Art has always been used as a visual cue for what kind of person the artist, subject, or buyer is. In the Renaissance, portraits were chock full of details that symbolized the traits and wealth of the sitter. These days, people often base their art buying decisions on what the pieces will say about them. Never was this idea more treasured and overblown than in the late 18th/early 19th century. Furthermore, I believe the paintings that came out of this era have greatly influenced the way war is shown today.
Post French Revolutionary Europe was a world of power plays and quickly changing alliances. It had never been more useful for leaders or political groups to try and sway public opinion with art. Paintings of military subjects in particular became the most popular form of propaganda. The genre held in the highest regard by the Royal Academy and the Salon was history painting. These high detailed accounts of historical events (often Roman subjects) were meant to teach a moral and reinforce contemporary values like patriotism and loyalty. It’s probably from this that the “revisionist history painting” was born.
John Singleton Copley’s Death of Major Pierson was a 1783 painting of 1781’s Battle of Jersey. The small island of Jersey was invaded by the French in an attempt to remove the threat posed to American ships by British military presence. The hero of the painting is, of course, Major Pierson. Now here’s the thing: Pierson was shot by a French sniper before the actual battle. Yet Copley paints him dying valiantly at the moment of British victory, a point hammered home by the presence of a huge Union Jack. The painting had the desired effect. Major Pierson was celebrated and cemented in history as a national hero.
Major Pierson is an extreme example of changing the facts. More relevant to contemporary media portrayals of war is the reigning master of the military propaganda painting: Napoleon. The premier “photoshopping” of his political and military career is Jacques Louis David’s Napoleon Crossing the Alps. It’s a very inaccurate version of an 1800 event. Yes, Napoleon did cross the alps. No, he was not on a white horse. The most important alternate history, in light of modern politics, is in fact Antoine-Jean Gros’s Bonaparte Visiting the Plague House at Jaffa (above)
The Siege of Jaffa was a battle waged between France and the Ottoman Empire. It was also a bad idea on Napoleon’s part. Many soldiers and civilians were killed – allegedly thousands of Ottoman prisoner’s, whom Napoleon first promised to spare, were murdered. Along with the war wreckage, there was also bubonic plague. It struck a large group of French soldiers, and here we have our painting. Napoleon is shown visiting a sick house of his plague ridden men. He reaches out to touch a patient even though an officer behind him tries to pull him back. Napoleon is lit up in Christ-like glory, highlighting his bravery and mercy. His position is in the tradition of the rois thamaturge, or healing king.
The truth is another story. Napoleon did visit a plague house. He then ordered the soldiers to be given lethal doses of opium. The chief doctor refused, and presumably most the afflicted soldiers died in time. The purpose of the painting was to show Napoleon in the best possible light and boost the flagging morale of the French, so that last part may have been glossed over.
The concept of the rois thamaturge is still alive and well in contemporary media. Just take a look a photos like these (which are a dime a dozen):
Think about it: with up to the minute news from multiple sources, there is no room for blatant rewritings of history. The best option left is, like Gros with Napoleon, is to make use of the moments that show leaders in a favorable light. No matter what happens after the laying on of hands.