Alaux was born in Bordeaux, the son of a painter, and the second of four brothers who were all themselves painters. he received his first lessons in art from his father, but went on to formal training with Pierre Lacour, then Pierre-Narcisse Guérin. He was admitted to the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris in 1807. From 1808 he entered works for the Prix de Rome but his energies were diverted when his elder brother, Jean-Francois Alaux (1783–1858), asked him to help with a large "neorama" (a type of Panorama) he was working on. Jean eventually won the Prix de Rome's first prize in 1815, with a work entitled "Briseis weeping over the body of Patroclus", a scene inspired by The Iliad of Homer. He subsequently became a pensionnaire at the French Academy in Rome from 1816 to 1820 (later becoming its director).
Amongst his fellow artists at the Academy were luminaries such as Drolling, Picot and Gogniet, and sculptors such as D'Angers, Pradier and Ramey; he became a friend of Ingres. His first painting there was "Cadmus killing the dragon at the fountains of Dirce". It was later purchased by the Duke of Orleans but destroyed in the fire which engulfed the Palais-Royal in the French Revolution of 1848. He also painted, there, "Diamedes carrying off the palladium" and "Episodes in the combats between the centaurs and the Lapithes". In 1821, he returned to France, where his reputation steadily grew with works such as "The Baptism of Clovis" (1825), "States General of 1838", "The Assembly of the notables at Rouen in 1596" and "States General 1614". Under the July Monarchy, he worked at the "Galerie des batailles" at the Château de Versailles, for which he painted The Battle of Villaviciosa (1836); The Capture of Valenciennes (1837); The Battle of Denain (1839).
He was appointed director of the French Academy in Rome in 1846 and was caught up in the siege of Rome of 1849, involving defending Italian forces under Garibaldi and the invading French army; he and the students were forced to temporarily flee the city for France. His directorship ended, quietly, in 1852.
Alaux died in Paris on 2 March 1864.
- A director of the French Academy in Rome (The Chautauquan: Organ of the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle, 1891) pp. 352-5.
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- Paintings by Alaux (Insecula)
- Portrait of Jean Alaux by Ingres (Christies)
- The atelier of Ingres in Rome (Christie's)