Jean-Baptiste Louis, Baron Gros was the nephew of Jean-Antoine, Baron Gros, the neo-classical Napoleonic painter and pupil of David. After diplomatic service in Lisbon and Egypt, Gros was appointed First Secretary to the French Legation in Mexico and arrived there in February 1832. He left Mexico in 1836 for service in Brazil and Colombia (where he also painted) and in his later career was appointed Ambassador to China in 1857 and to London in 1862.
Besides his work as a diplomat, Gros was always active as a painter, focusing on scientific illustration in the tradition of Alexander von Humboldt. During his stay in Mexico, he cultivated relations with other traveller-artists and scientists. In 1834 he took part in the ascent of the Popocatepetl volcano, together with the English painter Egerton and the Prussian diplomat and scientist Geroldt. In his diary (Archives Nationales, Paris), Gros puts the accent on the scientific character of this enterprise, describing several instruments they took with them, such as a barometer, different types of thermometers, and a hygrometer, among others, and insists that his drawings and paintings should become useful as illustrations for the research of natural history.
In 1953 M. Romero de Terreros identified thirteen Mexican oils by Gros (M. Romero de Terros, El Baron Gros y sus Vistas de Mexico, Mexico, 1953) not including the present picture, and almost all of them of similar dimension. For the first time, Romero de Terreros allies his work with that of his famous contemporaries in Mexico, mainly Egerton and Rugendas. A relationship with the archaeologist and artist J.F. Waldeck is documented as well.
'Así, en 1832, cuando [Gros] pinta la Pirámide del Sol en Teotihuacan, la única obra de tema anticuario que se le conoce, agrega una inscripción que informa sobre el significado y la situación que tiene este monumento en el conjunto arqueológico. Y, al mismo tiempo que ofrece un detallado estudio de la pirámide, es meticuloso en cuanto a la observación de las plantas, de los valores pictóricos de la tierra y de las nubes, y compone el espacio con juegos de luz y sombra.' (P. Diener in the Mexico City Madrid exhibition catalogue, Mexico, 1996, pp.75-78)
The classic Teotihuacan culture flourished in Mexico from 150 BC to AD 750: 'By AD 600 Teotihuacan had become a great metropolis dominating the political, economic and religious life of the central highlands of Mexico. With over 100,000 inhabitants it was the largest urban centre in the Americas and the sixth most populous city in the world at that time. The formal grid plan which governed the layout of the city was based on an east-west axis keyed to horizon observations of the sun and the star constellation known to us as the Pleiades. An impressive three-mile-long ritual avenue traversed the city from north to south, leading to the Pyramid of the Moon. Arranged on either side of the avenue were plazas, palace compounds and apartment complexes, all overshadowed by the imposing bulk of the Pyramid of the Sun. The surrounding residential quarters supported enclaves of foreign merchants and artisans from Veracruz and the Oaxaca Valley, and in return Teotihuacan sent its own trading and religious emissaries to far-flung sites such as Matacapan on the Gulf Coast and Kaminaljuyu and Tikal in Maya territory.' (C. McEwan, Ancient Mexico in the British Museum, London 1994, p.55).
We are grateful to Dr Pablo Diener for his help in preparing the above catalogue entry.