Georges Rochegrosse was abandoned by his father as a child, and when his mother remarried he became the stepson of the great poet Théodore de Banville. In this new intellectual, artistic family environment he began receiving guidance from Alfred Dehodencq. Then, at the age of 12, he became a pupil of Gustave Boulanger and Jules Lefebvre at the Académie Julian, where he later taught draughtsmanship. While enjoying the benefits of the more liberal teaching at the Académie Julian, he enrolled at the École des Beaux-Arts, and was a finalist in the Prix de Rome competition twice. In 1883 he won the Prix du Salon, which enabled him to visit Italy. He subsequently travelled to Belgium, Holland and Germany. Around 1890 he married his great love Marie Leblond, who became the model for the heroines in his paintings for about 30 years. From 1900, Rochegrosse and Marie spent the winter months in El-Biar, in the hills above the Bay of Algiers, where the painter often found the Oriental backgrounds for his compositions. In 1920 Marie died and Rochegrosse sought solace at the Société Théosophique de France (French Theosophical Society). In 1937, a year before he died, he married Antoinette Arnau. He died in El-Biar, but he was buried in Montparnasse Cemetery in Paris.
Rochegrosse was awarded various medals: a third-class medal in 1882, a second-class medal and the Prix du Salon in 1883. He became a member of the Salon in 1887 and won a bronze medal at the 1899 Exposition Universelle and a medal of honour in 1906. He was made an Officier of the Légion d'Honneur in 1910. He was also a permanent member of the Salon jury.
He made his debut at the Salon de la Société des Artistes Français in 1882, with Vitellius Being Dragged through the Streets of Rome by the Populace. He also participated in the Salon de la Société des Aquarellistes Français. In Algeria he took part in the activities of the Salon des Artistes Algériens et Orientalistes, the Union Artistique de l'Afrique du Nord and the Syndicat Professionnel des Artistes Algériens. In the 1870s he worked on Émile Bergerat's revue Modern Life (La Vie Moderne) and other periodicals, including Parisian Life (La Vie Parisienne). Putting to good use his narrative skills and indisputable expertise he illustrated several works of literature including The Oresteia by Aeschylus in 1889, Hérodias by Flaubert in 1892, Salammbô (Salambô) by Flaubert in 1900, Three Legends of Gold, Silver and Copper (Trois Légendes d'Or, d'Argent et de Cuivre) by J. Doucert in 1901, Akëdysséril by Villiers de l'Isle-Adam in 1905, The Satyricon by Petronius in 1909, and L'Homme qui Rit, Han d'Islande and Les Misérables by Victor Hugo, Princesses by Théophile Gautier and Aberrations (Les Égarements) by Prince Demidoff. In the same narrative vein, he painted murals for the staircase in the Sorbonne library.
Having grown up in the shadow of a literary colossus, Rochegrosse adventurously followed in the footsteps of Delacroix: in his first period he took his subjects from the Egyptian, Roman and Byzantine civilisations, for which Banville helped him to reconstitute the authentic details. The end of this period was marked by the huge success of his Death of Babylon at the Salon. Banville died in 1891.
Rochegrosse became fascinated by Wagnerian mythology and painted The Meistersingers and Tannhaüser, while Parsifal inspired him to paint Knight with Flowers. In his next period he tackled allegorical themes - Chasing Happiness, The Struggle for the Ideal, Out of the Sea of Mud- and returned to dramatic subjects with a historical foundation, such as Assassination of the Emperor Geta and Persepolis Burning. Throughout the time he shared with Marie Leblond she was his empress, goddess and femme fatale, but also his model for small intimist paintings, which were only discovered when his studio was split up. From 1900, when he was spending his winters in El-Biar, Rochegrosse liked to choose subjects which allowed him to make use of the Oriental settings around him. After Marie died, he devoted his talents to religious subjects and allegories of love.
Now almost totally forgotten, in the 1880s and 1900s Rochegrosse was a fashionable painter. His fame was international, commensurate with the ambitious nature of his major historical, mythological and literary compositions. In Sherlock Holmes, Conan Doyle praises one of his paintings. Nowadays there is more reticence about the artificial theatricality of his great, but merely narrative, 'machines', in which gesture often takes the place of true emotion. Nevertheless, when a retrospective based around this period throws up one of his compositions, his skilful draughtsmanship, pictorial technique and the positioning of his figures are striking, as is the painstaking detail of the action and the backdrops in his complex heroic scenarios.
In 2003 his work appeared in the collective exhibition The School of Algiers (L'École d'Alger) at the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Bordeaux.
Museum and Gallery Holdings
Algiers: Chasing Happiness
Algiers (Mus. National des Beaux-Arts): Garden in El-Biar
Amiens: Assassination of Geta
Grenoble (Mus. de Grenoble): Quarry; Death of Caesar
Lille (MBA): Madness of Nebuchadnezzar
Montpellier (Mus. Fabre): Preparing for the Journey
Mulhouse: After the Dance
Paris (Maison de Victor Hugo): Scenes of Burgraves
Paris (Mus. d'Orsay): Knight with Flowers; Street in Alexandria
Rouen: Andromache (1882-1883)
Sens: Vitellius Being Dragged through the Streets of Rome (1881-1882)