Napoleon Crossing the Alps – Jacques-Louis David

I know I have been incredibly quiet over the last month, but hopefully you will appreciate why.  I have been off on my travels and one of the stops was to see the new Louvre in Abu Dhabi.  This was one of the most amazing experiences which has inspired me greatly and given me a tonne of artists to bring you articles about.  This was double excitement for me, as I did get to write about the building for the publishing company I write for, so to see it in person was astonishing.

With that in mind, I do want to have a minor art rant before I start talking about this tremendous piece.  While wandering around the Louvre I saw a lot of this…

napoleon phone

People walking up to masterpieces, taking a quick snap on their phone and then moving on to the next one to do the same.  Now, I am not against people photographing what they see. In fact I am all for it, as I photograph everything I do as it helps me to remember what I did, actually, both photos of the painting in this article have been taken by me; but I am frustrated that those people didn’t take the time to truly appreciate the art work in front of them.  I have seen this painting more than a thousand times in print and I have never truly appreciated it until standing in front of it, I must have stood studying it for 5 minutes before I lifted my camera to take shots of it, but I can almost guarantee that those people who took a quick snap and moved on, can probably only tell you that there is a guy riding a horse in the painting.

So next time you are in a gallery, please take the time and look at the painting before taking photos of it, appreciate the brush strokes left by the artist, as they are intentional, appreciate the colour and detail that they have gone into and really take in the mood of the piece.  I would say probably 50 percent of the people I speak to who say they don’t appreciate art, don’t because they don’t truly look at the piece and they don’t allow their minds eye to find something within the painting.

Rant over…

This painting was completed in 1801, just four months after the event took place.  In 1800 Napoleon desperately wanted to reinforce the troops out in Italy and retake the territory that the Austrians had taken in previous years.  Trying to gain the element of surprise, Napoleon took the reserve army through The Great St. Bernard’s cross.  By the time they had reached Genoa , it had already fallen, but Napoleon and his men secured a victory at the Battle of Marengo.

The installation of Napoleon as First Consul and the French victory in Italy allowed for a rapprochement with Charles IV of Spain. While talks were underway to re-establish diplomatic relations, a traditional exchange of gifts took place. Charles received Versailles-manufactured pistols, dresses from the best Parisian dressmakers, jewels for the queen, and a fine set of armour for the newly re-appointed Prime Minister, Manuel Godoy. In return Napoleon was offered sixteen Spanish horses from the royal stables, portraits of the king and queen by Goya, and the portrait that was to be commissioned from David. The French ambassador to Spain, Charles-Jean-Marie Alquier, requested the original painting from David on Charles’ behalf. The portrait was to hang in the Royal Palace of Madrid as a token of the new relationship between the two countries. David, who had been an ardent supporter of the Revolution but had transferred his fervour to the new Consulate, was eager to undertake the commission.

On learning of the request, Napoleon instructed David to produce three further versions: one for the Château de Saint-Cloud, one for the library of Les Invalides, and a third for the palace of the Cisalpine Republic in Milan. A fifth version was produced by David and remained in his various workshops until his death.

It is quite well known that Napoleon was a bit of an ass about this painting, which is ironic as he actually crossed the Alps on a mule rather than the beautiful stallion that you see in the painting.  Napoleon refused to pose for the artist, saying “Nobody knows if the portraits of the great men resemble them, it is enough that their genius lives there”.  This left David with just an earlier portrait of Napoleon and the uniform that he wore in the Battle of Marengo to work with.  Napoleon however was happy to give instructions about the painting requesting that he was to be seen calm, riding a fiery horse.  What better way to show how cool and in control he was than to be taming a wild stallion, while crossing the Alps and navigating men through the cross.  This left David with little choice other than to dress his son up in the uniform and pop him at the top of a ladder to try and visualise how this might have looked.  This could be why Napoleon looks so youthful in this painting.

This piece has run aground with critics, saying things such as it is flat and lifeless, to it is mindless propaganda, or that it was an over blown depiction of the truth… but you know, history is written by the victors, and they can manipulate the events in any way they want.

Personally, I was astounded by this painting when viewing it in real life.  It is huge…2.6 m x 2.2 m, it easily dominates the largest of rooms, and the colours and heroism within the piece are overwhelming, and while the piece does feel highly polished, the technique and division of the piece really shouldn’t be faulted.

We see Napoleon in the central point, calm and collected atop of a rearing Arabian stallion.  He is pointing upwards as behind him, obscured by rocks, you can see his reserve army climbing the mountain, lugging cannons and weapons with them.  The tricolour flag being flown.

Let’s talk about Napoleon and his gestures for a moment – the raised hand pointing to the invisible summit of the Alps, his cloak following the same line, almost forced up into the air by the motion of the rearing horse, making the viewers eyes travel in a diagonal as if they are looking for the summit of the mount.  It is also another clever technique to give the viewer the feeling of power that Napoleon had at the time, the landscape echoing his body, as though he had some control over the gradient of the mount.  This is also a fairly clever technique by David, the diagonals created by the horse, the hand gesture and the men climbing, counter balanced by the sky, giving the dramatic feel to the landscape and perhaps adding to the sense of urgency.

There are other things which display Napoleon’s mastery of the landscape.  Look in the bottom left of the painting, Bonaparte is carved in to the rock face, like some early form of street art tagging, along with the names Charlemagne and Hannibal, the two other infamous warmongers who crossed the Alps,  catapulting Napoleon’s ego and status in to the realms of greatness.

It would be foolish of me not to point out the comparison between the horse and Napoleon at this stage.  The horse seemingly panicked, a close look at the horses face shows wild eyes and foam coming from the bit in its mouth.  Its front legs muscles tensed as it rears, reflected in the leg muscles of Napoleon as he skillfully remains astride the beast, but in direct opposition his face is calm and controlled… almost as if he is saying “hold my beer – I got this”, or maybe it is hold my vino.

The lighting in the piece is dramatic – Napoleon well light from an unseen light source from the sky, almost as though a heavenly light is being shone on him, because is he doing the right thing, illuminating the details of his mastery of the situation, his men in his shadow.

This painting secured the position of ‘First Painter’ of Napoleon for David, and he clearly idolised, even if the relationship between them was a little tumultuous and potentially completely stifled David’s creative flare through Napoleon’s wishes, but perhaps it was David’s dream to assist in securing the placement of Napoleon in history as the hero that he saw him as, which he most definitely achieved.

Each of the five versions of this painting are different, showing different colour horses (varying from dark brown, through dappled grey to white) and Napoleon’s cloaks in them are different colours indicating differing moods and feelings in each painting, never being a true replication of each other.

I can happily say that seeing this in real life has made me a converted fan, the colour and subject structure being something so dramatic, that regardless of how the critics of the past have view this piece, I think that David did his idol proud.

What do you think of “Napoleon Crossing the Alps”? Why not tell me in the comments?  Like this post?  Why not share it?

Want to see more of what inspires me or things I am creating?  Find me and follow me on Facebook/Instagram/Twitter by searching WidowCranky.

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2 thoughts on “Napoleon Crossing the Alps – Jacques-Louis David

Add yours

  1. Napoleon looks rather large too. Compared to the horse, he looks to be 6foot or so (rather than 5-5).

    I’ve only been to a few museums – the National Gallery in Washington DC back when I was 18 sticks in my mind. Lots of immense landscapes by American artists — many of them I could stand in front of for hours.

    Liked by 1 person

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