One of Jacques-Louis David’s (1748–1825) most famous pupils, and known as the painter of the Napoleonic epic, Antoine-Jean Gros is rightly considered a forerunner of Romanticism.
Early on, his drawings, more so than his paintings, began to reveal a gradual shift away from David’s teachings, leading to a definitive break with neoclassical aesthetics and a distinct style heralding the new artistic movement.
Organized to accompany the publication of the Inventaire général des dessins d’Antoine-Jean Gros (1771-1835) au Louvre (General Inventory of the Drawings of Antoine-Jean Gros (1771–1835) at the Louvre), this exhibition features about forty drawings, as well as paintings from the museum’s collection and the Musée national Eugène Delacroix. It offers an overview of Gros’s career, from his training to the peak of his artistic maturity, and highlights his draftsmanship, of which the public knows very little.
The Musée du Louvre houses the world’s largest collection of drawings by Antoine-Jean Gros, containing 438 drawings in four sketchbooks (the last one acquired in November 2018) and 17 on loose sheets, including the spirited Alexander and Bucephalus, presented to the museum by the Société des Amis du Louvre (Friends of the Louvre) in 2017. In his most dramatic drawings, executed in pen and ink, Gros’s free, impetuous style and liberal use of wash accentuate the strength and originality of his art, which led Delacroix to single the artist out from David’s other pupils and consider him the first painter of the new school.
The exhibition begins with Gros’s artistic training in David’s studio (1785–1793) alongside other painters of his generation who would make a name for themselves, such as Anne-Louis Girodet de Roussy-Trioson and François Gérard. The second section focuses on his long stay in Italy (1793–1800), where Gros spent his days copying classical art and works by masters, and experienced considerable hardship until his encounter with Napoleon Bonaparte in Milan in late 1796. It is well known that the meeting was a momentous event in Gros’s life, as it led to the commission of the famous portrait of General Bonaparte at Arcole, which marked the beginning of his successful career as a painter. The sketch painted for the portrait will be displayed next to a drawn profile portrait.
Gros’s return to France is presented in the third section of the exhibition. Several drawings recall his status as the uncontested master of depictions of Napoleon’s military victories, an accolade the painter acquired upon his return to France. The famous battle scenes painted in the first decade of the 19th century — some of which are on view in the Mollien room, on level 1 of the Denon wing — bear testimony to the painter’s great skill. These paintings inspired the first generation of Romantics, as illustrated by several of Géricault’s works, which were heavily influenced by Gros.
The exhibition concludes with Gros’s isolated attempts to paint in a more classical manner following the fall of the First Empire and the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy. Paradoxically, these paintings heralded the peak of his career under Louis XVIII and Charles X, during which time Gros was recognized and highly admired by the monarchy, showered with honors and, in 1824, elevated to the rank of baron.
EXHIBITION CURATOR: Laura Angelucci, documentary researcher, Department of Prints and Drawings, Musée du Louvre.