Article Worth Reading: “Rumor, Contagion, and Colonization in Gros’s Plague Stricken of Jaffa (1804)”

Gros, Plague Stricken of Jaffa (1804)Darcy Grimaldo Grigsby sets out to rectify the misconception that Antoine-Jean Gros’s painting Bonaparte visitant les pestiférés de Jaffa was designed for state propaganda in “Rumor, Contagion, and Colonization in Gros’s Plague-Stricken of Jaffa (1804)”. For Grigsby, Gros’s painting is more complex and open to interpretation than previous cursory readings. In her reexamination, Grigsby hypothesizes that the Plague-Stricken of Jaffa is a construct of the Napoleonic Orientalist regime, a period of instability and redefinition for the French nation, but not state endorsed propaganda.[1] To support this theory, Grigsby highlights and elaborates many sub-arguments. One of the main points supporting her thesis was that the visual representation of the plague-stricken French military has various connotations including, colonial aggression, poisoning, rumor, irrationality, and “a ravaged and fragmented body politic.”[2] Intriguingly, Grigsby also explains that Gros’s painting illustrates the creation of a new visual iconography based on nationalist ideals and not classical masculine identity taught at the Royal Academy.[3] Without evidence these points of discussion would seem far-fetched but the wealth of material utilized for support helped strengthen the overall thesis.

Primary sources, formal analysis, and scholarly secondary sources composed the bulk of Grigsby’s evidence. First hand accounts of events surrounding Jaffa, like Jean-François Moit’s Memoires pour servir à l’histoire des expeditions en Egypte en Syrie (1814), and the creation of Gros’s painting, like Desgenettes’ Souvenirs d’un médecin de l’expédition d’Egypte (1893), gives the author credibility and authority on the subject matter. Grigsby also references modern art historical research but refrains from using them as main sources. The ability to use mainly primary sources strengthened Grigsby’s argument, but in formulating the sub-points some weaknesses did appear.

New, complex ideas were successfully and eloquently presented regarding Gros’s painting in Grigsby’s writing; however, I did feel weaknesses arise in the supporting arguments. One of Grigsby’s main strengths was her ability to flesh out extremely intricate theories, like Gros’s movement away from the nude male as representative of masculinity and heroism to costume representing the apex of male courage, especially military regalia.[4] As Grigsby furthers her discussion, one sub-argument that I took issue with was the idea that plague represented a disease of the mind or irrational thought.[5] If the plague consumed so many French military men, wouldn’t it imply weakness or irrationality in the general French citizen and army? For a painting intended for public display, this concept seems insulting to the public, pointing to them as irrational and weak-minded. In closing, Grigsby responds saying Gros’s intentions were “to prop up the uniformed… officer as an answer to civil war and domestic disintegration. Nationalist allegiance… [was] the only alternative to society’s decimation by internal dissent.”[6] But even this answer, I feel, does not fully address the issue of subordinating the civilian population or the general militia. At points Grigsby’s argument dragged but in retrospect, everything in the text was of relative importance to her main assertion that the painting was more than just state endorsed propaganda.


[1] Darcy Grimaldo Grigsby, “Rumor, Contagion, and Colonization in Gros’s Plague Stricken of Jaffa (1804),” Representations 51 (Summer 1995): 36.

 

[2] Ibid., 36.

[3] Ibid., 7.

[4] Ibid., 11-14.

[5] Ibid., 20, 24-26.

[6] Ibid., 36.

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