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After the Revolution: Antoine-Jean Gros. Painting and Propaganda Under Napoleon

by David O’Brien
The Pennsylvania University Press, Pittsburgh, PA, 2006
344 pp. illus. 157 b/w. Trade, $65.00
ISBN: 0-271-02305-8

Reviewed by Jonathan Zilberg, Ph.D.


In this lucid and lavishly illustrated book about art and politics in revolutionary France at the close of the 18th Century, O’Brien describes how artists typically believed that artistic and political liberty were linked. In addition, he revisits how the focus in the all important history genre shifted from classical antiquity to the Revolution itself and how artists began to draw their imagery from contemporary historic events rather than from mythology. It is an intriguing study for anyone interested in the nexus of art and politics and the subject of Orientalism unfettered by excessive theory.

After the elimination of the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture through which the monarchy had controlled state commissions and thus the reputations and fates of artists, the reformists decided that the public should judge for themselves. Though they believed that this process would lead to a resurgence of creativity in the arts, patronage declined drastically until 1804 when Napoleon Bonaparte became Emperor and artists were enlisted into the service of Empire. Subsequently, form and content became more strongly dictated by the state than ever before as the history genre came into its own in Napoleonic guise. O’Brien deftly relates how though Napoleon was not a connoisseur of the arts, he was adept at combining a dictatorial patronage system with severe censorship in order to use the arts to influence public perception of the regime. The Napoleonic regime achieved this to great effect through commissions for history paintings of the Egyptian military campaign in effect setting back the 18th Century Republic of the Arts which had celebrated liberty and reason in opposition to interests of the monarchy and the Old Regime. From 1737 onwards, large-scale paintings had been presented to the public for debate at the biannual salons in Paris which, at the turn of the 19th Century, drew up to 100 000 people out of a total population of 650 000. These art shows both stimulated and provided the contexts for intense public discussions on art and politics, of imperial conquest and defeat, and change.

O’Brien makes the important point that large-scale history painting was not allegorical, esoteric or elite as much as popular and explicitly political. Indeed, these biannual exhibitions were crucial contexts for the emergence of the bourgeois public sphere in which civil society debated cultural production and through which the regime sought to control artistic expression and public opinion. Most important of all, he reveals how the birth of the modernist idea that art is inherently subversive and autonomous needs to be historically situated in the context of the shift away from large scale history painting before and after the French Revolution. Therein, the notion of art as an autonomous field of cultural production crystallized as a reaction to the propagandistic function of art in the Napoleonic era.

Though much of the art produced in that period is marked by a dispassionate and calculated nature, some of it is politically and emotionally charged, none more so than the work by Antoine-Jean Gros (1771-1835), the pre-eminent Napoleonic painter, student of the exiled classicist Jaques-Louis David. Fortunately for history’s sake, O’Brien is able to produce such a detailed account of this artist’s work and his motivations because of the fact that the artist’s correspondence has survived intact. This has allowed O’Brien to situate the artist’s experience firmly within a historical context so as to reveal an inside view of the shifting politics and culture of the time and how one artist was able to engage the emerging opportunities for patronage. The resulting study is a fine grained and complex account of a man whose powerful work belied his insecurity. At the same time, the study provides considerable insight into the workings of the Napoleonic arts administration.

One of the most interesting aspects of this study is the compelling account of the artist’s early years in Italy, of how his career was intimately linked to conquest and subsequently state commissions documenting the violent and ultimately unsuccessful expansion of Empire. In fact, it was in Italy that Gros first met Bonaparte through his wife after receiving the commission to paint her portrait. This led to his first history painting of Napoleon — "Bonaparte on the Bridge at Arcole"(1796) and subsequently to his position on the commission responsible for selecting and transporting Italian artistic treasures as war booty to be removed to Paris after the French conquest as part of the conditions of surrender. The experience gave him the time and opportunity to study a range of Italian art that would have been impossible otherwise. At the same time, he acquired skills in drafting military maps and drawings of battles and battle grounds all of which would become critical for his work in later years. In essence, while Napoleonic painting was largely a sycophantic tradition, Gross nevertheless created dramatically compelling works. These were particularly unusual in that they did not involve the careful planning typical in such paintings. Moreover, they were rapidly created, highly idiosyncratic and deeply expressive. In capturing and evoking psychic ambiguity, Gross depicted Napoleon’s imperialist project and its brutal execution so as to depict the brutality of war while serving the interests of the state.

Though Gros inspired Gericault, Eugene Delacroix and Vernet amongst others, he eventually turned his back on the Revolution and returned to Italy and the Classical sources which had originally inspired him. From the brooding anacreonic nocturnal imagery of "Sapho at Leucadio" (completed for the Salon in 1801, the year after the French capitulation at the siege of Genoa) to his hyper-masculine celebration of war which swept the last vestiges of classicism aside, to his return to Classicism, the story of Jean Gros presents an extraordinary story of how art and artists change with time.



Updated 1st June 2007

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