Lot 258: Baron Antoine-Jean Gros (French)

Neal Auction Company

December 3, 2016, 10:00 AM CST
New Orleans, LA, US
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Description: Baron Antoine-Jean Gros (French, 1771-1835), "Napoleon I, Emperor of the French (1769-1821)", oil on canvas, inscribed "J. Gros. / 1807" en verso, 26 1/2 in. x 22 1/4 in., original frame. Provenance: Probably Victor-Marie Maurin (1784-1836), son of Baron Jacques-Marie-Joseph Maurin and nephew of Baron Antoine Maurin, Brigadier General in the Napoleonic Armies; Major Victor-Auguste Maurin (1818-1875), of the Army of the Confederate States of America; Joseph Maurin (1873-1904); Nolan Maurin (1903-1988); by descent to the present owner. Note: This informal portrait shows “le grand Empereur” bareheaded and wearing an ordinary uniform, decorated only with the star of the Sant’Esprit and several lesser ribbons; its sense of majesty and power comes from Gros’ intimate relationship with the sitter and his mastery in the handling of paint. This inspired characterization clearly demonstrates why Gros was recognized as the fountainhead of the Romantic Movement. The almost Leonardesque sfumato, or haziness of outline (especially in the handling of the eyes), the delicate treatment of features and the vivacious coloring, all bring this portrait very close to an ideal of ‘the romantic hero.’ Gros takes full advantage of Napoleon’s youth and vigor to transmit a vision of the perfectibility of state portraiture, even in so private and personal an image as the one offered here. An independent confirmation that the Emperor actually had such an aspect, at the time this picture was painted, is afforded by a full-length portrait by Robert Lefèvre (1755-1830), Napoléon en Costume du Sacre (Napoleon in Coronation Robes), of 1806 [Château de Versailles], and its nearly 40 autograph replicas, extending at least until 1808. The Emperor himself is said to have approved these many versions particularly for their apt likeness; in this picture by Baron Gros, we find the same informal curl of hair across the forehead, the same smoldering gaze, and the same sense of majesty, albeit in a much more relaxed costume. The inscription on the verso (if probably not in Gros’ own handwriting, with which it has slight differences) is at least certainly contemporaneous, as evidenced by the date of 1807, and the degree to which the likeness parallels Lefèvre’s of the same years. The superb frame is almost as important as the painting: its laurel wreaths accurately symbolize military prowess, and the huge sheaf of thunderbolts (modeled on ancient Greek coins of Olympia, Zeus’ sanctuary in Elis) stand for the omnipotence of a monarch who was then at the height of his power and reputation. We are grateful to Professor O’Brien and his colleague at the Château de Versailles for their kind commentaries on this painting. Ref.: O’Brien, David. After the Revolution: Antoine-Jean Gros—Painting and Propaganda Under Napoleon. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2006.
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