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Antoine Jean Grou

In June 1835, a man’s body was caught from the Seine River in the vicinity of the town of Medon. An investigation has established the identity and circumstances that led to this sad incident. The deceased turned out to be the artist Antoine-Jean Gros, the official painter of Napoleon I. Having survived his main customer and employer for fourteen years, Gros brought an end to his life – when he realized that he had changed the cause of his life.

Career Despite Revolution

At the time of his death, he was 64 years old. The life path of Antoine-Jean Gros fell on dramatic and difficult times for France. He achieved much in his profession – to be at the mercy of one of the greatest European rulers, to gain his trust and to create for decades his image for contemporaries and descendants, a heroic and idealized image – all this could not be considered a real success.

Antoine-Jean was born March 16, 1771 in Paris in the family of a miniature painter. These were the times of the absolute monarchy, and the rococo style reigned in art, and the younger Gro at first prepared the same future as his father. The older senior was the first to give Antoine the skills of drawing and painting, and already in this capable and hardworking boy he was trained by Jacques-Louis David – the future artist of the Revolution, and so far – a teacher and member of the main French art academy. Antoine-Jean Groot became a favorite student of the master.

Jacques-Louis David. Self portrait

At sixteen, Antoine Jean entered the school at the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture, where he studied until 1792, when France was already three years old as it was seized by revolutionary unrest. It was dangerous to stay in the country further, and in 1793, with the help of Jacques-Louis David, the young artist was able to go to Italy, where at the same time he carried out the program for studying the art of the Italian Renaissance, obligatory for graduates of the Academy. Gro visited Genoa, Milan, Florence, visited museums, made sketches from masterpieces of paintings and ancient statues, and in addition, he also wrote his works, including portraits, which quickly brought him fame. In Genoa, the artist was lucky to meet with Josephine Beauharnais, Napoleon’s wife. She wished that Gro accompanied her on trips around Italy, and introduced the painter to her husband.

Service to Napoleon Bonaparte

Legend has it that during the battle of Arkola during the Italian campaign, Bonaparte threw a banner in his hands right at the enemy, despite the fire from the Austrian side. According to another legend, Antoine-Jean Grou was present at this battle. He painted a heroic portrait of Napoleon – “Bonaparte on the Arkolsky Bridge”, which brought glory to both, and the commander in a romantic and even heroic image, and the artist, thanks to which this image was embodied in the picture.

After this, Gro received the officer rank and was accepted into the service of the Corsican, in addition to his main work – the creation of pictorial images of Napoleon – performing his other tasks. The artist was appointed a member of the commission, which selected trophies – masterpieces of Italian art for their transfer to France.

In 1800, Gro returned to Paris, where he took part in the Salon, the most prestigious French art exhibition. His works won recognition one after another. Gro was entrusted to depict on his canvases such Napoleon, who would embody courage, determination, and the artist did it: after all, he himself was inspired by the personality of Bonaparte. In addition, Gro was one of those few who had the opportunity to paint portraits of the ruler from life; he accompanied the commander in his military campaigns, and this passion for the personality of Napoleon, combined with the talent and skill of the artist, made it possible to create truly significant works.

Of course, it was not without a significant share of flattery – the image of the first consul, and then the emperor was to be surrounded by an aura of greatness and glory, reminiscent of the heroes of ancient myths. Excessive praise sometimes had a bad effect on the final result, and therefore not all of Gro’s paintings during Napoleon’s service were successful. In 1802, Gro received the national painting award for the Battle of Nazareth canvas, and in 1804 he wrote one of his most successful works, Napoleon Near Plague Patients in Jaffa. Here Bonaparte appeared in an image resembling Christ.
In addition to Napoleon, other characters appeared in Gro’s paintings – members of the emperor’s family and his commanders. For fulfilling orders for portraits, the artist received generous fees, and once the emperor removed the Order of the Legion of Honor and personally handed it to Gro.
In 1811, Antoine-Jean was commissioned to paint the domes of the Pantheon – the giant ceiling should, according to the emperor, be decorated with images of the great Frankish and French rulers: Clovis, Charlemagne, Louis the Saint and, of course, Bonaparte himself. However, Gro did not manage to finish the work during the life of Napoleon.

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