The revolt in Cairo, 21 October 1798

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The revolt in Cairo, 21 October 1798

More than ten years after the revolt in Cairo, Girodet was commissioned by Vivant Denon to paint this bloody episode from the Egyptian Campaign – it was exhibited at the Salon of 1810. The work is by no means a historical account, but rather a free impression based on the contemporary fashion for all things Oriental. French troops are shown driving back Arab soldiers, but there is no partisanship as regards the violence. The agression of the Muslim rebellion is more than matched by the savagery of French repression.
Whilst the scene has the restrained profundity typical of Neo-Classicism, it nevertheless completely breaks the rules with respect the rules of composition as taught to Girodet by his master David. As a great admirer of Gros, Girodet here attempts to 'out-Orient' him, by making his subject a battle scene. From the tumultuous superimposition of combattants emerge three principal figures: a hussard sabre bared, bearing down upon a  terrifying, naked, Mamluk warrior, who holds in his arms his dying master. The two groups, drawn in a strong underlying upward movement from left to right, seem to be locked in a dance of death. There is a wealth of detail, some of which almost too horrific to bear, painted with enormous skill: for example the neck of the beheaded man, whose head is brandished in the foreground is hidden by the helmet. Arms, uniforms, luxurious fabrics, naked skin – all is painted with the same finesse. 
In addition to this sense of movement, Girodet uses colour and strong light contrasts to express the violence of the conflict. According to contemporary reports, the work was painted at night by lamplight. Perhaps the chiaroscuro used to reinforce the dramatic intensity comes from this. Nevertheless, the painting is deeply romantic and very much the precursor of Delacroix, a painter who expressed in strong terms his admiration for the brutal energy found here.
Karine Huguenaud (tr. P.H.)
September 2002

Date :
Technique :
oil on canvas
Dimensions :
H = 3.65 m, L = 5 m
Place held :
Versailles, Musée national of the Château de Versailles and the Trianon
Photo credit :
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