“Napoleon Crossing the Alps (also known as Napoleon at the Saint-Bernard Pass or Bonaparte Crossing the Alps; listed as Le Premier Consul franchissant les Alpes au col du Grand Saint-Bernard) is a series of five oil on canvas equestrian portraits of Napoleon Bonaparte painted by the French artist Jacques-Louis David between 1801 and 1805. Initially commissioned by the King of Spain, the composition shows a strongly idealized view of the real crossing that Napoleon and his army made across the Alps through the Great St Bernard Pass in May 1800.
It has become one of the most commonly reproduced images of Napoleon.
Unable to convince Napoleon to sit for the picture, David took a bust as a starting point for his features, and made his son perch on top of a ladder as a model for the posture.
After Napoleon’s rise to power and the victory at Marengo, the fashion was for allegorical portraits of Bonaparte, glorifying the new Master of France, such as Antoine-François Callet’s Allegory of the Battle of Marengo, featuring Bonaparte dressed in Roman costume and flanked by winged symbols of victory, and Pierre Paul Prud’hon’s Triumph of Bonaparte, featuring the First Consul in a chariot accompanied by winged figures. David chose symbolism rather than allegory. His figure of Bonaparte is heroic and idealized but it lacks the concrete symbols of allegorical painting.
Faithful to his desire for a “return to the pure Greek” (retour vers le grec pur), David applied the radical neo-classicism that he had demonstrated in his 1799 The Intervention of the Sabine Women to the portrait of Bonaparte, with the use of contemporary costumes the only concession. The horse from the first version is almost identical in posture and colouring to one featured in the melee of The Intervention of the Sabine Women.
The youthful figure of Bonaparte in the initial painting reflects the aesthetic of the “beautiful ideal” symbolized by the “Apollo Belvedere” and taken to its zenith in The Death of Hyacinthos by Jean Broc, one of David’s pupils. The figure of the beautiful young man which David had already painted in La Mort du jeune Bara is also present in The Intervention of the Sabine Women. The youthful posture of David’s son, forced into posing for the artist by Bonaparte’s refusal to sit, is evident in the attitude of the Napoleon portrayed in the painting; with his legs folded like the Greek riders, the youthful figure evokes the young Alexander the Great mounted on Bucephalus as seen on his sarcophagus (now in the archaeological museum of Istanbul).
For the horse, David takes as a starting point the equestrian statue of Peter the Great, “The Bronze Horseman” by Étienne Maurice Falconet in Saint Petersburg, duplicating the calm handling of a rearing horse on rocky ground. There are also hints of Titus in The Destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem by Nicolas Poussin, a painter who strongly influenced David’s work. The horses of the Greek statuary which appear many times in David’s notebooks point to the bas-reliefs of the Parthenon as a source of inspiration.”