In May of 1800 Napoleon and his army crossed the Alps utilizing the Great St. Bernard Pass, and in 1801 the king of Spain requested that French artist Jacques-Louis David create a portrait of the event. The result of the special commission was five versions of Napoleon upon his horse, looking noble and full of grandeur. The title given to these five paintings was Napoleon Crossing the Alps, but there are also two other titles that the paintings are known by: Napoleon at the Saint-Bernard Pass and Bonaparte Crossing the Alps.
The story behind the Napoleon Crossing the Alps painting began when in November of 1799, Napoleon decided he wanted to extend his reach beyond France to Italian territory that had been taken by the Austrians. Napoleon wanted to use the element of surprise by emerging from the trans Alpine route onto where the Austrian troops were waiting. Because of Napoleon’s efforts France gained a victory in Italy and Napoleon secured a spot in history.
Napoleon also received sixteen Spanish horses that came straight from the royal stable, some portraits of the kind and queen, and the commissioned portrait of himself that became Napoleon Crossing the Alps. The portrait was to be a gesture to the relationship between Spain and France and to hang in Madrid’s royal palace. David, a supporter of the French Revolution, was excited to complete the task. However, three more versions were requested as well: one to hang in the Chateau de Saint-Cloud, one to hang in the Les Invalides library, and one to hang in the Cisalpine Republic palace. The fifth version was one that David took upon himself to complete.
The first painting was kept in Madrid up until 1812. After that, Joseph Bonaparte took the portrait with him when he was exiled from Spain into the United States. The portrait then hung in Bordentown, New Jersey in Bonaparte’s home, Point Breeze estate. It remained in his family through the years all the way up until 1949, when his great grandniece gave the portrait to the Chateau de Malma the Les Invalides copy, hung in 1802, was kept there until 1814 when it was put into storage. However, Louis-Philippe ordered the portrait to be taken out of storage to be hung in the Palace of Versailles museum in created in 1837. The portrait remains there to this day.
The Saint-Cloud version of Napoleon Crossing the Alps stayed there from 1801 to 1814. In 1814 Prussian soldiers took it upon themselves to remove the portrait from its home, giving it to the King of Prussia. Today, the portrait is kept in Berlin in the Charlottenburg Palace.
The Les Invalides copy, hung in 1802, was kept there until 1814 when it was put into storage. However, Louis-Philippe ordered the portrait to be taken out of storage to be hung in the Palace of Versailles museum in created in 1837. The portrait remains there to this day.
In 1803, the fourth version of the Napoleon Crossing the Alps painting was completed. It was sent to Milan only to be told by the Austrians in 1816 that they had to give up the painting. The Milanians, however, did not see things the same way, and they kept he painting until 1825. It was not taken to Vienna until 1834, where it remains.
The fifth and final version of the famous painting was a personal possession of David, and he kept it until he died in 1825. It went from there to the Bazar Bone-Novelle in 1846 until it was given away by David’s daughter to Napoleon III. It was then placed in the Tuileries Palace until it was donated to the museum in the Palace of Versailles.