Antoine-Jean Gros
French Romantic Academic History Painter of Napoleonic Wars.

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Bonaparte on the Bridge at Arcole
(1796) Louvre, Paris. A masterpiece
of historical French painting.

For an idea of the pigments
used by Antoine-Jean Gros
in his colour painting,
see: 18th Century Colour Palette.

Antoine-Jean Gros (1771-1835)

One of the pioneering Romantic artists of the school of French Romanticism, Antoine-Jean Gros learned the basics from his father before being apprenticed to Jaques-Louis David (1748-1825), the high priest of Neoclassical painting. In 1793 he left Paris for political reasons and travelled to Italy, where he studied the Old Masters in Rome and Florence. In 1796 he met Napoleon Bonaparte in Milan and accompanied him during his Italian campaign. Returning to Paris around 1800, he was commissioned to record Napoleon's military successes. To this end, he started to develop a more active style with more intense colouration. Although the radiance and freshness of his work proved a great inspiration to other Romantic painters especially Eugene Delacroix (1798-63), Gros himself remained closely affiliated to the neoclassical academic style of painting. His famous pictures of the Napoleonic Wars are executed with great vigour and panache, although they cannot compare with the realism of Goya (1746-1828). In addition to his war paintings, Gros produced a body of portrait art. His works include: Bonaparte on the Bridge at Arcole (1796), Bonaparte Visiting the Plague Victims of Jaffa (1804), The Battle of Eylau (1808), Portrait of Christine Boyer (1800) all in the Louvre Museum, Paris.

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Paintings by Antoine-Jean Gros
are available online in the form
of poster art.


Early Life and Career

The son of a miniaturist, Gros entered the studio of Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825) at the age of 15 and in 1787 also began studying painting at the French Royal Academy. Neoclassical art, however, awoke little response in him and he was drawn instead towards the colour and vibrancy of Rubens (1577-1640) and the Venetian masters. Antiochus et Eleazar (St-Lo Museum), Gros's unsuccessful entry for the 1792 Prix de Rome, is unusually Baroque for the period. There is a violence in the attitudes of the figures, which was to remain typical of his work.

Travels to Italy

Fearing that he might be denounced for his moderate opinions, Gros left revolutionary Paris early in 1793 and spent the next seven years in Italy, first in Genoa, then in Milan. A short stay in Florence was particularly rewarding. Surviving albums of sketches show the wide range of his interests: side by side with copies from classical antiquity are sketches after Masaccio (1401-28), Andrea del Sarto (1486-1531), Pontormo (1494-1556), and Rubens, subjects drawn from a catalogue of ancient vases published by J.W.Tischbein, and drawings after John Flaxman (1755-1826).


For his own compositions Gros chose subjects such as Malvina Mourning Oscar, taken from Osssian, or Young Mourning his Daughter - themes which illustrate the pre-Romantic vogue. His only finished paintings, however, are portraits, of which he painted a large number, mainly of members of Genoese society, including Portrait of Madame Pasteur (Louvre), the wife of a French banker.

At the end of 1796 Gros accompanied Josephine de Beauharnais, who had been staying in Genoa, to Milan where he painted his famous Bonaparte on the Bridge at Arcole (1796, Louvre). He was appointed to the commission responsible for choosing works of art to be sent back to France, and travelled throughout Italy, visiting Rome in the spring of 1797.

Recognition in Paris

On his return to Paris in 1801 he exhibited his Sappho at Leucadia (Bayeux Museum), a painting which he had begun in Italy and which, with its theme of suicide, allied to the nocturnal gloom of the landscape, typifies the young painter's Romantic leanings. But his main works were concerned with a different kind of Romanticism.

Around this time Gros submitted a sketch of The Battle of Nazareth (Nantes Museum) as part of an exhibition that the Louvre was devoting to this theme. The jury's decision in his favour provoked a scandal. His vivid use of colour in painting was seen as a return to the genre gracieux of the 18th century and not as something new. However, with his Orientalist painting Bonaparte Visiting the Plague Victims of Jaffa (Louvre), exhibited at the Paris Salon in 1804, Gros firmly established his reputation as the greatest colourist of the French school.

He followed this, at the 1806 Salon, with The Battle of Aboukir (Versailles). The composition is in the form of a frieze dominated by a monumental figure, but displays a bold disregard of balance and a feeling for movement unheard of at this time.

In 1807 Gros won another competition with his Napoleon on the Battlefield of Eylau (Louvre), which was exhibited at the Salon of 1808. Napoleon is shown in a human light, riding through the field of battle after the engagement. The Emperor's pale features pleased the Romantic sensibilities of the public, although at the same time they were disturbed by the dead and wounded in the foreground of the painting. Such realism cannot, in Gros, be construed as a protest against war; rather, it was the Romantic's search for powerful means of expression.

For another French history painter of a similar academic style to Gros, see: Ernest Meissonier (1815-91).

Style and Method of Painting

Gros's attitude towards his art differed from that of younger painters such as Theodore Gericault (1791-1824) and Eugene Delacroix (1798-63). He worked almost exclusively to commission, never from any inner motivation or search for perfection. Nor was he dependent on inspiration. To the astonishment of Delacroix, he could paint by the clock. But both his drawing and painting have an energy of colour and movement (Alexander Taming Bucephalus, Paris, private collection) which betray his Romantic temperament.

In the conflict between Romantics and classicists during the 1820s the term 'Romantic', the interpretation of which was always vague, was applied to anything that turned its back on the ancient world in favour of greater realism. With his Battle of Nazareth, Gros took up his position outside the classical tradition. Although Napoleon's policy favoured contemporary subjects, Gros was the only official artist to make this domain his own. What is most original and Romantic in Gros is his realistic portrayal of dead soldiers, plague victims, or fighting men. When Romanticism triumphed, its supporters paid homage to Gros and he was ranked alongside Gericault and Delacroix.

The Restoration: New Fashion in French Painting

With the restoration of the Bourbons, official taste veered towards religious and historical themes, and the paintings on contemporary themes which Gros exhibited at the Salons of 1817 and 1819, such as Louis XVIII Leaving the Palace of the Tuileries, Versailles, no longer had the same appeal as those painted in Napoleon's day.

The period saw a revival of academic art, and, influenced by the exiled David, whose studio and pupils he had inherited, Gros returned to a more classical style of oil painting. At the Salon of 1822 he exhibited Saul and Bacchus and Ariane. In 1824 he finished the painting of the cupola of the Pantheon, which he had been commissioned to do in 1811 and for which Charles X made him a baron.


His social standing was never higher, but at the same time his creative spark was almost gone. He became a professor at the Parisian Ecole des Beaux Arts, a member of the Institute and honorary member of several foreign institutions, yet official recognition did not prevent him from drowning himself in the Seine on 26th June 1835.

He had for long cherished the illusion that he alone stood for truth at a time of artistic decadence, and when this vision faded he came to understand the anachronistic quality of his aesthetics and the justification for the violent criticism directed against his Hercules and Diomede (Toulouse Museum), exhibited at the 1835 Salon.


Antoine-Jean Gros is seen as the most talented of all Jaques-Louis David's followers and a key figure in the development of Romanticism. His use of colour and his dramatic style was a significant influence on Gericault, Delacroix, the populist history painter Paul Delaroche (1797-1856), and the short-lived Richard Parkes Bonington (1802-28), among many others. Paintings by Gros can be seen in some of the best art museums around the world.

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