Napoleon at the St. Bernard Pass, Jacques-Louis David
Napoleon at the St. Bernard Pass, painted by Jacques-Louis David in 1800 ushered in the iconography of the Napoleonic period, after which time its ubiquity seems almost to be engrained on the popular French imagination. Despite the bombast of the image, the reality was slightly more prosaic, with Bonaparte crossing the Alps on a male wearing a grey coat. Yet the painting derives its power from its conception, guided and advised closely by Napoleon himself who sought to go beyond a mere representation of the event. Incredibly conscious of his public image, both Napoleon and the painter David forged one of the most enduring propaganda prototypes in the history of visual culture. David reared the animal up so as to impart dynamism to its composition, further reinforcing the hyperbolic gesture of Bonaparte draped in an ample bright cloak. The victorious general reveals an idealized face, staring commandingly at the viewer and showing them the direction to follow: his own third-way politics he sought to impose between royalism and republicanism.
Winning national favor in the final years of the eighteenth century, Napoleon was catapulted to power in the hope of restoring order in the country following the French Revolution. He pacified the royalist departments of the West and the various insurgencies taking up arms against the Republic and dominated the military situation by pushing back the Austrians at Marengo on 14 June 1800. Although only a partial victory, this event was turned into a decisive battle through a particularly effective propaganda campaign, relying in large part upon David’s Napoleon at the St. Bernard Pass.
Joining the genealogy of great military leaders, David inscribes the name ‘Bonaparte’ on the stone in the left foreground of the canvas, beside the names of Hannibal and Charlemagne. As his bare right-hand points towards the sky, Napoleon guides the way towards the road to victory. The youthful face, manifesting a sense of innocence and hope, is turned to the audience in a display of assurance and determination. This towering work of propaganda is also a seminal piece in the history of the Neoclassical style. As Napoleon braves the elements, protecting and guiding his army, he is cast as the heir to the French national hero Charlemagne. David’s stunning iconography has endured in the French popular imagination to this day, challenged only in 1940 by the personae of Charles De Gaulle.