Glorified Bonaparte

Glorified Bonaparte

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Title: Bonaparte crossing the Grand Saint-Bernard pass.

Author : DAVID Jacques Louis (1748 - 1825)

Creation date : 1800

Date shown: May 1800

Dimensions: Height 259 - Width 221

Technique and other indications: Oil on canvas

Storage location: National Museum of Malmaison Castle website

Contact copyright: © Photo RMN-Grand Palais - D. Arnaudet

Picture reference: 86EE5326 / MM. 49-7-1

Bonaparte crossing the Grand Saint-Bernard pass.

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais - D. Arnaudet

Publication date: December 2009

Historical context

Bonaparte's coup d'etat



19 Brumaire Year VIII

Having taken place in the particularly difficult context of the wars of the Second Coalition (1799-1800), Bonaparte had above all to restore order in the country. He pacified the royalist departments of the West, insurgent against the Republic, eliminated the neo-Jacobins and reversed the military situation by succeeding in extremis to push the Austrians back to Marengo on June 14, 1800.

This half-victory was transformed into a decisive battle thanks to a particularly effective propaganda, to which contributed the table in which David illustrated the famous episode of the passage of the Alps by the army of Bonaparte. It was commissioned in 1800 by King Charles IV of Spain, who then happened to be one of France's few allies. In the collections of Joseph Bonaparte, who became King of Spain in 1808, it thus returned to the French collections.

Image Analysis

Painted in 1800, this painting opens the iconography of the Napoleonic epic, at the end of which it will respond as an echo

The Wounded Cuirassier Leaving the Fire

by Géricault (1814, Louvre museum).

But David’s work has become a true icon. If the reality was more prosaic, Bonaparte having crossed the Alps on the back of a mule wearing a gray frock coat, the painting draws all its power from its design. David, also advised in this by Bonaparte himself, sought to go beyond the simple representation of the event. He wanted to make it the magnified prototype of Napoleonic propaganda. The First Consul having wished to be painted "calm on a fiery horse", David reared the animal so as to give dynamism to its composition, which is further reinforced by the grandiloquent gesture of Bonaparte draped in a large coat of bright color. The victorious general, with an idealized face, looks at the spectator and shows him the direction to follow, that third political path that he sought to impose between the royalists and the republicans.

But the work also refers by the inscriptions on the rocks to the previous historical passages of the Alps, which led to the conquest of Italy. Hannibal in Antiquity, Charlemagne (Carolus Magnus) in the Middle Ages. From before the greatest Napoleonic victories,




, Friedland, Wagram, the work thus inscribes the name of Bonaparte among those of the greatest conquerors of all time.


In fact, the passage of the Alps was far from being so exceptional at the time of Bonaparte: Brune had conquered the Swiss confederation in 1798, and, in 1799, Masséna had saved France from the invasion by fighting in Helvetia against the Austrians and Russians. On the other hand, the passage du Grand Saint-Bernard was part of a general strategy for crossing the Alpine passes in 1800. It is therefore a reduction to the heroism of the only person of Bonaparte that David painted, thereby aiming to give him the monopoly of

victory in Italy


The painting has turned into an image here. This has become the very symbol of Napoleon's victories, when it is only an episode of military strategy. But it is true that in the public mind, Napoleon Bonaparte is above all a conqueror. And this table synthesizes the general, the consul and the emperor. From this angle, we can say that Bonapartist propaganda worked perfectly and still does.

  • Italian countryside
  • Napoleonic legend
  • Bonaparte (Napoleon)
  • official portrait
  • Napoleonic propaganda
  • Charlemagne
  • Géricault (Théodore)
  • equestrian portrait
  • Rebellion


Jacques BAINVILLE, Napoleon, Paris, Fayard, 1931, reed. Balland, 1995.

Yveline CANTAREL-BESSON, Claire CONSTANS and Bruno FOUCART, Napoleon. Images and history: paintings of the Palace of Versailles (1789-1815), Paris, RMN, 2001.

Roger DUFRAISSE and Michel KERAUTRET, Napoleonic France. External aspects, Paris, Seuil, coll. “Points Histoire”, 1999.

Annie JOURDAN, Napoleon, hero, imperator, patron, Paris, Aubier, 1998.

Gunther E. ROTHENBERG, Atlas of the Napoleonic Wars: 1796-1815, Paris, Otherwise, 2000.

Jean TULARD (dir.), Napoleon dictionary, Paris, Fayard, 1987.

Jean TULARD (dir.), The History of Napoleon through painting, Paris, Belfond, 1991.

Jacques Louis David: 1748-1825, exhibition catalog, Grand Palais, 1989-1990, Paris, RMN, 1989.

Marengo, a political victory, exhibition catalog (national museum of the castles of Malmaison and Bois-Préau, May 3 - August 28, 2000), Paris, RMN, 2000.

To cite this article

Jérémie BENOÎT, “glorified Bonaparte”


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