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  • Jacques Louis DavidAug 30, 1748 - Dec 29, 1825
  • Napoleon Crossing the Alps - Jacques-Louis David was a highly influential French painter in the Neoclassical style, considered to be the preeminent painter of the era. In the 1780s his cerebral brand of history painting marked a change in taste away from Rococo frivolity toward a classical austerity and severity, heightened feeling chiming with the moral climate of the final years of the ancien régime.
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Napoleon Crossing the Alps
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  • Napoleon Crossing the Alps

  • Jacques Louis David
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  • 1800
    Oil on canvas
    260 cm × 221 cm (102 1/3 in × 87 in)
    Chateau de Malmaison, Rueil-Malmaison.

    The relationship between Napoleon Bonaparte and Jacques-Louis David was tumultuous, but we tend to think rather of the images the latter made of the former, which helped the cause of the general, First Consul then Emperor during fifteen years of power. David started this portrait following the failure of a first monumental portrait which was supposed to commemorate the treaty of Campoformio (18 October, 1797) the famously incomplete version of which remains housed which remains in the Musée du Louvre. It was ordered by the ambassador of Spain for his master, King Charles IV, who wanted to place a figurative representation of the new hero of Europe in his ‘room of the great captains' in the Royal Palace in Madrid. The commission, which is not well documented, may have come before the represented events, at the end of 1799 or the beginning of 1800. The painting was completed between september 1800 and January 1801. It commemorates the victorious crossing of the St bernard in May 1800 pass by the army reserve under the direction of the First Consul Bonaparte, the first stage of his triumphal reconquest of Italy. With great audacity, Bonaparte shocked everyone in crossing the pass reputed to be unnavigable during spring. With this exploit he recalled the great captains of the past, whose names are inscribed on the rock at the horses feet: Hannibal, who crossed the alps with his elephants in 218 during the second Punic war, and Charlemagne in 773, in the struggle against the Lombards. If one believes the legend, Napoleon wished to be represented ‘calmly seated upon a spirited horse', even though he actually crossed the pass on a mule. What is more, the First Consul did not even pose for the portrait; David worked in his atelier with models, for the outfit, according to tradition, he took inspiration from a uniform borrowed from the First Consul, which he had worn at the battle of Marengo. The first Spanish version of the composition, later seized by Joseph Bonaparte in Madrid and bequeathed by his descendants to the museum at Chateau Malmaison in 1949, was immediately followed by various copies, all destined for prominent buildings: the first for chateau de St Cloud, the consular residence, from where it was seized by Blücher in 1815, taken triumphantly to Berlin and given to the King of Prussia, before being placed in a museum in 1816 (it is now at Charlottenburg palace); the second was placed in the H?tel des Invalides (December 1802), then given to the royal museums in 1816, from where it was sent to Versailles under Louis-Philippe; the next was destined for the Palace of the Italian Republic in Milan (Spring 1803), from where it was transported to Vienna in 1834 before being placed in a museum (Kunsthistorisches Museum, presented in the Belvedere). A final example, probably painted at the beginning of 1803, whose destination remains unknown, remained at David's atelier and was given by his daughter to the nephews of the Emperor, then acquired by the French State from the Prince Napoleon in 1979 and placed at Versailles. The celebrations of the bicentenary of the epic story of Napoleon fifteen years ago confirmed the iconic status of David's composition, the archetypal representation of the hero of the Revolution and probably the most famous image of Napoleon in the world.

    Frédéric Lacaille, 2013 (tr. AM)

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Jacques-Louis DavidJacques-Louis David, 1748–1825, French painter. David was the virtual art dictator of France for a generation. Extending beyond painting, his influence determined the course of fashion, furniture design, and interior decoration and was reflected in the development of moral philosophy. His art was a sudden and decisive break with tradition, and from this break “modern art” is dated.

David studied with Vien at the French Academy, and after winning the Prix de Rome (which had been refused him four times, causing him to attempt suicide by starvation) he accompanied Vien to Italy in 1775. His pursuit of the antique, nurtured by his time in Rome and his viewing of the ruins at Pompeii and Herculaneum, directed the classical revival in French art. He borrowed classical forms and motifs, predominantly from sculpture, to illustrate a sense of virtue he mistakenly attributed to the ancient Romans. Consumed by a desire for perfection and by a passion for the political ideals of the French Revolution, David imposed a fierce discipline on the expression of sentiment in his work. This inhibition resulted in a distinct coldness and rationalism of approach.

David's reputation was made by the Salon of 1784. In that year he produced his first masterwork, The Oath of the Horatii (Louvre). This work and his celebrated Death of Socrates (1787; Metropolitan Mus.) as well as Lictors Bringing to Brutus the Bodies of His Sons (1789; Louvre) were themes appropriate to the political climate of the time. They secured for David vast popularity and success. David was admitted to the Académie royale in 1780 and worked as court painter to the king.

As a powerful republican David, upon being elected to the revolutionary Convention, voted for the king's death and for the dissolution of the Académie royale both in France and in Rome. In his paintings of the Revolution's martyrs, especially in his Marat (1793; Brussels), his iron control is softened and the tragic portraits are moving and dignified. The artist was imprisoned for a time at the end of the Reign of Terror.

David emerged to become First Painter to the emperor and foremost recorder of Napoleonic events (e.g., Napoleon Crossing the Saint Bernard Pass, 1800–01; Coronation of Napoleon and Josephine, 1805–07; and The Distribution of the Eagles, 1810) and a sensitive portraitist (e.g., Mme Récamier, 1800; Louvre). In this period David reached the height of his influence, but his painting, more than ever the embodiment of neoclassical theory, was again static and deadened in feeling. The Battle of the Romans and Sabines (1799; Louvre) portrayed the battle through the use of physically frozen figures.

During the Bourbon Restoration David spent his last years in Brussels, where he painted a masterful series of portraits, mainly of fellow refugees from the Napoleonic court. Although he belittled the genre, it was as a portraitist that he was at his most distinguished. Using living, rather than sculptured models, he allowed his spontaneous sentiment to be revealed in the closely observed portrayals. These last portraits, such as Antoine Mongez and His Wife Angelica (1812; Lille), Bernard (1820; Louvre), and Zénaïde and Charlotte Bonaparte (1821; Getty Mus.) are enormously vital and in them the seeds of the new romanticism are clearly discernible.