19th century spin doctors worked on canvas

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CHAMPAIGN, Ill. – Politicians and propagandists have been natural bedfellows since way back. And they can be especially chummy in times of war, revolution or social upheaval.

Today’s spin doctors tend to favor television as the medium of choice for painting heads of state in the most favorable light possible.

In the old days. But in the low-tech world of the early 19th century, all that rosy-picture painting was done on canvas by paintbrush – wielding, easel-toting artists, some of them regarded – then and now – as among the best in the business.

In fact, according to David O’Brien, a professor of art history at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, in post-revolutionary France, Napoleon Bonaparte had artists he relied on to promote images of himself.

O’Brien explores the motivations of the emperor in a forthcoming book on Antoine-Jean Gros, whom O’Brien called “one of the most important historical painters under Napoleon.”

After the Revolution: Antoine-Jean Gros, Painting and Propaganda Under Napoleon Bonaparte, will be published this year in French (Gallimard) and in English (Pennsylvania University Press).

Art exhibit. O’Brien also played a leading role in organizing the monumental exhibition Jefferson’s America & Napoleon’s France, which opens April 10 at the New Orleans Museum of Art as part of Louisiana’s yearlong celebration of the bicentennial of the Louisiana Purchase.

The exhibition, on view through Aug. 31, will feature masterpieces by American and French artists; priceless documents related to the historic 1803 purchase agreement; Native American artifacts; and other objects that reflect the culture of the era.

O’Brien helped select objects and art for the exhibition, and wrote much of the catalog, including an essay that compares post-revolutionary portraits of political leaders in France and America.

“Portraits Napoleon commissioned focused on him not as a warrior, but as a peacemaker, a diplomat or a moral leader,” O’Brien said.

The right image. When Napoleon was inserted into large-scale battle scenes, the scenes never depicted violence.

“Napoleon wanted the public to think he knew the costs of war and regretted the death that it caused. Most of the violent battle scenes that people think of in conjunction with Napoleon were actually painted after the Empire.”

Prior to the French revolution, O’Brien said, “there was a lot of art as propaganda.” But that trend was beginning to fade in France and elsewhere by the time Napoleon came to power.

O’Brien said French artists were concerned “about the conflict between art and propaganda after the revolution.”

Increasingly, he said, they believed “art should be free from government control and the product of free and open debate. Bonaparte wanted to go back to the old-regime practice of using art as official propaganda. But the genie was out of the bottle, and there was no putting it back.”

Still, O’Brien said, “Gros found a way to navigate between the two – art and propaganda. Though in the end, he regretted what this did to art in his period.”

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