The son of parents who were both painters of miniature portraits, Antoine-Jean Gros was born in Paris in 1771. At the age of fifteen he became one of the first pupils of Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825) on the latter's return from Italy after his completion of the Oath of the Horatii. Though his excitable and sensitive personality and his relish for color and movement that attracted him to Rubens hardly fit the classicist mold, a close relationship developed between master and pupil. Distressed by scenes of violence that he had witnessed in the early days of the Revolution, Gros made an unsuccessful try for the Rome Prize in 1792. Fearing for his safety, David used his influence to secure him a study leave for Rome in 1793. When anti-French rioting made his stay there unsafe, he led a migratory life in northern Italy, painting portraits for a living. In 1797 he encountered Josephine Bonaparte in Genoa. Pleased with the handsome young artist, she took him to Milan to introduce him to her husband, then engaged in his victorious campaign against Austria. Gros became a member of the general's court and with Josephine's help persuaded Napoleon to sit for a portrait. The result, Napoleon at the Battle of Arcola (1797, versions at the Louvre and Versailles), satisfied Napoleon who appointed Gros Inspector of Parades and member of the commission stripping Italian churches and palaces of works of art. After his return to France, Gros continued to serve Bonaparte as official and private portraitist. He won the competition for a picture commemorating the Battle of Nazareth fought by one of Napoleon's lieutenants in the Egyptian campaign. Caring little for the glorification of a subordinate, Napoleon stopped its execution and instead had Gros paint Napoleon Visiting the Plague Hospital at Jafa (1804, Louvre). Representing Napoleon, radiant and invulnerable, as bringer of salvation to the horror of the pesthouse, the large canvas won a resounding success at the Salon of 1804. The most imaginative of the cohort of artists celebrating the empire's days of glory, Gros was constantly employed in painting battles and military portraits during the decade from 1804 to 1814. His Battle of Aboukir (1806, Versailles) and Battle of Eylau (1808, Louvre) established him as the preeminent poet of the battlefield. At the close of the Salon of 1808, Napoleon himself decorated Gros with the cross of the Legion of Honor. To Gericault, Delacroix, and others of the rising romantic generation, Gros came to be the most admired model, the modern antidote to academic classicism.
But after 1809 signs of lassitude appeared in his official work, beginning with his Capitulation of Madrid (1810) and Napoleon at the Battle of the Pyramids (1810) and sinking to the point of feebleness in Meeting of Napoleon and Francis ll of Austria (1812). A last project, The Burning of Moscow (1812), was abandoned at the stage of compositional study. Meanwhile a vast and uncongenial enterprise, the decoration of the dome of the Pantheon with figures from French dynastic history (1811-1815), took a toll on his energy. His painterly talent appeared undiminished only in his martial portraits of the time, notably in General Fournier-Sarlovèze (1812, Louvre).
The governments of the Restoration wooed Gros with titles and honors. Made a baron and appointed portrait painter to the king, the former chronicler of the heroic butchery of Napoleon's wars made the most of the ungrateful subjects assigned to him by the pacific Bourbons: scenes of flight, Embarkation of the Duchess of Angoulême (1819), and of retreat, Louis XVIII Leaving the Tuileries on Napoleon's Return from Elba (1817), achieving in the latter "un des plus beaux ouvrages modernes," in Delacroix' opinion.
When departing for exile in Brussels in 1816, David had entrusted Gros with his studio and his pupils and exhorted him to assume the leadership of the neoclassical school, then already in decline. The role did not suit Gros' talent or temperament. His spiritless attempts at classical history painting brought him scathing criticism. In poor health, unhappily married, despairing of his ability, he drowned himself in a shallow branch of the Seine at Meudon, on 25 June 1835. [This is the artist's biography published, or to be published, in the NGA Systematic Catalogue]
Delacroix, Eugène. "Gros." Revue des deux-mondes, 1 September 1845. Reprinted in Achille Piron, Eugène Delacroix, sa vie et ses oeuvres. Paris, 1865.
Delestre, Jean-Baptiste. Gros et ses oeuvres. Paris, 1845. 2nd ed. 1867.
Tripier le Franc, J. Histoire de la vie et de la mort du baron Gros. Paris, 1880.
Lemonnier, Henry. Gros (Les Grands Artistes). Paris, 1906.
Eitner, Lorenz. French Paintings of the Nineteenth Century, Part I: Before Impressionism. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, D.C., 2000: 272-273.