February 28, 2015

Finest Hour 157, Winter 2012-13

Page 05


This 1800 oil-on-canvas painting represents the Emperor of the French during his glorious period at the beginning of the 19th century. Reproduced is the fourth of  five versions of the painting, a “heroic vision” rather more fanciful than real; other artists have depicted a far more practically garbed Napoleon, marching with his troops in the severe Alpine conditions encountered on their way to invade Italy.

All versions are the same image, but in distinct colors. The first version was commissioned by Charles IV, King of Spain, in 1800 to celebrate Spain’s alliance with the Napoleonic Republic. Joseph Bonaparte, when he became the new King of Spain, inherited the painting and took it with him to exile in the United States. It passed eventually to his great-granddaughter Eugénie Bonaparte, who bequeathed it to the national museum of the Château de Malmaison in Rueil-Malmaison on the outskirts of Paris.

As soon as Napoleon heard about the success of the painting he commissioned three new versions. The second version was placed in the Château de Saint-Cloud outside Paris; after the Château was destroyed during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, the painting was removed to the Louvre.

The third version was exhibited in the National Residence of Invalids in Paris but was hidden during the Bourbon Restoration. It was recovered in 1837 by Louis-Philippe I, who placed it in the Historical Museum of the Versailles Palace, where it remains today.

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On our cover is the fourth version, created for the Cisalpine Republic, a French client state in northern Italy created by Bonaparte in 1797. A new painting, “Napoleon Giving Life to the Cisalpine Republic,” was originally commissioned, but it was deemed too expensive, so M. David simply painted another version of “Napoleon Crossing the Alps.” Napoleon presented it to the country, by then renamed the Italian Republic, in 1803. In 1816, following Napoleon’s final defeat, the Austrian army confiscated the work. It was first exhibited in 1834 in the Belvedere Palace in Vienna.

The fifth and final version of the painting was painted by M. David for amusement, and remained in his workshop until his death. However, this did not prevent it from traveling as much and more as the four other versions. Its most important appearance was at the Tuileries Palace in Paris after David’s daughter gave it to Napoleon III. A few years later, Napoleon Jerome exhibited it in his Château de Pangrins. The final version wound up at the Museum of the Versailles Palace, the gift of Louis Napoleon, of whom Napoleon Jerome was an ancestor.

—Mathieu Vachey and Clément Gratiot, Lycée Alexandre Dumas, Saint-Cloud, France. Classroom4wiki: http://xrl.us/bnvohb.

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