18th century French painter Jacques-Louis David possessed an incredible talent and a deep admiration for Napoleon Bonaparte. Both are clear in the striking portrait Napoleon Crossing the Alps, but few know that this painting was a defining moment for both its artist and subject.
1. NAPOLEON CROSSING THE ALPS MARKED A NEW ERA FOR FRANCE.
David's history-based works not only marked political movements in France but also contributed to them. His Death of Socrates (1787) fanned the flames of rebellion, while The Death of Marat (1793) memorialized its subject as a martyr of the French Revolution. At the turn of the 19th century, France was on the rise thanks to Napoleon Bonaparte, who'd staged a coup d’état against the revolutionary government.
2. IT WAS INSPIRED BY NAPOLEON'S VICTORY AT THE BATTLE OF MARENGO.
In the spring of 1800, Napoleon's forces trekked through the Alps by way of the Great St. Bernard Pass for a surprise attack on Austrian armies in what is now northern Italy. On June 14, the Battle of Marengo pushed the Austrians out of the territory completely, and bolstered Napoleon's position in European politics. Painted over four months in 1800 and 1801, Napoleon Crossing The Alps was intended to illustrate this important victory.
3. IT WAS CREATED AS AN ACT OF DIPLOMACY.
Looking to strengthen relations with France, Charles IV of Spain met with Bonaparte for an exchange of grand gifts. Napoleon offered pistols made in Versailles, fine dresses sewn in Paris, jewels, and armor. Charles IV presented 16 Spanish horses from own stables, portraits of himself and his queen painted by Spanish artist Francisco Goya, and Napoleon Crossing The Alps, which the king commissioned from David, a renowned French painter.
4. IT WAS NOT DAVID'S FIRST ATTEMPT AT PAINTING NAPOLEON.
In 1797, David began a painting of the general meant to commemorate the peace treaty with Austria at Campo-Formio. He painted the face and sketched the body, but then abandoned the portrait and shifted his attention to The Intervention of the Sabine Women (1799). But the unfinished portrait went on to be displayed in the Louvre, and its image was used on the 100 Francs note in the 1960s.
5. NAPOLEON REFUSED TO SIT FOR THE PORTRAIT.
The self-appointed First Consul of France argued, "Nobody knows if the portraits of the great men resemble them, it is enough that their genius lives there." To overcome this obstacle, David employed an earlier portrait of Napoleon and his uniform from the Battle of Montenegro as reference. The painter had one of his sons wear the outfit while perched on a ladder to get as close to a live model as he could manage.
6. NONETHELESS, NAPOLEON HAD NOTES.
He requested an equestrian portrait, which was a genre that royalty tended to prefer. Napoleon demanded he be portrayed as "calme sur un cheval fougueux,” which translates roughly to "calm on a fiery horse." David delivered.
7. IT'S AN INACCURATE DEPICTION OF THE BATTLE OF MARENGO.
David has a history of idealizing his subjects, making them look younger, fitter, and more beautiful. Napoleon was no exception. Some suggest this youthful makeover reflects David's admiration of Napoleon. However, an even more noteworthy discrepancy is that Napoleon did not actually lead his men across the Alps. He followed a few days after, and not on a galloping horse, but on a mule better suited to the narrow path cut by his troops.
8. IN THE PAINTING, DAVID COMPARES NAPOLEON TO GREAT MILITARY ICONS.
In the lower left corner of the painting, you can see carved on the rocks: BONAPARTE, HANNIBAL, KAROLUS MAGNUS. The Carthaginian general Hannibal had crossed the intimidating mountain range during the Second Punic War in 218 BCE. When he was King of the Franks, Charlemagne (a.k.a. Karolus Magnus) crossed the Alps in 773 in his war against the Lombards. By including these names, David suggests that Napoleon and his victories will be remembered for centuries like Hannibal's and Charlemagne's.
9. NAPOLEON DIDN'T GET TO KEEP IT.
Napoleon Crossing the Alps was intended for Charles IV's royal palace in Madrid. There, it was hung among paintings of other great military leaders as a symbol of Spain and France's friendly relationship.
10. NAPOLEON LIKED THE PAINTING SO MUCH, HE WANTED MORE.
Not just more portraits of himself, mind you. Napoleon wanted David to make this exact composition three more times. Since the original was in Charles IV's palace, Napoleon commissioned more for his domain. He wanted one hung in his preferred home Château de Saint-Cloud, one in the library at Les Invalides in Paris, and one for the palace of the Cisalpine Republic in Milan, which was then a sister republic of France. David also painted a fifth, which he kept in his studio until his death in 1825; his daughter later gifted it back to the Bonaparte family.
11. ALL FIVE PAINTINGS SHARE THREE TITLES.
The most popular is Napoleon Crossing the Alps, but Napoleon at the Saint-Bernard Pass and Bonaparte Crossing the Alps are also acceptable.
12. THERE ARE MINOR DIFFERENCES BETWEEN THE FIVE PAINTINGS.
The color of Napoleon's cloak changes from the original gold to crimson. With it, the color of his horse shifts from piebald black and white in the original, to brown, or dappled grey with gold locks. And the riding accouterments—like standing martingale and girth—feature different colors and details. Likewise, David's signature shifts, and one is not signed at all.
13. NAPOLEON CROSSING THE ALPS LED TO DAVID GETTING A MAJOR PROMOTION.
By 1804, Napoleon had crowned himself emperor of France, and his preferred portrait painter was now "First Painter to the Emperor." David went on to create fawning portraits like Napoleon in his Study (1812), and Consecration of the Emperor Napoleon I and Coronation of the Empress Josephine (1805-07) for his powerful patron.
14. AFTER NAPOLEON'S FALL, DAVID WENT INTO EXILE.
When Napoleon's regime fell after his defeat at Waterloo, the French monarchy was reinstated. David was sent into exile along with all of those who voted for the death of Louis XVI back in 1792, and moved to Brussels, where he continued to paint.
15. NAPOLEON HAS HAD A DAMAGING IMPACT ON DAVID'S LEGACY.
Art historians tend to favor David's pre-Napoleonic Era works. Napoleon Crossing The Alps has been criticized for its stiffness, which makes it seem more a statue than a frozen moment. Though David would paint until the end of his life, none of his subsequent works reached the acclaim of those created in the late 1700s, like Oath of the Horatii, The Death of Socrates, and The Death of Marat. His earlier works earned him a reputation as a groundbreaker and pioneer of Neoclassicism. However, his Napoleon portraits are remembered more for their history than artistry.