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What caused the official painter of the Napoleonic victories to take his own life: Antoine-Jean Gros

In June 1835, a man’s body was fished out of the river Seine in the vicinity of the town of MEUDON. The investigation 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. after Surviving his main customer and employer for fourteen years, Gros took his own life – when he realized that he had changed the cause of his life.
At the time of his death, he was 64 years old. The life of Antoine-Jean Gros fell on a dramatic and difficult time for France. He achieved a lot in his profession – to be at the mercy of one of the greatest European rulers, to gain his trust and create for decades his image for contemporaries and descendants, an image heroic and idealized – all this could not be considered a real success.

Antoine-Jean was born on March 16, 1771 in Paris in the family of a miniature painter. These were the days of absolute monarchy, and the Rococo style prevailed in art, and the younger Gro had at first the same future in store for him as for his father. Gros senior was the first to give Antoine the skills of drawing and painting, and already in this able and hard-working boy was in training with Jacques-Louis David-the future artist of the Revolution, and in the meantime – a teacher and member of the main French art Academy. Antoine-Jean Gros became the master’s favorite pupil.

At the age of sixteen, Antoine-Jean went to school at the Royal Academy of painting and sculpture, where he studied until 1792, when France was already three years in the grip of revolutionary unrest. It  to stay in the country any longer, 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 performed a mandatory program for graduates of the Academy to study the art of the Italian Renaissance. Gros visited Genoa, Milan, Florence, visited museums, made sketches of masterpieces of painting and ancient statues, and in addition – wrote his own works, including portraits, which quickly brought him fame. In Genoa, the artist was lucky enough to meet Josephine Beauharnais, the wife of Napoleon. She wanted Gro to accompany her on trips to Italy, and introduced The painter to her husband.

Legend has it that during the battle of Arcola during the Italian campaign, Bonaparte rushed with a banner in his hands directly at the enemy, despite the fire from the Austrian side. According to another legend, Antoine-Jean Gros was also present at this battle. He painted a heroic portrait of Napoleon – “Bonaparte on the bridge of Arcola”, which brought glory to both, and the commander in a romantic and even heroic image, and the artist, thanks to whom this image was embodied in the picture.
After this, Gros received an officer’s rank and was taken into the service of the Corsican, in addition to his main work – creating paintings of Napoleon – performing other assignments for him. The artist was appointed a member of the Commission that selected trophies-masterpieces of Italian art for their shipment to France.

In 1800, Gros returned to Paris, where he took part in the Salon, the most prestigious French art exhibition, his works one after another won recognition. Gros was entrusted to depict on his canvases such a Napoleon who would embody courage, determination, and the artist was able to do it: after all, he himself was inspired by the personality of Bonaparte. In addition, Gro was one of the few who had the opportunity to paint portraits of the ruler from life; he accompanied the commander in his military campaigns, and this fascination with the personality of Napoleon, combined with the talent and skill of the artist, allowed him to create truly significant works.
Of course, there was a considerable amount of flattery – the image of the first Consul, and then the Emperor, had to be surrounded by a halo 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 Gros’s paintings of the period of service to Napoleon were successful. In 1802, Gros won the national painting prize for the battle of Nazareth canvas, and in 1804, he wrote one of his most successful works – “Napoleon near the plague patients in Jaffa”. Here Bonaparte appeared in an image reminiscent of Christ.
In addition to Napoleon, other characters appeared in Gro’s paintings – members of the Emperor’s family and his generals. 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 dome of the Pantheon-the giant plafond should, according to the Emperor’s idea, be decorated with images of the great Frankish and French rulers: Clovis, Charlemagne, Saint Louis and, of course, Bonaparte himself. However, Gros did not finish the work during the lifetime of Napoleon.
The Bourbon restoration, which began in 1815, changed the fate of Gros-in a sense, fatally. Jacques-Louis David left Paris for good, fleeing retribution for his assistance to the Revolution, and Antoine-Jean Gros took over his workshop and apprentices. He moved away from romanticism in art, returning to academism. The new paintings, now painted in the neoclassical style, were now characterized by dryness and restraint. Portraits no longer attract new customers.
The painting of the Napoleon dome was completed in 1824, thirteen years after receiving the order. The image of Napoleon was replaced by the figure of Louis XVIII of Bourbon, and for such a rejection of previous beliefs Gros received from the king the title of Baron.

Gro’s work no longer received the rave reviews that accompanied his career as a young man. The loss of ideals, betrayal of their professional principles affected both the work and the life of the artist. Gradually, the demand for his paintings faded, and there were no more orders for portraits.
In June 1735, the artist committed suicide by throwing himself into the Seine. The last picture painted in his Studio was the work “Hercules and Diomedes”, which was very coolly received by critics.

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