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Jacques Louis David’s 1801 painting Napoleon at the St. Bernard Pass is an iconic figurative reproduction of the French Emperor Napoleon. David, an immensely influential painter responsible for popularising the Neoclassical style, was the chief painter of the French Revolution, depicted many of its figures and events, and played a decisive role in the sweeping changes taking place in France at the end of the eighteenth century. His style took shape in the late 1780s, forging a more contemplative take on the history painting genre, moving away from the excessive flourishes of the Rococo period and towards an austere and rigid classicism. Becoming a close friend of the architect of the revolutionary terror, Maximilien Robespierre, David effectively controlled the entirety of the visual arts during the early years of the French Republic. After the fall of Robespierre, David became closely acquainted with Napoleon Bonaparte, developing much of his imperial style in collaboration with the classical mind of the military leader.
Napoleon at the St. Bernard Pass is one of five near-identical versions of an equestrian reproduction of the likeness of Napoleon crossing the Alps. First commissioned by the King of Spain, the canvas shows an idyllic, heroic view of the crossing that the Grande Armee made in 1800. The first two versions were first shown in the Louvre alongside David’s masterwork The Intervention of the Sabine Women, and soon a great number of reproductions became commercially available to the public to commemorate the successes of Napoleon’s armies. Taking equestrian portraiture to new heights, this is one of the most enduring historical images, and demonstrates the mutual respect felt between David and his subject. After the French Empire was proclaimed in 1804, David became the official painter of courtly life, such was the effect of Napoleon at the St. Bernard Pass.