Bonaparte Crossing the Alps

Bonaparte Crossing the Alps

Infobox Painting

image_size = 270px
title = Bonaparte Crossing the Alps
artist = Hippolyte Delaroche
year = 1850
type = Oil on canvas
height = 289
width = 222
height_inch =
width_inch =
museum = Walker Art Gallery
city = Liverpool, England

"Bonaparte Crossing the Alps" (also called "Napoleon Crossing the Alps", despite the existence of another painting with that name) is an 1848–1850citeweb|url=
title=‘Napoleon Crossing the Alps’, Paul Delaroche (1797-1856)|accessmonthday=11 August|accessyear=2007
] oil-on-canvas portrait of Napoleon Bonaparte, by French artist Hippolyte Delaroche.citeweb|url=|title=DELAROCHE, Paul - "Bonaparte Crossing the Alps"|accessmonthday=5 August|accessyear=2007] citeweb|url=|title= Bonaparte Crossing the Alps 1848|accessmonthday=5 August|accessyear=2007] The painting depicts Bonaparte leading his army through the Alps on a mule,Ref label|Mule|I| a journey Napoleon and his army of soldiers made in the spring of 1800, [Kelley, T.M. p.207] in an attempt to surprise the Austrian army in Italy. [Britt, A.B. p.18] ["The American Whig Review" p.455] The two main versions of this painting that exist are in the Louvre in Paris and the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool, England. Queen Victoria also obtained a reduced version of it. [Bann, Stephen, 'Delaroche, Napoleon and English Collectors', Apollo, October 2005, 28]

The work was inspired by Jacques-Louis David's series of five "Napoleon Crossing the Alps" paintings (1801–1805). David's works also show Napoleon's journey through the Great St. Bernard Pass, but there are significant stylistic differences between the two conceptions. Delaroche's Napoleon is cold and downcast, whereas David's wears a pristine uniform, and is idealized as a hero. Delaroche was commissioned to paint a realistic portrait; the style of which was emerging at the time.Quilley, Geoff; Bonehill, John p.172]

While the painting largely represented—and was one of the pioneers of—an emerging style, the work was criticised by several authorities on the subject. The reasons for this varied from Delaroche's depiction of the scene to a general disapproval of Delaroche himself. Many of those who were in the latter state of mind felt that Delaroche was trying to match the genius of Napoleon in some way, and had failed miserably in doing so.


Historical background

As part of his during the French Revolutionary Wars, Napoleon prepared to invade and conquer Egypt, which was at the time a province of the Ottoman Empire. [El-Enany, R.; Inc NetLibrary, p. 15] Such a military action promised numerous benefits, including securing French trade interests, and inhibiting British access to India. By the first of July that same year, Napoleon had landed on the shores of Egypt. [Clancy-Smith, J.A., p. 96] However, after a lengthy chain of conflicts that resulted in heavy casualties, the campaign resulted in an Ottoman-British victory, and Napoleon was forced to return to France.

When he arrived, he found that while he was in Egypt, Austrian forces had retaken Italy. In order to regain the upper hand, he planned to launch a surprise assault on the Austrian army stationed in the Cisalpine Republic. Based on the assumption that the Austrians would never expect Napoleon's large force to be able to traverse the Alps, he chose that as his route. He selected the shortest route through the Alps, the Great St Bernard Pass, which would enable him to reach his destination as quickly as possible. [Dodge, T.A. p.23] [Alison, Archibald p.26]

On 15 May 1800, Napoleon and his army of 40,000—not including the field artillery and baggage trains—(35,000 light artillery and infantry, 5,000 cavalry) began the arduous journey through the mountains.citeweb|url=|title=History of the Great St Bernard pass|accessmonthday=8 August|accessyear=2007] Herold, J.C. p.134] [Thiers, M.A. p.118] ref label|Impossible|II| During the five days spent traversing the pass, Napoleon's army consumed almost 22,000 bottles of wine, more than a tonne and a half of cheese, and around 800 kilograms of meat.Following his crossing of the Alps, Napoleon commenced military operations against the Austrian army. Despite an inauspicious start to the campaign, the Austrian forces were driven back to Marengo after nearly a month. There, a a large battle took place on 14 June, which resulted in the Austrian evacuation of Italy. Although Napoleon's army was victorious, it suffered more casualties: approximately 1,100 to the Austrians's 960.ref label|Marengo|III|


Delaroche's early works had been based on topics from the Bible's Old Testament, but gradually his interests switched to painting scenes from English and French history.citeweb|url=|title=The Death of Elizabeth I, Queen of England (source on Delaroche's style)|accessmonthday=5 August|accessyear=2007] He 'combined colouristic skill with an interest in detailed scenes from history'. [Walther, I.F.; Suckale, R. p.420] "Bonaparte Crossing the Alps", which was painted roughly eight years before Delaroche's death, exemplifies this phase in Delaroche's career.

The commissioning aside, Delaroche was inspired to create "Bonaparte Crossing the Alps" because he felt that he both looked like Napoleon, and that his achievements were comparable to Napoleon's. It is likely that Delaroche's painting is relatively historically accurate; details such as Napoleon's clothes appear to have been researched by Delaroche in an effort at authenticity. [ Further reading -] Retrieved on 6 August 2007]


Commissioning of painting

The Liverpool painting was commissioned by Arthur George, Third Earl of Onslow, after Delaroche and George reportedly visited the Louvre in Paris, where they saw David's version of the famous event. It had only recently been re-hung in the museum after a resurgence of interest in Napoleon, nearly 40 years after he was exiled.ref label|exile|IV| Agreeing that the painting was unrealistic, George, who owned a sizable collection of Napoleonic paraphernalia, commissioned Delaroche to create a more realistic depiction..citeweb|url=|title=Artwork of the Month (Jan. 2006) at liverpoolmuseums|accessmonthday=8 August|accessyear=2007] Elizabeth Foucart-Walker asserts that in fact the painting that hangs in the Louvre was produced first as it was already in America by 1850, when the Liverpool painting was produced. Stephen Bann suggests that Arthur George's meeting with Delaroche may have occurred, but Delaroche chose to produce two works that are almost identical and send one to America. [Bann, Stephen, 'Delaroche, Napoleon and English Collectors, Apollo, October, 2005, 30] The Liverpool version of the painting is more refined.

Contrast to David's depiction

The contrast between Jacques-Louis David's depiction of the same scene (of Napoleon traversing the Alps on his way to Italy), which was a flattering portrait that the king of Spain requestedciteweb|url=|title=Napoleon's Rise To Power At Clark|accessmonthday=11 Augst|accessyear=2007] ref label|Spain|V| for Napoleonciteweb|url=|title='Napoleon crossing the Alps' 1850|accessmonthday=11 August|accessyear=2007] (as a gift) and Delaroche's depiction in "Bonaparte Crossing the Alps" is easily apparent. The first and most significant difference is in Napoleon, in his clothing, and in his general stature. David's version depicts Napoleon, dressed in an immaculate, multi-coloured uniform with a billowing cape. Delaroche's version, however, sees Napoleon in a fairly ordinary, gray coat with the sole purpose of keeping the cold away, rather than showing him as the symbol he may have represented - that of a gallant and powerful war leader, which is the impression given in David's version.However, there is another significant difference in Napoleon himself, in the way he holds himself. David's Napoleon is flamboyant, confident in his leadership of the French army, and in his ability to cross the Alps and defeat the Austrians in Italy. Delaroche's Napoleon is instead downcast, gaunt and embittered by the harsh cold. His eyes and expressionless face evidence his weariness, his tiredness a result of the long and unstable trek.The last properly significant difference in the two art works (excluding the actual setting, background, men seen in the distance etc.) is the difference in the animals that Napoleon rides on. In David's version, Napoleon rides a large, strong steed with a long mane, and this is one figment of David's version that is irrefutably untrue - Napoleon is known to have ridden a mule on his journey (which was borrowed from a local peasant), rather than a horse. [Chandler, D. G. p.51.] This presence of a horse rather than a mule was one of the most major grounds for Delaroche's criticism of David's version, and is the basis of Delaroche's claim that "Bonaparte Crossing the Alps", which includes a mule, is a more realistic portrayal of the scene.



Napoleon is seen wearing clothing appropriate for his location: over his uniform he wears a long topcoat which is wrapped firmly around him, in which he keeps his gloveless right hand warm. He retains a piece of his dignity in the gold-trimmed black bicorne he wears on his head. The mule Napoleon rides is undernourished, tired from its ordeal in struggling through the Alps. On the left of the mule is his guide, Pierre Nicholas Dorsaz,cite web|url=|title=Correspondance de Napoléon - Octobre 1801|accessmonthday=6 August|accessyear=2007|language=French] citeweb|url=
title= Napoleon’s Crossing over the Great St. Bernard Pass|accessmonthday=8 August|accessyear=2007
] who must constantly push himself and the mule forward, and who leans heavily on the shaft of wood he clutches in his left hand to allow himself to continue moving forward. His clothes are weather-beaten, his face ruddy from the cold. He is not allowed the luxury of riding an animal, for he must be able to navigate independently, on the ground.

Elements of the cold, harsh environment of the Alps are apparent: distant mountains capped in snow rise up behind Napoleon and his troupe, while a steep cliff face appears on his left, and the path underfoot has a thick layer of ice.More members of Napoleon's entourage can be seen slightly behind him, their robust figures accentuating Bonaparte's fragility.

Napoleon is shown to be as he would have been high up in the mountains, as a mortal and imperilled man. While this seems in some way demeaning to Napoleon's figure (and contrasts in the extreme with David's version, which shows Napoleon impervious to the cold, and in a heroic light), Delaroche's artwork was not intended to portray him in a hostile or unbecoming way. Delaroche wanted to depict Napoleon as a credible man, who suffered and underwent human hardship too, on his most daring exploits, and felt that making him appear as he really would have been in the situation would by no means debase or diminish Napoleon's iconic status or legacy, but rather make him a more admirable person.

Artistic style

Along with the mass of white seen behind Napoleon, the amber sunlight glow, originating from the West of Napoleon's troupe, is the central source of lighting in the painting. It introduces contrast when coupled with shadow, and, by illumination, highlights key aspects of the scene; this is particularly seen by the light that falls across Bonaparte's pigeon chest. Napoleon and the mule he is saddled on are richly textured visually by the contrasting light and shade, as is the guide leading the mule. The ice and snow layers, also, are made whiter by the sunshine from the West, brightening the whole scene. However, the overhanging cliff on the left of Napoleon's guide and the legs of the mule both cast shadows to balance the lighting scheme of the painting.

The textural hues and schemes that Delaroche uses in this painting are quite detailed and well considered, especially in regards to the most important figures; such aspects of the work were described as being '...rendered with a fidelity that has not omitted the plait of a drapery, the shaggy texture of the four-footed animal, nor a detail of the harness on his back'.The mule, especially its fur, was intensely textured and detailed to make it look visually rough and bristly, and the mule itself weary and worn. The same techniques were applied to the red and yellow adornments draped and hung over the animal.The central detail of Napoleon is applied to his coat, in its ruffles and creases. Much detail and textural diversity is given to the guide too, most particularly to his face, his green, wind-caught tunic, and his leather boots.

Delaroche's attention to detail and literal precision in this painting evidences and demonstrates the slow but steady evolution of realism in art during the 19th century, and how its popularity began to rise.


The work, despite its attempt to depict Napoleon realistically, was criticised by several authorities for a variety of reasons. A few disapproved of Delaroche's choice of painting, while others disapproved of Delaroche himself, saying, in some form, that he sought the genius of Napoleon, to no avail.

Soon after its completion, the work was taken to England, and there, in 1850, it was reviewed by the critic of "the Atheneum",ref label|Atheneum|VI| a literary magazine.citeweb|url=|title=The "Athenæum"|accessmonthday=9 August|accessyear=2007] The magazine's comments on the work indicated that, while they praised the painting for several of its features, they criticised Delaroche, for various reasons:

Some were displeased with Delaroche's work at the time in general, and, in part, "Bonaparte Crossing the Alps", criticising what was described as his 'lowered standards in art'. Such critics included "The Gentleman's Magazine", who wrote the following text about Delaroche:



* I Bonaparte chose to ride across the alps on a mule (obtained at a convent at Martigny) ["The American Whig Review", p.456] rather than a steed, the typical gentleman's mount at the time, because the mule was considered to be more sure-footed on the slippery slopes and narrow passes of the Alps, and to be more sturdy and hardy while making such a perilous journey on such volatile terrain. [Clubbe, J., p.103] Abbott, J. S. C., p.4]

* II Napoleon ordered the assemblage of over 5,000 artillery for transport through the pass, despite the fact that the pass was widely considered to be much too narrow, and the route too volatile and unstable, to allow any form of artillery, light or heavy, to come through. Thus, Napoleons military advisers warned him against this move, but he insisted on this presence of this great number of artillery. [Bunbury, H.E., p.61]

* IIIIn addition to these figures, approximately 3,600 French men were wounded, with over 900 captured or missing, and almost 5,520 Austrians were wounded, with over 2,900 captured (missing numbers cannot be accurately estimated). [Smith, D. "The Greenhill Napoleonic Wars Data Book". Greenhill Books, 1998.]

* IVThe painting was rehung as a result of the revival of Napoleon's reputation, and a fresh interest into his exploits. However, before this, in 1815, the year Napoleon was exiled, Napoleonic-themed art was proscribed for artists and painters, as he was not well liked because of events that had occurred in the few years immediately preceding 1815, and Napoleon's exile. It was only truly by the 1830s that artwork related to the emperor was being created once more. As such, after being removed from the walls of the Louvre around 1815, David's version had been re-hung by the time Delaroche observed it.

* VThe king of Spain (of the time) commissioned Jacques-Louis David's "Napoleon Crossing the Alps" as a friendly gesture towards Napoleon, hoping that the flattering gift would strengthen relationships between France and Spain, to the degree that Napoleon would not consider invading Spain and taking it over, after he became king. However, the king of Spain's attempt failed, and, soon after Napoleon crowned himself king, he crossed the Pyrenees and conquered Spain.

* VIThe "Athenæum" was a widely read literary magazine or periodical that was published in London between 1828 and 1923. Published weekly,citeweb|url=|title=The Athenaeum Projects: Overview|accessmonthday=9 August|accessyear=2007] the "Athenæum" grew and expanded to become one of the most influential and most widely read periodical of the Victorian era. Most of its content was composed of articles, reviews, and scientific and political news, among others. The topics covered in these texts included works of literature, fine art, music and theatre, science and politics.



*Abbot, J. S. C. "Napoleon Bonaparte". Kessinger Publishing, 2004. ISBN 1419136577
*Alison, A. "History of Europe from the Commencement of the French Revolution in MDCCLXXXIX to the Resoration of the Bourbons in MDCCCXV". W. Blackwood and sons, 1854.
*Britt, A.B. "The Wars of Napoleon". Square One Publishers, Inc., 2003. ISBN 0757001548.
*Bunbury, H.E. "Narratives of some passages in the great war with France, from 1799 to 1810". 1854.
*Chandler, D. G. "Napoleon". Leo Cooper, 2002. ISBN 0-85052-750-3.
*Clancy-Smith, J.A. "North Africa, Islam and the Mediterranean World: From the Almoravids to the Algerian War". Routledge, 2001. ISBN 0714651702
*Clubbe, J. "Byron, Sully, and the Power of Portraiture". Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 2005. ISBN 0754638146
*Dodge, T.A. "Napoleon: A History of the Art of War". Adamant Media Corporation, 2001. ISBN 1402195176
*El-Enany, R.; Inc NetLibrary "Arab Representations of the Occident East-west Encounters in Arabic Fiction". Routledge, 2006. ISBN 0415332176
*Foucart-Walter, E. "Paul Delaroche et le thème du passage du Saint-Bernard par Bonaparte" pp.367-384 in La Revue du Louvre No 5-6 1984
*Herold, J.C. "The Age of Napoleon ". Houghton Mifflin Books, 2002. ISBN 0618154612.
*Jefferies, F. "The Gentleman's Magazine". Published 1856.
*Kelley, T.M. "Reinventing Allegory". Cambridge University Press, 1997. ISBN 0521432073
*"The American Whig Review", by the Making of America Project. Published first in 1845.
*Mason, D.S. "Revolutionary Europe, 1789-1989: Liberty, Equality, Solidarity". Rowman & Littlefield, 2005. ISBN 0742537692
*Murray, C.J. "Encyclopedia of the Romantic Era, 1760-1850". Taylor & Francis, 2004. ISBN 1579584225
*Quilley, G.; Bonehill, J. "Conflicting Visions: War and Visual Culture in Britain and France, C. 1700-1830" Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 2005. ISBN 0754605752.
*Thiers, M.A. "History of the Consulate and the Empire of France Under Napoleon". Kessinger Publishing, 2005. ISBN 1417956216.
*Tuckerman, H.T. "Poems". Ticknor, Reed, and Fields, 1851.
*Walther, I.F.; Suckale, R. "Masterpieces of Western Art: A History of Art in 900 Individual Studies" Taschen, 2002.

* [ DELAROCHE, Paul - "Bonaparte Crossing the Alps"]
* [ "Bonaparte Crossing the Alps", 1848, Paul Delaroche (1797-1856)]
* [ Bonaparte Crossing the Alps"; Delaroche, Paul; 1848]

External links

* [ image of the artwork]

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