15 Things You Should Know About Jacques-Louis David's 'Napoleon Crossing the Alps'

Wikimedia // Public Domain
Wikimedia // Public Domain

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


The most popular is Napoleon Crossing the Alps, but Napoleon at the Saint-Bernard Pass and Bonaparte Crossing the Alps are also acceptable.


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.


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.


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.


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.

Kodak’s New Cameras Don't Just Take Photos—They Also Print Them

Your Instagram account wishes it had this clout.
Your Instagram account wishes it had this clout.

Snapping a photo and immediately sharing it on social media is definitely convenient, but there’s still something so satisfying about having the printed photo—like you’re actually holding the memory in your hands. Kodak’s new STEP cameras now offer the best of both worlds.

As its name implies, the Kodak STEP Instant Print Digital Camera, available for $70 on Amazon, lets you take a picture and print it out on that very same device. Not only do you get to skip the irksome process of uploading photos to your computer and printing them on your bulky, non-portable printer (or worse yet, having to wait for your local pharmacy to print them for you), but you never need to bother with ink cartridges or toner, either. The Kodak STEP comes with special 2-inch-by-3-inch printing paper inlaid with color crystals that bring your image to life. There’s also an adhesive layer on the back, so you can easily stick your photos to laptop covers, scrapbooks, or whatever else could use a little adornment.

There's a 10-second self-timer, so you don't have to ask strangers to take your group photos.Kodak

For those of you who want to give your photos some added flair, you might like the Kodak STEP Touch, available for $130 from Amazon. It’s similar to the regular Kodak STEP, but the LCD touch screen allows you to edit your photos before you print them; you can also shoot short videos and even share your content straight to social media.

If you want to print photos from your smartphone gallery, there's the Kodak STEP Instant Mobile Photo Printer. This portable $80 printer connects to any iOS or Android device with Bluetooth capabilities and can print whatever photos you send to it.

The Kodak STEP Instant Mobile Photo Printer connects to an app that allows you to add filters and other effects to your photos. Kodak

All three Kodak STEP devices come with some of that magical printer paper, but you can order additional refills, too—a 20-sheet set costs $8 on Amazon.

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

8 Times People Ruined Priceless Works of Art

Antonio Canova, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0
Antonio Canova, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

“Don’t touch the art” is a simple rule, enacted by almost every gallery and museum in the world. Yet for some reason, there are a select few who choose to ignore it, either because their curiosity gets the best of them, or, in a surprising number of cases, because they're on a quest for the perfect selfie. Whatever their motives, the museum-goers below left a trail of mangled artwork in their wakes.

1. Pauline Bonaparte as Venus Victrix

If any lesson should be taken from art gallery mishaps, it’s that you should never use a valuable work of art as a piece of furniture. In July 2020, an unnamed tourist from Austria decided to luxuriate on the plaster cast of Antonio Canova’s Pauline Bonaparte as Venus Victrix (1804) at Italy’s Antonio Canova Museum to make his selfie look as casual as possible. (Bonaparte was Napoleon’s sister.) In doing so, he crumbled the toes of poor Pauline, who is depicted in the sculpture as reclining on a cushion. Surveillance footage shows the man acknowledging the loss of the extremities before walking away. Police later identified him from a museum reservation. He apologized for the accident and offered to pay for the restoration work.

2. Dom Sebastiao Statue

In 2016, a 24-year-old visiting Lisbon, Portugal, made a very bad call when he climbed onto a 126-year-old statue installed on the facade of Lisbon, Portugal's Rossio Train Station to snap a selfie. The freestanding statue, which depicted 16th century king Dom Sebastiao, toppled over and shattered on the ground. The tourist, who attempted to flee, was caught by the authorities and eventually forced to appear in front of a judge; Portugal's infrastructure department has no information about when the statue will be fixed.

3. Statua Dei Due Ercole

Hercules might have had the strength of the Gods, but unfortunately, that toughness didn't translate to sculptures of him. In 2016, two tourists visiting the Loggia dei Militi Palace in Cremona, Italy, damaged the 300-year-old Statua dei due Ercole (Statue of Two Hercules) when they climbed on it to take a selfie. The tourists were reportedly hanging off the crown of one of the marble figures—which held the town's emblem between them—when it gave way, falling to the ground. The tourists were charged with vandalism, and the government called in experts to assess the damage.

4. Ecce Homo

The most famous (read: hilarious) art "restoration" in history might be 80-year-old Cecilia Gimenez’s attempt to fix a deteriorating fresco painting at a church in Borja, Spain. Her new and improved art made international headlines and inspired endless internet memes in 2012. Saturday Night Live even worked the news into their Weekend Update segment a couple of times, with Kate McKinnon playing Gimenez.

The painting, a depiction of Jesus Christ by artist Elías García Martínez in the 1930s, was flaking due to moisture; Gimenez, a parishioner at the church, worked off a 10-year-old photo of the fresco while doing her restoration. When her work was revealed, Ecce Homo was redubbed "Potato Jesus." Gimenez told a Spanish TV station that she had approval to work on the fresco (which authorities deny), and had done so during the day. “The priest knew it,” she said. “I’ve never tried to do anything hidden.”

Though the church had originally planned to work with art restorers to fix the fresco, by 2014 they had changed their tune. Gimenez's artwork became a major tourist attraction, bringing 150,000 visitors from around the world and revitalizing Borja. The church charged $1.25 a head to see the artwork, which was preserved behind plexiglass, just like another very famous, memeworthy work of art: the Mona Lisa. A center dedicated to the interpretation of the new Ecce Homo opened in 2016.

5. Qing Dynasty Vases

Rule number one for entering any space with priceless art: tie your shoelaces. In February 2006, a man named Nick Flynn took the wrong staircase inside the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, England—and when he tried to change course, he accidentally stepped on his own untied shoelace and fell. With no handrails to grab, the only thing to break his fall were three Qing Dynasty vases from the 1600s and 1700s, which were sitting on a windowsill. Flynn was unhurt, but the vases, worth more than $100,000, were not so lucky: They shattered into 400 pieces.

"Although [I knew] the vase would break I didn't imagine it would be loose and crash into the other two," he said. "I'm sure I only hit the first one and that must have flown across the windowsill and hit the next one, which then hit the other, like a set of dominos." Flynn, who was reportedly banned from the museum, called the incident “just one of those unbelievably unlucky things that can sometimes happen.”

This story has something of a happy ending, though: By August 2006, Penny Bendall, a ceramic restorer, had glued one of the vases—which had broken into 113 pieces—back together for an exhibition on art restoration. "Putting the vase back together may have looked impossible to most people but actually it wasn't a difficult job—fairly straightforward," she told the Daily Mail.

6. Annunciazione

Should you be given a pass for breaking something if it was technically already broken? In 2013, a Missouri man visiting Museo dell'Opera del Duomo in Florence, Italy, wanted to see how the pinky finger of a 600-year-old statue of the Virgin Mary by Giovanni d’Ambrogio measured up next to his own. You know what happened next: The man got a little too close and damaged the statue's digit. Thankfully, the finger that he broke was made of plaster and not original to the sculpture, and art restorers grabbed it quickly before it could fall and be further damaged. The man apologized, and restorers at the museum made plans to repair the finger again. Hopefully the second fix was more permanent.

7. The Drunken Satyr

The good news is this Milan statue, which lost its left leg to an unknown selfie enthusiast in 2014, was a replica of another statue that dates back to 220 BCE. The bad news is that the replica was still very valuable and pretty old, dating back to the 1800s. Security cameras in that area of the Academy of Fine Arts of Brera weren't working when the incident occurred, but according to the Daily Mail, witnesses saw a student tourist climb onto the statue and sit on its knee to take a photo. What the student didn't realize was that the statue, made of terra cotta and plaster, had been assembled in pieces, and the leg was already partially detached; museum director Franco Marrocco told the Corriere della Sera that the museum was already planning to restore the statue before the accident.

8. The Actor

A 6-foot-tall Picasso painting is pretty hard to miss when it’s hung on a museum wall, just as the visitor who fell into one back in January 2010 discovered. A woman was attending a class at New York City's Metropolitan Museum of Art when she lost her footing and tumbled into The Actor, leaving a 6-inch tear as well as a dent in the lower right corner of the 1904 artwork. “We saw the big, coarse threads that looked sort of like a nasty jute rug,” Gary Tinterow, chairman of the museum’s department of 19th Century, Modern and Contemporary art, said in an interview. “The question was how to get Humpty Dumpty back together again.”

That process took three months. Lucy Belloli, a conservator at the Met, told The New York Times that the process involved photographing the canvas, securing flakes of paint with adhesive, and using strips of paper with rabbit-skin glue as bandages, as well as a six-week period of realigning the painting using small sand bags. ("[T]he torn portion of the canvas had to be gently coaxed back to its flat state, otherwise it would have a tendency to return to the distortion left by the accident," the Times explained.) Some retouching was also necessary. The painting was returned to the wall in April 2010 with a layer of Plexiglass to protect it; most visitors would not have been able to tell the painting was ever damaged.

This story has been updated for 2020.