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Napoleonic paintings
Napoleonic paintings

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2.3 The military leader

Let us now consider another relatively early portrait, David's Bonaparte Crossing the Alps, in which the then First Consul is shown at the Great Saint Bernard at the start of the campaign which led to the defeat of the Austrians at Marengo in June 1800 (see Plate 10 [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] ). In fact, Bonaparte had actually crossed the Alps on a humble mule rather than on the splendid mount depicted in this painting. What interests me, however, is not so much the falsity of this propaganda image but exactly how it served Napoleon's ambitions. In fact, the painting originated as a commission from the King of Spain for a gallery of famous military leaders, but a copy was immediately ordered by Bonaparte himself (this is the version illustrated here). He had previously sat for his portrait to David, apparently at the artist's own request, on his return from his first Italian campaign in 1797, but that painting was never completed. David is supposed to have been greatly inspired by the encounter, exclaiming (according to one of his pupils, writing years later): ‘O my friends, what a fine head he has! It's pure, it's great, it's as beautiful as the Antique! Here is a man to whom altars would have been erected in ancient times …. Bonaparte is my hero!’ (Delécluze, 1983, p.200; quoted in Brooker, 1980, p.142). In 1800, however, he was granted no sittings by Napoleon, who is reported to have declared:

Likeness is not produced by an exact reproduction of features, by a pimple on the nose. What the painter must show is the character of the face, the thing that makes it alive … Nobody wants to know if the portraits of great men look like them. It is enough that their genius lives in them.

(Delécluze, 1983, p.232)

Clickto see plate 10 Jacques-Louis David, Bonaparte Crossing the Alps, 1800–1, 1800-01, oil on canvas, 260 x 221 cm, Châteaux de Versailles et de Trianon. Photo: Bridgeman Art Library

This statement at once draws on the classical tradition of idealized representation (such as we have seen in David's Marat) and expresses a typically Napoleonic faith in the charisma of the heroic leader. Whether or not he actually uttered these words, Napoleon undoubtedly did have an aversion to sitting for his portrait. Nor did this present too great a problem in the case of official portraits, the purpose of which was not simply to record an individual likeness but also to embody the authority of the office (as king, general, minister, etc.). Certainly, when David put the two versions of the portrait on show in the Louvre in 1801, none of the critics seemed bothered by the acknowledged lack of resemblance. This can be attributed to the fact that it was, in effect, an official portrait (even if it had not initially been commissioned by the regime), and also to its significance as a work of art in its own right, as an ambitious painting by the most famous French artist of the day. The fact that David put them on display (though not in fact in the Salon) is also significant; it suggests that he saw himself as painting as much for the Parisian public as for the person who commissioned the painting.

Click to see plate 5 Antoine-Jean Gros, General Bonaparte at the Bridge of Arcole, 1797, oil on canvas, 130 x 94 cm, Musée National du Château, Versailles. Photo: Bridgeman Art Library


Compare Bonaparte Crossing the Alps (Plate 10) to Bonaparte at the Bridge of Arcole (Plate 5). In each case, consider the size of the painting (check the measurements in the caption), the type of portrait (is the figure shown full-length, for example?), the relative importance of the background, how the figure relates (or doesn't relate) to the viewer outside the painting, whether or not a sense of movement is conveyed, the brushwork (highly finished or loose and sketchy?). For the moment, we will concentrate on these formal properties and leave aside broader questions of meaning.


David's painting is quite a bit larger than Gros's, a more modest three-quarter-length portrait. Also, whereas Bonaparte Crossing the Alps includes craggy mountains and a windswept sky, Bonaparte at the Bridge of Arcole has only a hazy background, which can just be glimpsed behind the figure. Whereas, in the latter painting, Bonaparte's gaze is directed towards his soldiers, somewhere within the imaginary space that extends beyond the picture frame, David shows him looking outwards towards the viewer. Moreover, although the figure's upward-gesturing arm can be read as an instruction to his soldiers, its exaggerated drama suggests that it is really directed towards the viewer outside the picture. It is as if he is inviting the viewer to follow him. Also, his equestrian pose means that he looks down on everyone (soldiers and viewers alike) from a great height, whereas Gros's figure is roughly on a level with his men. Rather than sharing the dynamism of the earlier painting, David's has a strangely frozen quality, despite depicting energetic action. The rearing horse has a sculptural stillness and Napoleon's idealized features are impassive. This effect is reinforced by the smoothness of the highly finished manner used for the equestrian group, which contrasts with Gros's looser, livelier handling.

The question then arises: how do we account for these differences? Clearly, we are dealing with two painters each with his own style, but this provides only part of the answer. The larger size of Bonaparte Crossing the Alps and the grand equestrian format (often used for monarchs) can be related to the fact that, by 1800, Napoleon was no longer a mere general but had become the nation's leader. A crucial clue towards the painting's meaning is provided by the names inscribed on the rocks in the bottom-left foreground: Napoleon, Hannibal, Karolus Magnus (Charlemagne), thereby identifying Bonaparte with great military leaders who had crossed the Alps before him. Together with the way that he seems to be inviting the viewer to follow him onwards and upwards, they give a mythic dimension to the image. He is presented not simply as a hero but as a man of destiny, who will lead his army to military victory and, by implication, the French people to a glorious future. In this respect, it is important to note the tricolour flag being carried by the artillery men struggling up the mountainside; it identifies them with the nation, just as Napoleon appears here less as an individual than as the embodiment of military glory. It could also be argued that, by showing him calmly riding a fiery horse and defying the wild nature behind him, the painting implies he is capable of controlling a chaotic political situation and establishing a new order that will safeguard the gains of the Revolution. As such, it can be seen to justify the authority he had seized and thus to function as propaganda for the regime. While any official portrait is, in some sense, a form of propaganda, the Napoleonic crisis of legitimation meant that images of the new ruler had to (as it were) ‘work’ that much harder.