Bonaparte Crossing the Alps at Grand-Saint-Bernard

Bonaparte Crossing the Alps / David

David combined history painting and portraiture to create this heroic image of Napoleon scaling the Alps. Unfazed by all challenges posed by man or nature, the general charges onward with all his energies directed toward the glorious future. In the background, tiny infantrymen struggle to drag cannons up a rocky mountainside.

To remind us that Napoleon was only the third general in history to cross the Alps, David inscribed the names Bonaparte, Hannibal, and Karolus Magnus (Charlemagne) on the rocks at the lower left, linking Napoleon to his historical predecessors and distancing him from more recent French leaders.

David's image immediately became the symbol of Napoleonic power. David painted four more versions of the painting, three for Napoleon and one for himself.

This life-size painting was commissioned by Spanish king Charles IV as a grand gesture of goodwill toward Napoleon, his powerful and intimidating neighbor. Less than 10 years later, however, Napoleon conquered Spain and installed his brother Joseph Bonaparte as the new king.

Listen to a discussion of this image.