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.

Nobody knows if the portraits of the great men resemble them, it is enough that their genius lives there.—Napoleon to David

Heinrich Heine: Two Grenadiers

TO France there wandered two grenadiers,
In Russia once captives made.
To German quarters they came after years,
And bowed their heads, dismayed.

And there they were sorrowful tidings told
That France was lost—and repelled,
Destroyed and defeated the army bold—
And the emperor captive held.

The grenadiers wept grievously
When told this mournful lore.
Then said the one: “Ah, woe is me,
How my old wound is sore!”

“The song is sung” the other said,
“I too would die with thee;
But wife and child, if I were dead,
Would perish utterly.”

“For wife and child what do I care!
Far better longings I know:
As hungry beggars let them fare—
My emperor, emperor—woe!

“But grant me, brother, one only prayer:
Now when I here shall die,
My body take to France and there
In French earth let me lie!

“My cross of honour with scarlet band
Upon my heart be placed;
And put my gun into my hand,
My sword gird round my waist!

“Then quietly I’ll lie and hark,
A sentry in my tomb,
Till I the horses’ prancing mark,
And hear the cannon’s boom.

“Then my emperor rides across my grave,
And swords will be clashing hard:
And armed I’ll rise up from my grave,
My emperor to guard!”


Written 1816. Translation by Margarete Münsterberg, first printed 1916.

Ingres was never an official court painter to Napoleon, David was. In 1801, he was elected with four others to paint portraits of Napoleon as First Consul to be distributed to five cities newly acquired by France in the Treaty of Lunéville. In 1806, he made this portrait of the recently crowned emperor out of his own initiative. Contemporary critics reviled it, mainly as being too deliberately old-fashioned.