Behind the art: why was Jacques-Louis David’s painting “Napoleon crossing the Alps” considered a propaganda tool in 1801?

Perched on a fiery horse with a calm, poised expression, this image of Napoleon is ingrained in everyone’s mind. Considered a popular image of the French military leader since 1801, five exact versions of this painting were made by his faithful servant Jacques-Louis David up to 1805. The first version of the painting is on display at Château de Malmaison, France. While some claim it was the perfect propaganda tool used by Napoleon, others praise David’s ability to capture movement on canvas. But what about this work of art which skillfully magnifies the image of the French leader?

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Why was the painting made?

France was emerging as a great power after a decade of uncertainty following the Revolution. Napoleon played a huge role in the fight against the revolutionary government. He effectively became the most powerful man in the land and even declared himself emperor at one point. In 1800 he led his troops across the Alps in a campaign against the Austrians, which ended in their defeat at the Battle of Marengo. People often ignore the known fact that Napoleon did not actually lead his troops but simply followed a few days later. In reality, he traveled a narrow path on the back of a mule and encountered no difficulties unlike his troops. But clearly, at that time, no one cared or knew about this fact. The King of Spain commissioned the portrait of Napoleon and wanted it to hang in a gallery with other portraits of military leaders in order to praise his attempts at war.

The King of Spain commissioned the portrait of Napoleon and wanted it to hang in a gallery with other portraits of military leaders. (Photo: Instagram/@arthistory_curated)

The making of paint

The first version of the painting was completed in four months in 1801, but Napoleon simply refused to support David in painting the portrait. He didn’t want to sit down and say, “Nobody knows if the portraits of great men look like them, it is enough that their genius lives there”. Napoleon, however, told David to paint a portrait with a fiery horse. The painter must have used earlier portraits as examples and used the uniform Napoleon wore for the Battle of Marengo as a point of reference. But that alone is not enough for an artist to work with him. David eventually had to ask his own son to climb a ladder and pose in Napoleon’s uniform. This explains the youthful physique of the figure in the painting. David used a different painting style from his predecessors François Boucher and Jean-Honoré Fragonard. Painters used to employ a red or gray undercoat as the base color on which to build the paint. In this painting, David has instead used the white background of the canvas directly under his color. He used two or three coats to paint this masterpiece. He was using a brush with little paint on the first layer and giving light strokes to the paint. The second coat would be for filling in details and the third for finishing, as well as smoothing the surface. It was his assistants who often worked on the third coat in order to help finish the painting.

A grand result

David was given the post of Premier Peintre (First Painter) by Napoleon and the French military leader fell so in love with the painting that he ordered David to make three more copies for him. But what made this painting so popular? In order to show authority and power, Napoleon is depicted astride a prancing Arab stallion. To his left is a mountain and French troops in the background firing a large cannon. Napoleon’s gloveless hands point to the invisible top and the bottom of the image shows more clouds, his coat flying through the air.

This is done to stabilize the leader’s image in the eyes of the beholder. Another technique David uses is to engrave Napoleon’s name with the names of Hannibal and Charlemagne – two other famous people who led their troops across the Alps. The focus remains on the majestic horse and the figure seated on it. It shows how important Napoleon is and how his achievements will be talked about for centuries. In fact, David fell in love with his own work and made a fifth copy of it which remained in his studio. The other paintings were hung in Madrid, two in Paris and one in Milan.

It is indeed very rare for artists to make several exact copies of the same portrait. It is usually students who make copies of a painting for learning purposes. In this case, thanks to Napoleon’s vanity and the need to spread his own propaganda, he had his portrait made several times and hung across Europe to show his power for centuries. The portrait is truly a pleasure to watch and the credit goes to its author.

Next step in Behind the Art: Why James Abbott McNeill Whistler’s ‘Arrangement in Gray and Black N°1‘ become a symbol of motherhood?

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