The King of Spain was the one who initially commissioned the painting. The composition displays an idealised view of the actual crossing that Napoleon Bonapart together with his army made in May 1800 across the Alps via the 3rd highest road pass in Switzerland - Great St. Bernard Pass.
All five versions of the painting are of about the same size (2.6 metres x 2.2 metres). Bonaparte appears in the picture mounted in a general in chief's uniform, and he wears a gold-trimmed bicorne, plus armed with a heavy, Mamluk-style sabre. He's covered in the folds of a huge cloak billowing in the wind. The head of Bonaparte is turned towards the observer, and he's gesturing toward the mountain summit with his right hand. His left-hand grasps the reins of his horse. The horse is rearing up on its hind legs, its tail and mane whipped against its strong body by the very wind inflating the cloak Napoleon is wearing.
In the background, there is a line of soldiers scattered with artillery, going up the mountain. In front of Napoleon, the mountains are seen rising up sharply and dark clouds are seen hanging over the picture. On the horse breastplate yoke, the painting is signed and dated. In the foreground, KAROLVS MAGNVS IMP, HANNIBAL and BONAPARTE are engraved on the rocks.
In contrast to David's predecessors Jean-Honoré Fragonard and François Boucher, who employed a grey or red undercoat as the base colour on which they build up their pictures, he used the white canvas background directly beneath his colours, as several of his unfinished paintings show. For instance, his Tennis Court Oath sketch or his initial attempt of Bonaparte portrait.
He worked using 2 or 3 layers. After capturing the basic outline with the ochre drawing, David would flesh out the picture with light touches, using his brush with little paint; he concentrated on the blocks of shade and light instead of details. The result of that technique is especially noticeable in the initial version of this painting, particularly in the horse rump treatment. With the second layer, he concentrated more on correcting possible defects and filling out the details. He used the 3rd and last layer for finishing touches: smoothing the surface and blending of tones.
Contrary to the normal practice of David, few drafts plus preparatory studies were made. David's pupil called Gros produced an oil painting of a horse that was being reined in; this was a likely study for the mount by Napoleon. David's notebooks show several sketches of initial thoughts on the rider's position.
The lack of early education may in part be justified by the fact that Bonaparte refused to sit for the painting. In 1796, Bonaparte had sat for Gros on Joséphine de Beauharnais' insistence, but Gros had made a complaint that he didn't have enough time needed for that sitting to be beneficial. In 1798, David had managed to convince him to sit so that he could produce his portrait. However, the 3 hours that the impatient and fidgety Bonaparte had granted David didn't give him enough time to produce a likeness that was decent.
On accepting the Alpine scene commission, it seems that David was expecting that he was going to sit for the study; however, Bonaparte refused on the grounds that he did not like sitting and he also believed that the picture has to represent his character instead of his physical appearance. The refusal of attending a sitting marked the break in the Napoleon in general portraiture, with verism abandoned for political iconography. Then, after that point, the paintings become emblematic and captured an ideal instead of a physical likeness.
After being failing to persuade Napoleon to sit for a portrait, David decided to take a bust to be a starting point for Napoleon's features, then told his son to take a ladder and perch on top of it as a model for that posture. However, the uniform on the painting is more accurate, as David managed to borrow the bicorne and uniform that Bonaparte was wearing at Marengo.
As for the fiery steed, he used two of the horses owned by Napoleon as models: the famous grey Marengo appearing in the versions held at Vienna and Versailles plus the mare "la Belle" featuring in those held at Charlottenburg. For the landscape, engravings from the Voyage pittoresque de la Suisse were used as models. The first of the 5 portraits was painted in 4 months, from October 1800-January 1801. After completing the initial version, David started working on the 2nd version immediately. This was completed on 25 May 1801, which was the date of the portraits' inspection done by Bonaparte at David's Louvre workshop. David's two pupils helped him to produce the different versions: George Rouget produced the Les Invalides copy and Jérôme-Martin Langlois primarily worked on the first 2 portraits.
The commission specified Napoleon's portrait standing in the First Consul's uniform, most likely in the spirit of paintings that were produced later by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, Robert Lefèvre and Antoine-Jean Gros, but David was very keen and painted an equestrian scene. Ignacio Muzquiz, the Spanish ambassador, informed Napoleon asking him how he would want to be represented. Initially, Napoleon requested to be displayed reviewing the troops but ultimately settled on a scene that showed him crossing the Alps.
Actually, in reality, the crossing of the Alps was done in fine weather and a guide had led Bonaparte across several days after the troops, and they mounted on a mule. But from the outset, the picture was more than anything else propaganda, and Bonaparte told David to portray him mounted on a fiery horse and calm. Also, it's probable that he suggested the names of Charlemagne and Hannibal to be added. These were great generals who also led their troops across the Alps.
The artist uses inscriptions to strengthen the symbolism in 8 of his works. These are Leonidas at Thermopylae, Napoleon in his Study, Sappho and Phaon, Napoleon Crossing the Alps, The Furrier of Saint-Fargeau, The Death of Marat, Andromache Mourning Hector and Bélisaire asking for Alms. In the painting The Death of Marat by David, the dying revolutionary is holding a page with Charlotte Corday’s name, his assassin. Léonidas in Thermopyles shows an engraving sacrifice details of Spartans on a wall. In that painting, the rock bears Hannibal and Charlemagne names alongside Bonaparte, and links them by their Alps crossing, and portrays Napoleon as their successor.
Also, the inclusion of "IMP" (Imperator or Emperor) and Charlemagne raises doubts concerning the level of Napoleon’s involvement with the inscriptions addition. Was it a hint of his drives or coincidence? But there is the probability that it was only an indication of the status of Charlemagne as the Holy Roman Empire emperor.
After the rise to power of Napoleon and the triumph at Marengo, the fashion became of Bonaparte's allegorical portraits, glorifying their new Master of France, like the Battle of Marengo Allegory by Antoine-François Callet, which featured Bonaparte wearing a Roman costume, and winged symbols of victory flank him. Also, there is the Triumph of Bonaparte by Pierre Paul Prud'hon, which features the First Consul (Bonaparte) in a chariot who is accompanied by winged figures.
Jacques Louis David chose symbolism instead of allegory. David's figure of Bonaparte is idealised and heroic, but lacking the concrete allegorical painting symbols. Faithful to his wish for a journey back to the pure Greek, he employed to Bonaparte's portrait the radical neo-classicism he had demonstrated earlier in his 1799 portrait that showed a legendary episode after the founding generation of Rome abducted Sabine women, with the use of modern costumes the only concession.
Also, the horse from the 1st version is almost the same in colouring and posture to the horse featured in his 1799 portrait about the Sabine Women abduction. Bonaparte's youthful figure in the initial picture reflects the "beautiful ideal" aestheticism symbolised by the Apollo Belvedere then taken to its peak in Jean Broc’s The Death of Hyacinthos: Broc was David’s pupil. Also, the beautiful young man’s figure that David painted is also present in the Sabine Women portrait.
David’s son youthful posture, forces into posing for David after Bonaparte refused to sit for the portrait, is evident in Napoleon’s attitude portrayed in the picture; with his legs seen folded just like the Greek riders, that youthful figure is evoking Alexander the Great while still young and mounted on Bucephalus as on his sarcophagus.
For the horse, the artist took the equestrian Peter the Great statue as a starting point, Étienne Maurice Falconet’s The Bronze Horseman in Saint Petersburg, and he duplicated the calm handling of the rearing horse that’s on rocky ground. Additionally, there are hints of Titus in Nicolas Poussin’s The Destruction of Jerusalem Temple. Poussin is a painter who influenced David’s work in big way. The Greek statuary horses appearing numerous times in David's notebooks are pointing to the Parthenon’s bas-reliefs as a source of inspiration.
History of the 5 versions
The original picture remained in Madrid, Spain until 1812, when Joseph Bonaparte took it after abdicating as King of Spain. Joseph took the painting with him when going into exile in the US; it hanged at his Point Breeze estate. The picture was handed down through Joseph’s his descendants until the year 1949, when Eugenie Bonaparte, his great grandniece, bequeathed it to the Château de Malmaison museum.
The version that was produced in 1801 for Château de Saint-Cloud was removed by Prussian soldiers in 1814, they were under the orders of von Blücher. Blücher offered the painting to King of Prussia, Frederick William III. It’s now held in Berlin in the Charlottenburg Palace. The 1802 Les Invalides’ copy was taken down and then placed into storage in the 1814 Bourbon Restoration. However, in 1837, under Louis-Philippe orders, the painting was hung again in his museum located at the Palace of Versailles: it is currently in this museum.
The version produced in 1803 was taken to Milan, but the Austrians confiscated it in 1816. However, Milan people refused to give up the painting and it remained there until 1825. The picture was eventually installed in 1834 at the Belvedere, Vienna, where it remains today, and it’s now part of the famous Österreichische Galerie Belvedere collection. The version that David kept until 1825 when he died was exhibited in 1846 at Bazar Bonne-Nouvelle, where Baudelaire remarked upon it. In 1850, Pauline Jeanin, David’s daughter, offered the painting to the forthcoming Napoleon III, and it was placed at the Tuileries Palace. It was given to the Palace of Versailles museum in 1979.
Whilst Napoleon Crossing the Alps at the St Bernard Pass remains possibly Jacques Louis David's most famous painting, it is intriguing to compare it to the corresponding contributions of other related artists around at this time. Eugene Delacroix gave us the iconic Liberty Leading the People as well as Christ on the Sea of Galilee where as Theodore Gericault, another French Romanticist, produced notable works like Raft of the Medusa and The Wounded Cuirassier.