Jean-Baptiste Hüet exhibited this impressive portrait of a lion, lioness, and their cubs, at the Salon of 1802. The Salon livret is quite specific about the painting's genesis: Hüet had studied the animals at the Musée d'Histoire naturelle in the Jardin des Plantes in Paris. The lion was called Mark (no doubt given the name in honor of St. Mark, whose emblem is the lion) and came from Algeria, where he had belonged to the Bey of Constantine. He had been brought to Paris four years earlier by Felix Cassal, keeper of the Ménagerie, and he and his mate were about eight years old at the time Hüet painted them. On 28 Messidor, Year IX (July 17, 1802) the lioness gave birth to two female cubs; it was her third litter born in captivity, an unheard of event. Very possibly it was the newsworthy nature of the birth that inspired Hüet to devote a large Salon painting to a depiction of the lions; he might have anticipated that it would attract more than the usual public attention.
Although Hüet spent most of his career painting and drawing pastorals in 'le Goût Boucher', he was also a passionate student of nature. His many beautiful sketches of plants, flowers and barnyard animals are remarkably lively and sympathetic, despite being rendered with scientific exactitude. Even his most formulaic pastoral decorations can be brightened by carefully observed vignettes drawn from nature. Hüet's only other entry in the Salon of 1802 was a group of studies for the present painting. The present location of these drawings is unknown, but Gabillot recalled seeing several sheets by Hüet of lions that, in his opinion, rivalled the work of Géricault. Certainly, Hüet would have been required to make a number of life studies of each animal in preparing so complex a picture, the final composition of which was later devised in the studio. Such a method of working enabled the artist to achieve the remarkable hybrid of animalier painting and domestic portraiture that makes the present work so arresting.
Despite its large scale and striking subject matter, the painting was little discussed in the reviews of the Salon of 1802, though it was engraved in that year by Chatelain. The Salon of 1802 marked Hüet's last public exhibition, and the only Salon in which he participated after 1785. A dramatic shift in public taste toward the morally instructive and politically engaged painting of the Neoclassical revolution almost certainly influenced his decision to stop exhibiting. Hüet's return to the Salon may indicate that he hoped the heightened realism of the present painting would appeal to the taste of the new public. If anything, the aging artist was ahead of his time: A Pride of Lions attained a degree of naturalism, monumentality, and dignity found only in the works of the next generation of animal painters, notably the Swiss artist Jacques-Laurent Agasse and the English painter Sir Edwin Landseer.