Napoleon Crossing the Alps

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Jacques-Louis David, Napoleon Crossing the Alps, 1800

Against the strong wind, Napoleon Bonaparte sits astride  rearing white stallion on the journey up the Alps. His right hand points up to the summit, encouraging exhausted soldiers to follow and overcome obstacles for victory. Napoleon Crossing the Alps by Jacques-Louis David depicts historical events in May 1800, when Napoleon led his troops over the Alps in a military campaign against the Austrians, whom he later defeated in June at Battle of Marengo. 

Besides its tremendous artistic value, Napoleon Crossing the Alps ultimately served propaganda purposes for Napoleon’s public image, which became crucial when he rose to power in 1804. David certainly idolized the man. Voilà mon héros (he is my hero), David told his students when they visited his studio. Naturally, when David was asked to craft this painting, he romanticized his hero. The painting measures 260 x 221 cm, and undoubtedly exerts an impact at whoever stands in front of it. In reality, Napoleon did not lead his troops across the Alps, but followed a couple of days after them on a mule. He was wrapped in furs, not in a flowing red cloak. And his finger points to the summit? With him facing directly to the viewer, one feels Napoleon is calling them to follow, not the soldiers. Some of this romanticization, of course, is necessary to portray Napoleon as a leader bringing peace and stability to France. However, as for the straying from reality, David is not the one to blame. Napoleon, famously, refused to model for the painting (perhaps to make the painting more believable to the public). Instead, he sent David an earlier portrait and the uniform he had worn at Marengo. David’s son posed for the painting in the uniform, which explains the youthful physique of Napoleon in the painting. David often uses inscriptions to reinforce the theme of his paintings. In Napoleon Crossing the Alps, the foreground rocks read Karolus and Magnus, heroes who led their troops over the Alps, with the later, coincidentally, also portrayed once in an equestrian statue.

Immediately after the release of the painting, David was appointed Premier Peintre (First Painter) of Napoleon. The painting itself, was so adored by Napoleon that he ordered three additional versions, with the fifth one stayingat David’s studio. All in similar sizes but different hues, five versions of Napoleon Crossing the Alps were hung all over Europe to represent his breadth of conquests. 

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