Between 1801 and 1805, David painted five life-size equestrian portraits of Napoleon. The word “portrait” should be used with some caution, since the impatient Napoleon point blank refused to sit, claiming it was his genius and not his features that mattered, and David had to make do with a bust as a model. It marked a break in the portraiture of Napoleon, which became more emblematic, more symbolic, and it may have been a sign as to where art in general was going.

The five versions are mostly identical, the differences are in the color of the horse, the color of the cloak, and some small details. They are known by the names of the palaces where they hang or hung, this one is called the Belvedere version, though it has meanwhile been relocated to the Kunsthistorisches Museum. It is dated ANNO X, which mostly coincides with 1802 (the revolutionary calendar put the beginning of the year on the autumn equinox).

An amusing detail are the names on the rock, Bonaparte, Hannibal, and Karolus Magnus Imp. They are supposed to create a connection with other generals who crossed the Alps. But Charlemagnes name is written directly beneath a crack in the rock on which Napoleon’s horse stands, so it looks more as if he was trampling the former down. Since he—inadvertently—destroyed the empire the other had just as inadvertently founded, there is some truth in this.

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