Most everyone has heard of Napoleon Bonaparte, but fewer have likely heard of Jacques-Louis David.
A French painter who specialized in cataloging history with his brush, David immortalized Napoleon on more than one occasion, but most recognizably in his piece Napoleon Crossing The Alps.
Victory in Hindsight
Jacques-Louis David had first attempted to paint Napoleon in 1797 following the Treaty of Campoformio, but abandoned that project before it was finished; the unfinished piece now hangs in the Louvre.
Sometime in the first few years of the 19th century, David completed a new portrait of Napoleon meant to commemorate his victory at the Battle of Marengo. Napoleon had boldly led troops through Great St. Bernard Pass in the Alps in order to surprise Austrian troops.
The painting prominently features a cool, calm, and collected vision of Napoleon on the back of a rearing horse. Napoleon has one hand pointed toward the sky, the other gripped around his horse’s reins, and is draped in a flowing cape. Napoleon, his garments, and his horse are the only sources of color in the painting, so they pop out vividly against the bleak backdrop of wintry mountains.
David had been commissioned to create the portrait, but was also a great admirer of Napoleon, and had established a reputation for creating stunning depictions of historically significant events. These two facts in combination created especially favorable conditions for David’s painting of this particular work.
Napoleon so loved the portrait that he asked David for more. Not just additional paintings of other victories, but replicas of that exact famous art work; David went on to make four replicas of the painting with minor differences like the color of Napoleon’s cape and horse. Today, the original painting can be seen at Chateau de Malmaison in France.
In the height of Napoleon’s rise to great power, King Charles IV of Spain commissioned the original portrait as a gesture of his belief in Napoleon’s military and leadership prowess. Because of this, the original painting remained in Madrid with King Charles once it was completed (which is why Napoleon had to ask David to create more).
Though Napoleon’s troops really did cross the treacherous pass at his behest, he wasn’t exactly involved the way that the painting would have you believe. Napoleon did join his troops, but several days after they had made the initial trek, and on a mule rather than a horse as they are more skilled in navigating mountainous terrain.
In all likelihood, David’s ability to accurately freeze this moment in time was clouded by his admiration for Napoleon—something that eventually got him exiled from France.
Jacques-Louis David was a principal player in an artistic movement called Neoclassicism. This style was a reaction to excessive tendencies of Baroque and Rococo. Instead, this style returned to older sensibilities, and rested on the laurels of past artistic masters.
Other Neoclassical artists, like Antonio Canova, worked in sculpture rather than paint, but they all employed the same revivalist sensibilities. This style is immediately evident in Napoleon Crossing The Alps, as David seems fixated with accurately detailing every wrinkle in Napoleon’s clothing, and less so with adding excessive color or putting similar effort into the background.
Some works of art can lead to an artist’s undoing; David’s eventual exile was due in large part to his support for Napoleon, but his famous art contributions cannot be overlooked or erased from history simply because Napoleon fell from power.