So, you know that I’m a huge admirer of Jean-Léon Gérôme, the French artist of the late 19th century whose vivid brush captured scenes so vibrant and filled with life that they seem almost better than life. Gérôme’s Pollice Verso (1872), his most famous painting, was so stunning that its look inspired an entire movie, Ridley Scott’s Gladiator, itself an uncredited remake of an earlier 1964 film, but Gérôme’s talents gave shape to the look of the film. This particular work harks back to a later era in history. Napoleon and his General Staff, painted in 1867, depicts the future Emperor of France in the Egyptian desert, surrounded by adjutants, while on his famous and ill-fated military adventure in Egypt in 1798. This is pure Gérôme. The colors pop off the canvas. The figures are strained and dramatic. The scene, Orientalist in its connotations, is stunningly beautiful. Stanley Kubrick had once wanted to make a movie about Napoleon’s life; I have no doubt, had he done so, this painting would have been visually imitated during the course of the film.
Gérôme, who loved historical scenes, traveled to Egypt and Syria in 1863. Indeed in that year he did an earlier painting, very similar to this one, called simply Napoleon in Egypt. It’s similar but doesn’t have quite the same bursting color that he put into this one. The 1860s was about the beginning of Gérôme’s incredible run of luck and talent as one of Paris’s most eminent painters. The year 1867, when he painted this one, was toward the end of the reign of Napoleon III (Louis Napoleon, the original Napoleon’s nephew), and also the pinnacle of the cultural world of 19th century Paris just before the Franco-Prussian War. French history was thought of as very romantic and glamorous then, despite the uncomfortable memories that the Napoleonic period provoked among many people both inside and outside of France.
What’s great about these 19th century painters is that many of them were very prolific, which means there’s plenty more Gérômes to feature in this series! I don’t know where the original of Napoleon and his General Staff is displayed. I presume it’s in one of the great art museums of France. If it’s not, it certainly deserves to be.