By the time he was twenty-one, Antoine-Jean Gros had become a painter of the victorious French Revolution and Napoleonic wars. After meeting Josephine in Genes, he was received by her husband and assigned to an art expert position; basically, he was helping the army with the spoils of war. The loot was later organized by Dominique-Vivant Denon into the Universal Museum of Napoleon.
Previously in Genes, Le Gros was in voluntary exile, living off portrait painting. In revolutionary Paris his life, in spite of the patronage of Jacques-Louis David, was in danger. Le Gros was of aristocratic origins and wisely decided to wait it out in Italy. By the early 1800’s, he was back in Paris and produced several monumental canvasses anticipating Romanticism, but also continued with portraits.
Dominique-Alexandre Legrand was Napoleon’s aid-de camp, who lost his life on 2 May 1808 after receiving a flowerpot on his head. The incident took place in Madrid during the Spanish uprising. His therefore, was a posthumous portrait commissioned by a bereaved father. The painting could be viewed in the tradition of the late XVIII century aristocratic portrait, the Imperial aristocracy aspiring to match the Ancien Regime, while striving to invent their own, more militant style. As to the background, it is even more baroque, reaching out for inspiration to the landscape with ruins, the latter tradition being more nostalgic and with a larger emotional pool.
After the Restoration, notwithstanding that the Romantics were impressed by the cult of death generated by the painter of the Napoleonic wars, the younger generation was merciless to the old-timer’s retrograde eclecticism. The aging Le Gros, now running the Jacques-Louis David’s workshop, found little support for his Neoclassical work and drowned himself in the Seine. His suicide note read, “Weary of life and betrayed by his faculties, he quits.”