Great Paintings Explained: Napoleon Crossing the Alps by Jacques-Louis David

A perfectly exuberant painting that immortalises a leader

Christopher P Jones
6 min readFeb 15, 2022

Napoleon Crossing the Alps (1801) by Jacques-Louis David. Oil on canvas. 232 x 275 cm. Österreichische Galerie Belvedere, Vienna, Austria. Image source Wikimedia Commons

This is a remarkable image. The French military leader Napoleon Bonaparte sits astride a rearing steed, his arm raised into the air, his finger pointing onwards to the Alps mountain range which his soldiers are about to cross.

I wonder how many paintings in the history of Western art have managed to distil their message so clearly, so precisely — so stubbornly — as this painting does.

It is above all a picture about confidence. Napoleon Crossing the Alps gives us the leader in a moment of utter self-assurance. No matter what perils lie ahead — and crossing the Alps in the early 19th century certainly was an undertaking full of peril — the commander on his horse shows absolutely no hint of discouragement.

The sky leans in at an angle, brewing with an incoming storm. In the middle distance, a line of soldiers paces up the slopes of the mountain, carrying swords and pushing wheeled cannons.

However, the painting was a lie. In reality, Napoleon’s crossing had been made in fine weather, not during pulsating storms as the painting suggests. Moreover, his troops had gone ahead several days before him and Napoleon actually made the crossing mounted on a mule.

Yet nothing can detract from the unshakeable swagger of the scene depicted, which is what makes this painting such a powerful and interesting image: it shows just what art is capable of.

A Potent Depiction

Painted by the French artist Jacques-Louis David (1748–1825), the image is at once a propaganda billboard and magnetic work of art.

David was a preeminent painter of the Neoclassical school. This was a style of painting that left behind the frippery of Rococo and turned instead to a more austere and intense means of depiction.

Just look at the face of the painting’s hero. Framed by his embroidered collar, Napoleon’s eyes are steadfast, his brow sufficiently rigid. And never before in art has a wind-swept curl of hair been made to stand for so much.