Bonaparte crossing the Great St Bernard Pass

Jacques-Louis David • Painting, 1803, 246×231 cm
Digital copy: 879.6 kB
1576 × 1876 px • JPEG
35.3 × 37.6 cm • 113 dpi
26.7 × 31.8 cm • 150 dpi
13.3 × 15.9 cm • 300 dpi
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About the artwork
Art form: Painting
Subject and objects: Portrait, Historical scene
Style of art: Classicism
Technique: Oil
Materials: Canvas
Date of creation: 1803
Size: 246×231 cm
Artwork in selections: 38 selections
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Description of the artwork «Bonaparte crossing the Great St Bernard Pass»

Some consider the Napoleon on the St. Bernard Pass painting lifeless, some consider it the proof of the Jacques-Louis David’s inability to convey the movement. Some see it not as art, but as pure and unadulterated propaganda. Some people gnash their teeth at its pompous monumentality, and some perceive it as a kind of beginning of the final stage of the artist’s career before he officially became a footman-artist of Napoleon. But whatever is said (or will be said), the painting is perhaps the best portrait of Napoleon Bonaparte ever.

Historical journey

The portrait was finished within four months from October 1800 to January 1801 — it signals the onset of a new century. After a decade of the post-revolutionary terror and uncertainty, France has resumed its strength and influence. It certainly happened due to General Napoleon Bonaparte, who in 1799 organized an uprising against the revolutionary government (a coup d'état), appointed himself First Consul and in fact became the most influential man in the country (and a few years later, he declared himself the Emperor).

In May 1800, he led his troops through the Great St Bernard Pass in the Alps to Italy, which was captured by the Austrians, whom he had defeated in June at the Battle of Marengo. This episode is immortalized in Jacques-Louis David’s painting. The victory of France gave the opportunity to get closer to King Charles IV of Spain. As a sign of new relations between the two countries, he commissioned a portrait of Napoleon, intending to place it in the Royal Palace in Madrid among the portraits of other great military leaders.

Napoleon and the portrait

As we know, Napoleon did not help David much in creating the picture. He refused to sit for it, claiming that: “No one knows if the portraits of great people look like themselves, it is enough that their genius lives in these paintings.” All the artist had to work with was an earlier portrait and a military uniform that Napoleon wore under Marengo. One of his sons, who was dressed in the uniform and sat on the stairs, posed for David. Probably, this can explain the youthful physique of the general.

However, Napoleon did not completely withdraw from the process. It was he who instructed the artist to paint the equestrian portrait “calme sur un cheval fougueux” (calm on a fiery horse), which David did. After all, how else could one demonstrate that a ruler had power, common sense, and self-control? The fact that Napoleon did not actually lead the troops across the Alps, but followed them a couple of days later along a narrow path on the back of a mule, did not matter!


Just as many equestrian portraits, which is the genre preferred by rulers, Bonaparte crossing the Great St Bernard Pass is a symbolic depiction of power. Napoleon is represented on a rearing Arab stallion. In front of him, we can see a mountain; the French military are moving in the background, in the shade of the rocks, and further down the line is the three-coloured national flag of France.

Bonaparte’s right hand without a glove points to an invisible peak, prompting us to move up rather than the distant soldiers. Raised hands are often found in David’s works, although in this composition, the hand repeats the shape of the slope of the mountain range. Together with the cloak line, they create a series of diagonals, which are balanced by the clouds on the right. The overall effect is to stabilize the figure of Napoleon.

The landscape is considered a decoration for the hero, not as an object in itself. For example, on the rock at the bottom left, there is Napoleon’s name carved next to the names of Hannibal and Charlemagne, two other military leaders who led their troops through the Alps. David also uses terrain to enforce the message about his subject. Napoleon and his horse dominate the scenic plane. It may seem that the figure with the outstretched arm and the soaring cloak repeats the landscape, while it can equally be argued that it is the landscape that repeats Napoleon and ultimately obeys his will. David seemed to believe that this man, whose achievements would live on for centuries, could do anything.

Five versions

Napoleon was flattered. He commissioned three more versions to be painted, and David also created another one. Reflecting the breadth of the French ruler’s European conquests, one was exhibited in Madrid, two in Paris, and the other in Milan.

The original painting remained in Madrid until 1812. After Joseph Bonaparte, Napoleon’s brother, abdicated the Spanish throne, he took the artwork with him into exile in the United States. The painting passed on to his descendants until 1949, when Eugénie Bonaparte bequeathed it to the museum in Château de Malmaison.
The version, which was created for the Château de Saint-Cloud in 1801, was seized 13 years later by the Prussian soldiers of Field Marshal Blucher. He offered it to Frederick Wilhelm III, King of Prussia. The canvas is currently housed in the Charlottenburg Palace in Berlin.

The copy, that was painted in 1802 for the Hôtel des Invalides, was removed and placed in storage after the Bourbons restoration in 1814. But in 1837, by order of King Louis-Philippe, it was transferred to the museum organized by him in the Palace of Versailles, where it is still being kept.

The 1803 canvas was taken to Milan, but in 1816 it was confiscated by the Austrians. Nevertheless, the city inhabitants found a way to detain it until 1825. In 1834, the painting was finally placed in the Vienna Belvedere, where it remains to this day.

The fifth version, which had been kept in David’s workshop until his death in 1825, was exhibited at the Bazar-Bonn-Nouvelle in 1846. Four years later, the artist’s daughter Pauline Janine offered it to the future Napoleon III, who hung the portrait in the Tuileries Palace. In 1979, it was transferred to the Museum of the Palace of Versailles.


In 1801, David received the title of the Premier Peintre (the first artist) of Napoleon. One might wonder how he felt about that new role. Of course, David idolized this man. “Voilà mon héros” (Here is my hero), he told his students when the general first visited his workshop. And perhaps he was proud to have helped create and maintain Napoleon’s public image. It is noteworthy that he put his signature and date on the Bonaparte crossing the Great St Bernard Pass painting, on the breastplate of the horse — the part of the harness that holds the saddle firmly in place. The breastplate also exerts pressure to restrain the animal, and, drawing parallels and considering later large-scale commissions such as The Coronation of Napoleon, the question arises: did the “hero” suppress the creative genius of David with his patronage?

However, in Bonaparte crossing the Great St Bernard Pass, the spark is still there. As the artist himself put it, largely thanks to “the return to pure Greek”. In this painting, he formed the archetype that can be found on medals and coins — an instantly recognizable and endlessly reproducible hero of all time.

Author: Vlad Maslov