AP English 11
13 November 2012
The Rise and Fall
It is November 9, the Year of Our Lord 1799, and a battered French army begins the arduous climb up the Alps, just as a light snow begins to gently fall, a precursor of the hardship and bone chilling temperatures to come. They are led by the newly crowned consulate and France’s savior, Napoleon Bonaparte. There is a fear that Genoa may fall to Austrians. This fateful journey was captured in a painting by artist, Jacques-Louis David, who was a fervent supporter of the French Revolution. This painting was a gift and peace offering by the Spanish King to Napoleon in 1812, and it captures Napoleon, adorned with an embroidered coat and a deep red cloak, mounted on his steed and pointing up and away from the picture. In the background the French army climbs the steep and twisted path up the rugged terrain of the Alps. A thin layer of new snow lies on the ground and overhead dark and foreboding clouds loom. While the motive of David in his painting Napoleon Crossing the Alps is unclear, his peerless piece of art captures the tender emotions of the viewer with the use of a stark contrast between foreground and background, a diagonal line that appears in several important facets of the painting, and an expression on the face of Napoleon, himself, that calls to the viewer.
David’s historic recreation of Napoleon’s daring attempt to cross the Alps emanates and exudes the feeling of power, while at the same time foreshadowing the dire events to come. Payne 2
When the viewer first lays eyes on this painting, they are brought to the center of the photograph. The sharp contrast of Napoleon’s deep red cloak, a symbol of vigor and courage, stands apart from the dark and cloudy background. The eye’s then continue from the cloak, past his face, and up to his outstretched finger, which is pointing to the heavens. This gesture, made by Napoleon, instills in the viewer a notion of the future because by pointing up and away, he is pointing off the page and into the unknown. The movement of line upward towards the sky created by David is made to let us know Napoleon is not here for bloodshed but instead for peace. This line that is present in the arm of Napoleon is repeated in all aspects of David’s painting. It can be seen in the rearing of the horse and its flowing mane, in the mountains, and even in the direction that the French army is moving. David’s use of line and direction create trust in the viewer that Napoleon is of noble and honorable character in the viewer.
These positive feelings of what is to come are furthered by the apparent beam of light that is shining down on him, and the wind that whips at his coat and the mane of the horse. This warm light that envelopes Napoleon streaks down from the heavens in a break in an otherwise stormy sky. This symbolizes that the turbulent and troubling times of the Reign of Terror, a period in French history where thousands were murdered by the government, are over, and that Napoleon, their leader, is the one that will guide them to greatness. Though the dark clouds, dark colors, and rugged shapes could also be a prediction of Napoleon’s eventual fall from power, and exile to the Island of Elba. The gale in the picture that billows his cloak not only creates movement in an otherwise static picture but also has symbolic meaning. The wind represents the fates, and because it is at Napoleons back, it means that the fates and God, are Payne 3
supportive of his endeavors and assisting in his success. Jacques-Louis David uses a repeated direction of line, and a subtle use of shadow, light and color to depict Napoleon as the demigod that many believed him to be.
Though line, movement, color, and lighting are extremely important in David’s painting, one aspect cannot be ignored, Napoleon’s face. Napoleon in the picture is very youthful, and with a stern gaze looks down directly into the readers eyes. This stern look is Napoleon’s call to the people. In painting Napoleon like this, David calls a sensitive French audience that has just recovered from a period of fear to forget their doubts and trust their leader. On January 17, 1793, the French people threw off the shackles of oppression of King Louis XVI only to have them replaced by the equally oppressive Committee of Public Safety. An ironic name since they ushered in the era commonly known as the Reign of Terror. Over a period of only twelve short months, records show that over 16,594 people, many of whom were falsely accused, lost their lives to the guillotine. Now after only eighteen years have passed, these people are asked to give the full power of the government to one man, a short one at that. They are asked to put faith in government once again, so that they may return to their former glory. David appeals to their fear of government by reassuring the people in his painting of his power and the success to come. He makes Napoleon taller, and sits him upon a massive horse looking down on his people, in a scornful, but powerful expression. David in his painting Napoleon Crossing the Alps reassures a skittish public that Napoleon will not sleep until his country accomplishes the arduous journey up the metaphorical mountain of shame and fear and into the promised land.
David speaks to a frightened audience by using many of the art techniques such as line, light, shadow, and size so that they might trust that Napoleon as a strong, youthful leader, and can guide them to peace rather than bloodshed. The color red, which symbolized his vigor, the upward direction of the line, and use of light and clouds, are all used by David to ensure the viewers, who survived the Reign of Terror and are searching for guidance, that Napoleon can lead their country to greatness. David’s painting not only captured history, but also the emotions of the French people.
"French Revolution." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 11 Dec. 2012. Web. 10 Nov. 2012. .
"Napoleon Crossing the Alps." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 11 Feb. 2012. Web. 10 Nov. 2012. .