In 1798, Napoleon Bonaparte changed history. In 1868, Jean-Leon Gerome showed us why.
Bonaparte Before the Sphinx, by Jean-Leon Gerome
Few figures in history are more controversial than Napoleon. In his scholarly work “Napoleon: For and Against”, Pieter Geyl, a highly regarded academic historian, characterizes the litany of debates concerning this key figure over the past two centuries as an “argument without end.”
Was he a destroyer of liberty or promoter of the rule of law? Was he a conqueror or liberator? Was he conservative or liberal, pragmatic or enlightened? To come to a proper evaluation of Napoleon one must develop a proper understanding of the manifold contradictions that have long mired European civilization, and especially the period which gave rise to his imperium: the French Revolution. Few individuals with such a historical footprint embody both the trend and the exception, both the tide of culture and the piercing shock of the individual, and both must be brought to account.
For the record, let me say that I find Napoleon to be a malevolent and hateful man, despite (in some cases) positive intentions and (in some cases) positive results deriving from his actions. For all the good that was done to promote the dissolution of the decrepit order of European feudalism through his conquests (and through subsequent reaction to his conquests), no excuse can be made for the cataclysmic means employed, especially when they were used to promote a rotten code which blatantly evaded the only truly salutary principles so proudly hailed across the Atlantic.
Whatever may be said morally about Napoleon, there can be no question, however, that he commands our attention. All of subsequent world history has been irrevocably conditioned by his presence in the time line, and it is in this regard that those of us who wish to change the world for the better should examine him.
What was it about Napoleon that was exceptional, not mundane? What made him (in certain aspects) a world-changer, as opposed to a mere cipher of history? The root of the answer is provided in the deceptively simple painting: Bonaparte before the Sphinx, by Jean-Leon Gerome.
In a barren landscape, in what appears to be a barren composition, a soldier–Bonaparte, of course–confronts the colossal remnant of a distant past.
The man appears to be alone, but for the shadows of his aides, who remain sufficiently far back not to intrude on this moment of reflection.
Slightly hunched, support himself by placing his hands on his thighs, Bonaparte sits in contemplation.
Bonaparte Before the Sphinx (detail)
It is important that we call him by his real name, Bonaparte. He is not yet “Napoleon.”
The year is 1798, and Bonaparte is leading an expedition to conquer Egypt. His army is seen in the background, moving across a vast plain.
What was Bonaparte doing in Egypt? France’s leaders at the time were as perplexed as many have been since.
Egypt itself was not Napoleon’s goal. The ultimate target in Napoleon’s mind was India. But to reach India despite the seemingly insuperable power of the British Navy, France would have to secure a land route. An alliance with Russia would have to be arranged. Also, the Ottomans and Persians would either have to be bullied or co-opted. But Bonaparte was the kind of individual who could project such a complex line of developments and take the steps necessary to bring it to fruition. In light of his subsequent failure due to the heroics of Admiral Nelson’s navy at the Battle of the Nile, historians have tended to downplay Napoleon’s concept, but as his later conquests would show, his ambition was usually matched by perceptiveness, intellectual penetration, and an ability to carry through the most complex plans.
In addition, Jean-Leon Gerome proposes that Napoleon possessed yet another virtue: historical-mindedness.
In the painting, Gerome portrays the still young Bonaparte–whose plans to change history have yet to unfold–pondering the ruins of a once great artifact.
The particular juxtaposition of the larger-than-life Sphinx and the soon-to-be world-altering Frenchman on horseback has led some to find humor in the painting. The man undoubtedly is smaller than the sculpture, and by making him look small, one may suppose that it makes him seem insignificant, even comically so. However, had Gerome intended such a mood, he could easily have dwarfed the general by changing the perspective and including the Pyramids as well. Bonaparte is smaller, obviously, than the Sphinx. But this is fitting within the composition since he hasn’t yet earned a larger place in history.
That Bonaparte is not yet a great historical figure but that he must already have dreamed of conquering the world by this point in his career is what matters. It is this individual who is juxtaposed with the mysterious deity, which once held sway over civilization but now is no more.
Thus the painting depicts a man who wishes to become important pondering something which was once important but is no longer.
“Will it matter,” wonders Bonaparte? What does matter in history? Who or what has a lasting effect through time?
Napoleon surely wished for a legacy. But the Sphinx’s legacy, no matter how great it once was, had long been extinguished.
The painting invites us to consider the theme of historical significance, and proposes in a subtle manner that no matter how great something is, it is eventually discarded and forgotten. And yet, Napoleon’s presence in history, viewed from Gerome’s vantage point, and still from our own, defies this idea.
That Napoleon did not accept this notion is a part of the reason why he occupies his unique place in story of mankind. Nobody who strives to change the world can accept that what they do doesn’t matter. And nobody who does truly change the world in a significant way ever is lost to history. The Sphinx also, despite lying in ruins and partially covered, still remains. Even if only as neglected ruin, it calls out through time for us to solve its mystery.
As far as history is concerned, we can enjoy Gerome’s deceptively simple painting for its ability to conjure this manifold context of thoughts. On a personal level, we can also derive an important benefit. We can contemplate the question of the importance of things–of the every day toils we engage in to reach a great goal, of the problems that get blown out of proportion in the moment, but then fade away. Some things are important, and we should pay them the attention they deserve. Others are not, and we can let them go.
Like Napoleon before the Sphinx, we have to consider the question, if we are to know the difference and act to make real changes.
To help you on your own journey towards historical-mindedness, consider joining my 20-lecture history course on Ancient History, starting October 8th. Learn more here. Register here. (More information to come on this blog.)