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At first glance, the eye is immediately drawn to the naked Arab man on the right. His sword is raised in defence of the French charge; his left arm cradles a stricken Mamluk warrior in lavish attire. To the left of the painting is a French soldier advancing on the rebels with sword raised in obvious intent, stepping over the body of a fallen native who is dressed in classical white robes. At the centre of the piece is a helmeted hussar, looking up at the Arab warrior with a steely resolve; sword pulled back in anticipation. Underneath him is a turbaned black man in the thick of the melee, with a raised dagger in one hand and the head of a French soldier in the other.
The scale of the work is massive (365 x 500 cm), and the brushwork is very fine in the classical style, leaving little evidence of the brush strokes on the canvas. Beyond the highlighted characters, Girodet employs a fairly dark palette of reds and browns, in keeping with the everyday, grubby violence of the scene, and to better accentuate the main players. This combination of light and shade lends the painting a great depth of field. The light falls from the upper-left of the picture plane, but the figures are arranged in such a way that only the Mamluk warrior and his Arab protector are fully illuminated. They are very alluring to the eye, and Girodet seems to have taken great care to invest them with much humanity. The naked warrior is depicted in a classically sculpted pose, a look of sickened horror on his face at the sight of a French offensive in the mosque. The charging Hussar’s face on the other hand, is portrayed in deep shadow under his raised sword arm, obscuring his features and thus demoting his status. Although there is no actual blood depicted in the piece, the flashes of red on the hussar’s trousers and the Mamluk’s cloak provide a striking suggestion.
It is important for us not to assume the artist’s thinking or impose our own moral agenda on the piece. However, it is difficult not to come away from the painting with our sympathies leaning towards the exotic figures. This was undoubtedly not the commissioned intent, but Girodet’s subversion seems to be quite evident. The most obvious distinction between the two main protagonists is that the naked warrior is in a defensive stance, and protecting the Mamluk into the bargain, while the French hussar is very much on the attack. In a distortion of French Neoclassicism, Girodet bestows all the desirable attributes of classical tradition: bravery, honour, loyalty, on the indigenous. Their illuminated faces seem to portray the majesty of all human emotion in this moment of high melodrama, while the hussar, lessened by his own shadow, is reduced to a cipher for French military ambition and ignominious cultural disregard. He is violently portrayed, with a single-mindedness of purpose and no compassionate aspect: A whirling automaton in service to the Empire.
Despite the classical modelling and brushwork of the bodies, the heightened reality and high emotion displayed is of a very Romantic persuasion, and quite unlike the typically cool logic and overt propaganda of Napoleonic art. Girodet was positively fascinated by the exotic, had Royalist sympathies and was rumoured to be homosexual. This all lends weight to the case for a subversive interpretation. The positive portrayals of the Arab and Mamluk warriors also go against Napoleon’s well documented racial bigotry, which someone of Girodet’s tastes may well have found repugnant.
Comparisons with other commissioned works of the time bear out the uncharacteristic nature of Girodet’s positive, ardent portrayal of the naked Arab and Mamluk. Guérin’s Bonaparte Pardoning the Rebels at Cairo (1808) presents a very different interpretation of the Egyptian campaign, but also an idealised version in its own way. The benevolent Napoleon stands above his new subjects, not as a conqueror, but as their great liberator and pacifier. The Egyptians are dead-eyed and passionless at Napoleon’s feet: Like simple children waiting to be led. The main exception to this is a white-turbaned woman gazing gratefully up at Napoleon from the throng. This idea of Napoleon as saviour, bringing peace and enlightenment, is far more typical of commissioned Napoleonic art, and very far removed from Girodet’s portrayal of events.
In the interest of balance, we should also consider how The Revolt at Cairo may have been viewed at the time through more imperialistic eyes. Where a more liberal view might see the hussar’s crimson onslaught as wading through the blood of the innocent indigenous (the fallen, white robed figure the hussar is stepping over supports this), this painting would also speak loudly to those still drunk on post revolutionary fervour. They may just as easily have lauded the hussar for crushing the enemies of freedom and spreading enlightenment and civilisation. The vivid interpretation of the prominent exotics could also be viewed negatively, with the light shining down on them not in glory, but in enlightened judgement of the Arab’s barbarous nakedness, and the Mamluk’s weak, self-interested opulence and rumoured taste for sodomy.
However, with the benefit of history, The Revolt at Cairo appears to be a subversion of the artistic manipulation prevalent throughout Napoleon’s career; a deliberate or more likely subconscious reversal on Girodet’s part. In addition to the content and execution of the piece, the fact that the painting was completed over a decade after the events depicted lends weight to subversive intentions, as many were weary of war by this time. Only the allusions to French military superiority and tokens such as the decapitated French head make the project plausible as Napoleonic propaganda at all.
In Stendhal’s biography, A Life of Napoleon, he is characteristically more defensive of Napoleon’s actions in Cairo than Girodet appears to have been. However, Stendhal seems to be quite conflicted, and in a state of moral flux throughout his account. In recalling the events of the revolt, Stendhal begins by extolling the virtues of the Mamluk warriors (just as Girodet clearly did in his commission). Stendhal speaks very highly of the Mamluk people after the event, eulogising them as ‘the most proud and ferocious of men’ (A Life of Napoleon, p. 37), and referring to their ‘sublime courage’ (A Life of Napoleon, p. 37) in an earlier passage. To praise the enemy at the commencement of a defence of Napoleon’s actions seems unusual, and speaks of an inner conflict on Stendhal’s part.
This is not the only instance in Stendhal’s report where he displays a conflict between his own better moral judgement, and his intense admiration of Napoleon as a man of destiny. He expresses contempt for apologists who gloss over Napoleon’s crushing of the insurgency with claims that this was merely justifiable retaliation for the slaughter of French prisoners in kind. He calls these commentators ‘Bourgeois’, and ‘semi-intelligent’ (A Life of Napoleon, p. 38), and apparently feels that this sort of base reaction would be beneath such a man. This is despite Stendhal’s own admission that Napoleon ‘punished their treachery with a cruelty that he borrowed from them’ (A Life of Napoleon, p. 38), casually ordering the execution of the priests that he felt were responsible for the revolt. Instead of a simple retaliation, Stendhal seems to search with great intensity for a nobler justification for these, ‘unfortunate but necessary’ (A Life of Napoleon, p. 38) actions on Napoleon’s part, quoting ‘salus populi suprema lex esto’ [Let the peoples safety be the supreme law] (A Life of Napoleon, p. 38). The use of Latin in Stendhal’s defence of Napoleon is significant here, given Napoleon’s self-acknowledged Caesar complex and the obvious associations with the nobility of ancient Rome.
In attempting to explain Napoleon’s conduct in this way, Stendhal demonstrates his ultimately unswerving support for his leader. However, Napoleon’s policy in Egypt of an eye for an eye completely disregards one of the main post-revolutionary justifications for invasion: The heralding of civilisation. Being an extremely intelligent man, only Stendhal’s blinkered devotion could allow him to ignore this.
Stendhal is greatly enamoured with Napoleon’s undoubted brilliance, but finds it difficult to reconcile his unfettered admiration with the brutality of Napoleon’s methods in Cairo. The intended purpose of the passage in A Life of Napoleon is that of a case for the defence, but Stendhal’s uneasiness and praise of the Mamluks gives it the air of an apology. Stendhal thus betrays similar misgivings to Girodet, despite outwardly defending Napoleon’s actions.
Word Count – 1485
Anne-Louis Girodet-Trioson, The Revolt at Cairo, 1810, oil on canvas.
Pierre-Narcisse Guérin, Bonaparte Pardoning the Rebels of Cairo, 1808, oil on canvas.
Stedhal, 2004, A Life of Napoleon. Translated by Roland Grant 1956, Milton Keynes, The Open University.
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