Gros’ Portrait of Napoleon (1796-7)

Gros’ portrait of Napoleon painted shortly after the young general took the bridge at Arcole in Italy is the earliest iconic portrait of the great man. Its verisimilitude is such that it was even praised "for its great resemblance to the sitter."1 Yet no-one seems to have noticed at the time – in an age before photographs – that it could hardly have looked much like Napoleon. 

Gros, in making Napoleon resemble his earlier self-portrait, must already have noted the same method in hundreds of portraits since the Renaissance. The Louvre is full of them (as you can see in the Galleries). And like his predecessors he seems to have kept knowledge of the tradition to himself. There is one hint in the archive, though, that not all is at it seems. Gros wrote home to his mother that the session with Napoleon was hardly a “sitting” because the general was restless and “it was necessary to resign myself to painting the character of his physiognomy, and after that, to try my hardest to give it the character of a portrait.” 

See conclusion below

Captions for image(s) above:

L: Gros, Detail of Napoleon at Arcole (1796/7) Oil on canvas. The Hermitage, St Petersburg
R: Gros, Detail of Self-Portrait (c. 1790-95) Oil on canvas. Musée National du Château de Versailles

Click image to enlarge.

Given the evidence, though, that description of what happened sounds like a euphemism for fusing his own features with Napoleon's. However, what is the portrait’s meaning? Gros, in identifying his artistic career with the meteoric rise of the dashing general, was portraying himself, as many French masters had done before him, as the new hero of French art.  

See also the entry on Ingres' portrait of Napoleon.

More Works by Gros

Notes:

1.Sara Lichtenstein, “The Baron Gros and Raphael”, Art Bulletin 60, March 1978, pp. 133

2. Xavier F. Salomon and Christopher Woodward, “How England First Saw Bonaparte”, Apollo, Oct. 2005, p. 54

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