their claims into the hands of the conqueror, and when the arts, too, would place themselves under his protection, a protection they would receive so long as they only had eyes for him.
Quatremère correctly noted that the Revolution had wiped out the government support that high-minded classical history painting required in order to flourish. In his opinion, the reign of equality and anarchy—his substitutes for liberty—led to artistic decline. Art was forced to rely on popular appeal (as opposed to the support of a cultivated elite) in order to survive, and this had disastrous consequences. When official patronage returned, it subordinated the interests of art to the propagandistic requirements of a dictatorial regime, leading to still sadder results. This opinion was not pronounced publicly under the Empire, nor could it have been, but Quatremère’s belated reaction provides a keen insight, as we shall see, into the fundamental changes taking place in French artistic practice in the years around 1800.
We should not, however, draw the conclusion that public opinion mattered less for history painting under Napoleon, because the whole purpose of his patronage program was to use the arts instrumentally to shape perceptions of his regime. What had changed radically was the status of opinion in relation to official art: now the government envisioned opinion primarily as an object to be manipulated, at least as far as politics were concerned, rather than as a force that influenced art. Under the Old Regime, official art had increasingly responded to public opinion, as the state art administration grappled with the burgeoning mass of art criticism generated by the Salon. Under Napoleon, censorship and a dictatorial arts administration severely diminished the ability of public opinion to interact with official painting in any direct or critical way beyond the purely stylistic matters. The government did attempt to gauge public opinion, for in order to be effective, propaganda must mesh with the expectations and perceptions circulating in society. But such a qualification does not alter the basic fact that under the new regime official painting sought to shape, rather than respond to, popular sentiments. Part of the story told here is about the resistance that official efforts to use art as propaganda encountered during the Consulate, before meeting with acquiescence under the Empire. Resistance arose from those whose opinions differed from the official line. Jacobins, in particular, had relied on painting as a vehicle for the propagation of their own ideas. But, more fundamentally, the use of painting as official propaganda conflicted with the notion that the arts were, at their best, an arena for the free and open expression of ideas.
Throughout the eighteenth century, art was increasingly identified with the “Republic of Letters” (or, alternatively, the “Republic of Taste” or the “Republic of the Arts”), a polity in which individuals freely exchanged ideas and public opinion was a powerful judge of artistic success and failure. Pierre Bayle, an early and seminal formulator of this imaginary community, offered the following definition of it in 1692: “the Republic of Letters is an extremely free state. One recognizes there only the rule of liberty and reason, and under their auspices one wages war innocently against whomever it might be. [. . .] Everyone there together is sovereign, and liable to everybody.” The artist was self-determining in the Republic of Letters. As an early follower of Bayle understood it, artists, writers, and scientists “form an Estate distributed in every Estate, a Republic, in which each Member, in a perfect independence, recognizes only the laws which he has prescribed for himself.” One reason that the Republic of Letters had such appeal in the eighteenth century was that it allowed creative individuals to imagine themselves as free from the demands and restrictions imposed by governments, family ties, social betters, and patrons. An anonymous writer claimed in 1780 that the Republic of Letters existed “in the midst of all the governments that decide the fate of men; in the bosom of so many states, the majority of them despotic,” and it was called a Republic because “it preserve[d] a measure of independence, and because it is almost its essence to be free.”
In the Republic of the Arts, painters, sculptors, writers, philosophers, musicians, poets, and critics, through their art and their institutions, formed a community that functioned in partial separation from and sometimes in opposition to the official culture of absolute monarchy. The unification of the arts and letters in the Republic was addressed explicitly by Claude-Mammès Pahin de La Blanchisserie, a cultural entrepreneur who launched the journal Nouvelles de la République des Lettres et des Arts in 1777. La Blanchisserie strove to include artists in his weekly meetings of intellectuals, and he hung exhibitions in his meeting place. La Blanchisserie’s establishment was one of many societies that functioned on the model of the Republic of the Arts and were attacked by government organizations, such as Academies, who felt that their privileges and authority were threatened by them. Communication in the Republic of the Arts “would be free of the terms of authority and deference, power and dependence, that pervaded social relations in the corporate hierarchy of the Old Regime. In this socially neutral zone intellectual property, like landed property in classical republicanism, assured equality of citizenship. The sheer cogency of ideas—regardless of social rank and power of their advocates—would yield a consensus.” Citizens of the Republic enjoyed a form of reciprocal exchange and cosmopolitan conversation between equals that contrasted starkly with the prerogatives of rank and class found in the corporative, royal, and aristocratic society of the Old Regime. By the late eighteenth century it was commonplace to think that the complex dialogue between artists and public opinion constituted a significant site of political power in its own right, and an important check on the government’s control over artistic matters. According to advocates of the new realm, whenever a government attempted to foist deceitful, decadent, or corrupt art on its subjects, it would be restrained by the edifying effects of public opinion.
Within the Republic of Arts, official propaganda appeared as a compromised form of creativity because it restricted the autonomy of artists and attempted to manipulate public opinion to conform with the priorities of the government. Public opinion in the Republic of the Arts claimed the right to shape art, not be shaped by it. Thus, art and official propaganda began to appear as distinct cultural categories with divergent purposes. During the late eighteenth century social commentators were feeling their way toward what has become our modern definition of propaganda. The word was first widely used in the Congregatio de propaganda fide, or “congregation for propagating the faith,” a community of Cardinals founded by Gregory XV in 1622, which had as its mission to spread Catholicism. After 1789 the term began to describe efforts to disseminate doctrines or practices associated with the French Revolution. In 1790 James Macpherson wrote to the Prince of Wales (the future George IV) that “All kings have at this moment, a new race of Pretenders to contend with; the disciples of propaganda at Paris or, as they call themselves, les Ambassadeurs du genre humaine.” In the same year Condorcet worried about the irrational arguments formulated in Revolutionary clubs that were “dangerous for the public peace through the influence of the propaganda of their principles [when they were not guided by] wisdom and reason” During the Directory the term propaganda was used widely to refer to efforts to promote the Revolution abroad; “propagandists” were agents of the Revolution. By 1798 the Dictionary of the French Academy had defined propaganda as a “type of association, having for its goal to propagate Revolutionary principles and movements.”
Students of propaganda often assert that the word took on its current connotations of coercive communication only in the twentieth century, but even in the seventeenth century Protestants used it in a negative sense to describe Catholic missionary efforts. Something of its pejorative meaning may be sensed in MacPherson’s and Condorcet’s words: by using a formerly Catholic term, the Protestant courtier and the Enlightenment thinker likened radical proponents of Revolutionary doctrines to an aggressive and irrational sectarian ministry. In the aftermath of the Revolution, these thinkers were groping for categories with which they could understand the spread of new political ideas. It was but a small step from their musings to applying the word to any systematic effort to spread a political idea or doctrine, as was done later in the nineteenth century. After World War I, propaganda became primarily a pejorative word, though under some regimes, as in Nazi Germany, it retained a positive connotation. The increasing importance of mass communication and more sophisticated uses of the mass media lent new urgency to anxieties over the manipulation of public opinion. Discussions of propaganda usually understood the term to refer to misleading, beguiling, and ideologically one-sided forms of communication, and it was most commonly applied to the political realm.
In the latter half of the twentieth century, the word often referred to any ideologically charged message, even if the ideology was latent, implicit, or unconscious. This definition vastly expands the scope of the term to include virtually all cultural production. For our purposes, a narrower definition, confined to deliberate and systematic efforts to influence public opinion toward a pre-meditated end, provides greater critical insight into our subject. Insofar as Napoleonic propaganda machine inhibited or short-circuited free and open debate, undercutting the direct influence of public opinion on art in order to present its own, unquestionable interpretation of events, it conflicted with the democratic idea at the core of the Republic of the Arts.
The conflict between the vision of cultural production promoted within the Republic of the Arts and the instrumental use of art by the Napoleonic regime was bound to surface in relation to large-scale painting, because the central institution for exhibiting such work in public, the Salon, was an attractive site for both those who wished to employ art as propaganda and those who saw it as a forum for open critical debate. The Salon transformed artistic production because it invited popular audiences to act vicariously as patrons and judge art displayed in a secular setting on their own terms. From the moment of its establishment in 1737 as a regular, usually biennial event, the Salon drew a diverse audience composed of individuals from widely varying classes and social categories, and this audience was given the opportunity to evaluate the work on display according to its own interests and priorities. Public art before the advent of the Salon was openly determined and administered from above, but as the exhibition grew in importance, traditional patrons such as the church, court, and aristocracy listened ever more closely to the dictates of public opinion. The Salon gave birth to the argument that public scrutiny and debate maintained quality in art by checking potential abuses of government patronage.
The popular nature of the Salon needs to be emphasized here: entrance to the exhibition was free, and by all accounts it attracted a broad cross-section of Parisian society throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. During the Napoleonic period critics routinely commented on this: “What a frightful crowd! Porters, fishwives, valets! A pack of children, shoving, screaming, stepping on feet [. . .]. Could they not admit them into the Salon for four hours, and leave the rest of the day to polite society?” Or again: “It isn’t only connoisseurs and amateurs who fill up the place, it is citizens from all the classes of the city, and even from the country, attracted especially by the nature of the subjects [i.e., contemporary events].” The exhibition was a major cultural event for the upper classes, to be sure, but it was visited by “le tout Paris.” It is difficult to gauge the size of the audience at the Salon, but the most informed estimates place the figure at between 54,000 and 61,000 for the 1780s, and, following a decline during the Revolution, between 70,000 and 100,000 visitors per year during the Empire (and this at a time when the population of Paris was approximately 650,000.) The Salon was also widely publicized and discussed in pamphlets, arts journals, and newspapers. The most successful history paintings were reproduced in prints, which extended the impact of these pictures to a still wider audience. Such a forum was sure to attract the attention of a government eager to occupy every available channel for access to the public.
The Napoleonic regime often formulated its patronage of painting with the popular audience of the Salon in mind. In 1806, when contemporary events were clearly displacing classical and religious narratives as the primary subject matter of large-scale painting, a critic contrasted the allegorical battle paintings that Charles Le Brun painted for Louis XIV with the paintings of “memorable events from recent history” produced under the Napoleonic regime. Le Brun, he argued, “painted for the court of Louis XIV, which he could expect to be familiar with mythology. Our painters work for the mass of the public [la masse du public], which is not obliged to have as much instruction; and among the visitors who frequent the Salon, you always see lots of our brave men, who love to see themselves associated in paintings with the glory of their general.” The Napoleonic regime forced the intellectually ambitious genre of history painting to address the broadest possible public, to be intelligible to the masses. Images of contemporary events allowed painters to treat politics directly, not through the veil of allegory. We need to think of large-scale painting in this period not as an esoteric medium catering to an elite audience, but as an art form that reached out to all levels of society.
But if the Salon was an obvious site for official propaganda, it was also a place where the idea of the Republic of the Arts could be translated into actual practice, precisely because it provoked critical discussions that exceeded the intentions of its organizers. When applied to the Salon, the metaphor of the Republic of the Arts would logically include both artists and the public, yet the status of the latter entity within the polity needs qualification. The public was a mystifying, problematic, and controversial abstraction in the Napoleonic period, as indeed it had been throughout the eighteenth century, alternately described as the most disinterested and infallible arbiter of taste or as a fickle, irrational, ignorant, and vulgar judge of the arts. The public unquestionably held the franchise in the Republic of the Arts, but its status remained uncertain and contested, of immense consequence but frequently despised and doubted. Many critics expressed a sort of habitual deference to the public, remarking, for example, that “after consulting the opinion of the public, we will discuss the paintings in the order that it appears to have placed them.” But just as quickly a critic might doubt the worthiness of judgments emanating from the public sphere. “How many idiots does it take to form a public?” asked the critic for the Journal des arts in 1811, repeating a maxim by Chamfort from the Old Regime. The crowd at the Salon was, according to a pseudonymous pamphlet published by the artist Girodet in 1806, “this indifferent and superficial multitude which, without realizing it, always borrows its thoughts, its opinion, and even its feelings from the boldest and most talkative.” Despite their differing estimations of the public, these commentators all envisioned it as a single, undifferentiated mass. Such a unitary conception of the public was typical of the time, and few thinkers worried about its precise social composition or potential diversity of opinion. Indeed, the public existed primarily through the representations that were made of it, but this did not diminish its importance. On the contrary, it was invoked regularly by critics, as by politicians, to bolster the authority of their arguments.
The Republic of the Arts’ idealized vision of itself will remind many readers of the emergent “bourgeois” public sphere described by Jürgen Habermas. For Habermas, a crucial transition between the political system of absolute monarchy and that of modern democracy began in the late seventeenth century, when growing tensions between the desires of the developing commercial classes and the demands of the absolutist state were played out in a “zone of continuous administrative contact”—those places of interaction between the private life and the state administration—in which debates were increasingly determined by “the critical judgment of a public making use of its reason.” A significant segment of civil society transformed itself from a passive audience for formal displays of power formulated by its social and political superiors into an independent entity, willing to debate and criticize cultural production on its own terms. Private individuals increasingly came together in public—in coffee houses, salons, learned societies, academies, and through the press—to exercise their judgment, and the resulting dialogue held the potential of freeing individuals from restrictive particularities and the forces of tradition in favor of a universal set of ideals founded on ideals such as justice, humanity, and reason. In this account, “the public sphere in the political realm evolved out of the public sphere in letters”: artistic and intellectual emancipation paved the way for political emancipation.
Much recent scholarship has modified or taken issue with Habermas’s model, and certainly in the artistic sphere there were developments that point to the limitations of his account. History and genre painting in the Revolutionary period, far from encouraging the participation of all people in public life, often gendered social roles, confining women to the private sphere and reserving public roles for men. Many ideals promoted in the Republic of the Arts were hardly universal, and they became less so under Napoleon, when the rise of military subjects excluded women almost entirely from heroic painting. For Habermas, public opinion ideally consists of rational judgements arrived at through open, inclusive debate. This understanding of public opinion is simply not applicable to much of the discourse produced in the art world during Revolutionary and Napoleonic periods. Indeed, as we shall see, the hyperbolic arguments, violent rhetoric, and irrational judgements that characterized debate in this period prepared many to accept Napoleon’s dictatorial intervention.
Nonetheless, Habermas was surely right to focus on the importance of the public sphere in creating and legitimizing new forms of political power in the eighteenth century. Mona Ozouf has shown that, over the course of the eighteenth century, the authority of public opinion increased enormously and was often invoked at the end of the century as a sort of “infallible tribunal.” As Keith Michael Baker argues, “Public opinion emerged in the eighteenth-century political discourse as an abstract category of authority, invoked by actors in a new kind of politics to secure the legitimacy of claims that could no longer be made binding in terms [. . .] of an absolutist political order.” With regard to painting, Thomas Crow has demonstrated the increased power of public opinion over official patronage in eighteenth-century France, and the ways in which this encouraged ambitious artists to contest the cultural hierarchies of the absolutist state. Public opinion continued to enjoy tremendous prestige in the cultural and political debates of the Revolution as an irresistible force and trustworthy arbiter. But the constant and contradictory invocations of public opinion in the Revolution pointed up the diversity of its representations and the difficulty of knowing it in any sociological sense. Jon Cowans has observed that by the end of the 1790s, social commentators were far more inclined to view public opinion as fickle, misguided, or even unknowable.
The Napoleonic period provides an unexpected—and largely unexplored—sequel to this history. Napoleon seized the principal organs for public discourse and used them as conduits for state propaganda as never before. For decades public opinion had exercised ever greater influence over official policies through elite and popular culture, but the Napoleonic regime worked aggressively to control the public sphere through these same channels. Thus, the main problem to be addressed here is not the incursion of public opinion into the prerogatives of the state, but rather the opposite: how did Napoleon attempt to shackle the genies of artistic autonomy and public opinion once they had been released from their bottles, and to what extent did he succeed? What power did the Republic of the Arts continue to exert over large-scale painting in the face of Napoleon’s efforts to transform art into official propaganda?
Official art from the Napoleonic period has attracted relatively little attention within the history of French art, primarily because of its status as propaganda. Cultural commentators have generally accepted the premise that important art in the post-Revolutionary period has been made a certain remove from state power, ignoring the fact that this very conception of art fell into place during the Romantic period. Stated baldly, the dominant belief is that “Without freedom from the control of the socially and politically powerful it is not possible to create art. Art is therefore always potentially subversive, so that it is understandable and in a sense ‘rational’ for governments to become suspicious of art and artists, as they always are.” Those few instances where official propaganda has been celebrated in the history of modern art—Diego Rivera’s murals for the Ministry of Public Education in Mexico City, or Picasso’s Guernica, painted for the Spanish Republican government in exile—are exceptions that prove the rule. History painting did suffer in obvious ways under Napoleon: most artists working for the government churned out canvases with obvious, uninspired messages. Yet at times Napoleon’s painters were passionately engaged with their subjects, and their work was sometimes experimental, complex, and beautiful. But our reluctance to consider modern propaganda as art has left this transitional moment, when the government temporarily reasserted overt control over large-scale painting, unexamined.
Antoine-Jean Gros (1771–1835) was, by far, the most important artist to participate in the Napoleonic regime’s efforts to enlist painting as an integral part of a well-oiled propaganda machine. Gros received more commissions for large-scale paintings of contemporary events than any other Napoleonic painter. He was, more than anyone else, the painter to whom the government turned in its efforts to create large-scale canvases of contemporary military history that succeeded both as art and as propaganda, and his efforts met with unparalleled success. Gros thus stands at the center of this narrative, but he provides an excellent focal point for another reason as well. In a voluminous private correspondence and in periodic public outbursts, he passionately reacted to the changes in artistic life. His comments permit profound insights into the concrete effects that the shifting relationship of art and politics had on the career and ambitions of an individual artist and into broader changes in artistic practice. In what follows I have moved back and forth freely between the larger transformations in political and cultural life and the personal experience of a single artist. My aim has been to understand political and cultural changes through their effect on the individual, and, in turn, to understand the individual through the ways in which he negotiated his political and cultural context. I offer an institutional and social history of art that keeps the personal experience of the artist at its center, for the momentous changes taking place in artistic practice are best appreciated through the ways in which they were felt by artists. Few artists of the Romantic period reacted to these changes as dramatically as Gros.
Gros was a highly unlikely candidate for the position of first propagandist to the Emperor and leader of official painting. Though immensely talented and enormously influential under the Empire, he was emotionally unstable, lacking in self-confidence, and beholden to the vision of classical history painting espoused by his teacher, Jacques-Louis David. As we shall see, it was largely through fortuitous circumstances that he became a trusted propagandist for Bonaparte. Once in this position, however, he demonstrated the artistic potential of history paintings based on contemporary subjects. His success opened the eyes of both the government and his colleagues to the possibilities of incorporating painting into Napoleon’s rapidly expanding propaganda program.
Yet Gros’s successful collaboration with the government must be seen in relation to competing models of artistic practice. The subordination of history painting to the demands of the Napoleonic state is usually presented as an ineluctable consequence of political change, but the successful enlistment of art as propaganda in this period was not a foregone conclusion. To begin with, by 1801, after ten years of relative liberty and official neglect, some history painters thought of themselves as fundamentally autonomous individuals engaged with a public sphere characterized by free and open debate. The newfound independence of history painters carried with it an enormous drawback: no patron stepped forward to replace the regular support of the government. Indeed, without the support of the government, how could history painting carry on? The Republic of the Arts was an attractive idea insofar as it offered the artists greater autonomy, but in the absence of official backing most artists would be forced to fall back on portraiture and other genres supported by the market, as in fact they did during the Revolution. It is a sign of the prestige enjoyed by history painting that a significant number of artists persevered in the genre despite the absence of any clear means of support and embraced the freedom and distance from official priorities that their new situation allowed. The appeal of this vision of artistic production had to be neutralized before history painters could be neatly incorporated into the propaganda machine.
A second problem facing the government stemmed from the difficulty of adapting the aesthetic conventions surrounding history painting to their purposes. Painting was of no particular use to the government as propaganda if it failed as art. Painting was a powerful tool for legitimizing and glorifying the new order precisely because, as art, it conferred an aura of timelessness and elevation on its subjects and connected them to the grand tradition of the past. Bonaparte and his advisors initially treated the aesthetic considerations that stood in the way of their instrumental use of art with a combination of ignorance and disdain. Consequently, even sympathetic painters found it difficult to find a happy settlement between the competing demands of art and propaganda. Successful propagandistic history paintings did not begin to appear at the Salon in large numbers until 1806.
The imbrication of art and power in the Napoleonic period has recently inspired a number of important theoretical considerations of the special problems posed by the representation of war, questions of political legitimacy, and the conflict between traditional aesthetics and the demands of the new painting. Yet we have lacked an adequate account of the concrete changes in artistic practice brought about by the novel uses of art under the Napoleonic state. This book provides such a history, as well as a detailed examination of the themes and strategies employed by the Napoleonic art administration. On the most fundamental level, the more history painting assumed the dutiful role assigned to it by Napoleon, the more it struggled to generate critical interest. Early Napoleonic painting benefited from its residual involvement with Revolutionary debates and from experimentation with new forms of battle painting, but these forms of painting quickly gave way to humanitarian themes and a monotonous line of sycophantic canvases portraying Napoleon as a moral leader, motivator, peace-maker, and clement conqueror. Gros alone managed repeatedly to inject rich, compelling drama into such painting.
Scholarship on Gros has followed an odd course. He was the subject of one of the first monographs on a recently deceased artist, J.-B. Delestre’s Gros, sa vie et ses ouvrages from 1845. In 1880 J. Tripier le Franc published a mammoth, heavily documented study on him. Both of these accounts drew on an extensive correspondence by Gros, much of which disappeared following Delestre’s death in 1871. Over the course of more than a century, these letters have slowly begun to resurface, but in their absence scholars have been hesitant to revise the accounts of Delestre and Tripier le Franc. The best recent work on Gros has focused on single works and related them to the shifting political, colonial, and social ideologies of the period. While Gros remains one of the most admired artists of his generation, we lack an account of the overall shape of his life and career, and the ways in which it relates to larger changes in the artistic sphere.
Gros occupies a special position in the history of art: he is the last French painter who made his reputation working primarily for the government and is still regularly admired today for his artistic achievements. Almost all French history painting from after the Napoleonic period that we appreciate in aesthetic terms was independently conceived or, at best, only loosely related to the dictates of the state. Official painting was already losing its hold on the imagination of artists in the Napoleonic period. By mid-century, large-scale painting in general was commonly pronounced dead. For Théophile Gautier, writing in 1848, monumental painting was “an anachronism and a nonsense for our age.” It could still “serve to decorate national and public buildings, temples of prayer and temples of pleasure,” but its potential for satisfying “individual taste” had vanished.
What accounts for the continuing critical respect for Gros, when the work of most of his colleagues now elicits little more than a yawn? Part of Gros’s professional success and ongoing appeal relates to his unique perspective on the Napoleonic adventure. Gros possessed a profound admiration for Napoleon, but he joined this to a fascination with the dark underside of the Napoleonic project—its reckless devotion to war, ruthless disregard for the sanctity of human life, and atavistic imperial cult. Gros exaggerated effects and meanings that were only timidly adumbrated by other painters, provoking commentaries that reveal both the possibilities and limits of official painting in his historical moment. His peculiar, emotional attraction to Napoleonic conquest led him to ignore prevailing artistic conventions. In the place of the accepted procedures for completing a history painting, Gros substituted rapid, energetic execution, a disregard for preliminary planning in his figures and compositions, and an unconventional focus on horrific suffering. Gros produced official propaganda, but he did so in a manifestly personal and individual manner.
Gros also benefited from his unusual relationship to power. The government repeatedly asked him to treat problematic subjects in which Napoleon’s crimes were concealed and his failures construed as moral triumphs. Gros responded by combining the requisite, idealized vision of Napoleon with an astonishingly graphic depiction of the violence, suffering, and death that resulted from the French leader’s actions. It is, especially, this unexpected combination of elements that saved his work from lapsing into arid propaganda and continues to fascinate viewers. We need to understand not only how Gros arrived at his unusual solutions, but also why the government promoted these shocking and politically risky subjects.
Napoleonic history painting, and Gros’s work in particular, had an enormous impact on the leading painters who emerged during the Restoration (1815–30). Théodore Géricault, Eugène Delacroix, Horace Vernet and their followers were convinced that contemporary events constituted one of the most exciting subjects for advanced painting. Their vision of professional success had been formed under the Consulate and Empire, and so they understood painting’s direct involvement in political affairs through contemporary subject matter as a natural state of affairs. They were also enthralled by Gros’s fascination with violence and cruelty, his attention to minor actors in historical drama, and his vision of the Orient as a site of exoticism and barbarity. Gros’s neglect of the orthodox procedures for developing and finishing a history painting stood for them as a liberating example. They were particularly attracted to Gros because they believed his work was the product of deep personal engagement with his subject matter, not the product of official propaganda initiatives.
Gros himself abandoned paintings of contemporary events in 1819. In later life he confined himself to portraiture and to mythological subjects revolving around private themes of love and violence. The reformed Gros began to look on the younger painters who emulated him as his own misguided progeny. As with many other history painters of his generation, Gros feared that, with the passing of classicism, history painting had lost the possibility of finding any moral or aesthetic absolutes, and he aligned himself with some of the most reactionary defenders of antique subjects in art. Yet on one point Gros was in agreement with the younger generation: art was compromised by subservience to the dictates of official propaganda. The close relationship between politics and large-scale painting during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic period fundamentally changed the practice of art: ambitious, innovative art after 1815 would almost always take place at a considerable distance from official power.
The close bond between art and politics under Bonaparte was first forged in Italy, where Gros insinuated himself into the future ruler’s entourage in 1796. This fateful encounter transformed a frustrated disciple of David into an ardent propagandist for Bonaparte and demonstrated to the ambitious young general how much art could serve his purposes. Much of Gros’s future success was predicated on the unique insights provided by this opportunity. The lessons Gros learned in Italy, and the contacts he made there, set him apart his colleagues who had remained in Paris, and therefore our story begins with plight of art under the Revolution and Gros’s transformation during his youthful years abroad.
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