While Jacques-Louis David painted the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars from the home front, Antoine-Jean Gros ventured forth into the thick of the action. Born March 16, 1771, Gros actually fled France in 1793 when the Reign of Terror began in earnest. Escaping to Genoa, Italy, Gros met there Joséphine de Beauharnais, i.e., the Empress Joséphine (above in a portrait by Gros, from 1809), who introduced the artist to her husband Napoleon Bonaparte. Napoleon admired Gros’ work and enlisted him to follow his conquering armies as an official war artist. Gros also assumed the duties of selecting the plunder that would be sent back to Paris to fill the museum we know today as the Louvre.
Between David and Gros, the visual propaganda of Napoleon grew in earnest. Bonaparte Visiting the Plague House at Jaffa (above, from 1804) shows Napoleon fearlessly visiting his plague-stricken soldiers, oblivious to the risks of contracting the disease himself. Gros transforms Napoleon into a Christ-like figure, healing the spirits if not the bodies of his men purely by his miraculous presence and touch. Of course, Napoleon never exposed himself in this way in real life, but the power of this inspirational visual cemented the public’s conception of Napoleon as a leader selflessly loyal to his men and his country. Gros’ classicism comes through clearly here, as if a conventional religious scene were defaced with the insertion of Napoleon. The figures writhing about Bonaparte resemble the dramatic bodies of the Renaissance and presage the Romantic art of Gericault, Delacroix, and others influenced by Gros.
As Napoleon’s fortunes faded, Gros’ enthusiasm for conquest as a subject faltered. Gros’ Napoleon on the Battlefield of Eylau (above, from 1808) shows Napoleon still the victorious general, again the central, almost messianic force to which all others turn to for guidance. To see this painting in person at the Louvre is to understand the still-potent attraction of the cult of the personality surrounding Napoleon. Gros left many followers, including many who came to him after David fled France to avoid the Terror. Gros continued to paint until his death by suicide in 1835. A note near Gros’ drowned body spoke of being “tired of life” and “betrayed by the last faculties rendering it bearable,” reflecting his disillusionment after the fall of Napoleon and the repercussions that fall held for France as the conquered nations sought recompense. Like David, there’s something monstrous about Gros’ service to the propaganda machine of Napoleon and his wars, but there is also something compelling about the power of those images to make us want to believe.