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Ten Pieces of Art, Tell The Legendary Life of Napoleon (Ⅰ)

“Bonaparte is not great for his words, his speeches, his writings, for the love of liberties that he never had […] He is great for having created a regular government, a code of laws, courts of justice, schools, a strong, active, intelligent administration […] He is great for having brought order back to France from chaos […]. He is great especially for having been born of himself, for having known, without any other authority than that of his genius, how to make himself obeyed by thirty-six million subjects […] He is great for having surpassed all the victors who preceded him, for having performed ten years of such prodigies that today we can hardly understand them. “

-François René de CHATEAUBRIAND (1768-1848), Mémoires d’outre-tombe

Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821), the great French military and statesman of the 19th century, Emperor of the First France Empire , was both an ambitious man on horseback and a politician at court. On the 200th anniversary of Napoleon’s death, let’s hear ten art treasures that tell the story of the legendary general’s life.

Napoleon, which means “son of lion” in Italian. Born in 1769 on the island of Corsica, he showed great talent as a child and was interested in mathematics, physics and military works. In 1784, Napoleon was selected with distinction to enter the École des officiers in Paris, where he specialized in artillery. After graduation, he entered the Raphael Corps, where he began his military career.


“Bravery proceeds from blood, courage comes from thought.”  –Napoleon Bonaparte

Jean-Baptiste-Edouard Detaille
Bonaparte au siège de Toulon, 1793
Photo (C) Paris – Musée de l’Armée, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / image musée de l’Armée
Paris, musée de l’Armée

In July 1793, Toulon and several southern cities mutinied under the fomentation of Great Britain and Spain. At the beginning of the war, the British and Spanish ships were so strong that France did not prevail. In this crisis situation, Napoleon was sent and he developed a clever plan of action to take Toulon and defeat the British and Spanish fleets. At this battle of Toulon, Napoleon distinguished himself notably and led the French army to turn defeat into victory.

Jean Baptiste Édouard Detaille(1484-1912) was a French academic painter. Influenced by his family, he enjoyed painting military scenes and was familiar with all kinds of military uniforms, and was considered a great expert in French military painting. Detaille was meticulous and faithful to the documents, while maintaining the beauty of his compositions and striving for realism.

In this painting, the young Napoleon can be seen in his blue major’s uniform, leaning against a haystack and deploying in battle formation, his calm posture and confident gaze echoing the painting’s light blue sky and bright hues.

The painter shows Napoleon’s determination to win the battle, subtly suggesting the end of French victory.


“Men of genius are meteors destined to burn to light their century.”  –Napoleon Bonaparte

Antoine-Jean Gros,
Bonaparte au pont d’Arcole, 1796,
Huile sur toile, 73 × 59 cm,
Château de Versailles, Versailles

During the battle of Pont d’Arcole, on November 17, 1796, the 27-year-old general Bonaparte led his army to defeat Austria in Italy. But in fact the army did not manage to cross the Arcole Bridge.

This painting is the first symbolic propaganda painting of Napoleon. He is depicted in the dark blue uniform of a republican general, embroidered with golden oak leaves and a red collar, holding the flag of the Italian army to his left in the pose of a confident victor and sheathing his sword in his right hand, in all his glory, the smoke rolling behind him suggesting a smoky battlefield.

Antoine Jean Gros (1771-1835) was a famous French neo-classical painter. In the second half of the eighteenth century, the French feudal monarchy degenerated and the bourgeoisie emerged. The people were dissatisfied with the extravagance of the princes and aristocrats, the revolutionary fervor was great and they longed for the heroic epics and free spirit of ancient Greece and Rome. Neoclassicism focuses on the representation of historical and heroic events in a rigorous, dignified and harmonious style, combining the ideal beauty of ancient Greece and the sense of order of ancient Rome, in order to serve the political revolution.


“What I seek above all is greatness: what is great is always beautiful.”  –Napoleon Bonaparte

Jacques-Louis David,
Bonaparte franchissant le Grand-Saint-Bernard
1801, Peinture à l’huile sur toile, 260 × 221 cm
Musée national du château de Malmaison, Rueil-Malmaison (France)

But the most successful neoclassical portrait of all time is surely that of Gros’ teacher, the famous “Bonaparte crossing the Great St. Bernard” by Jacques-Louis David.

The diagonal composition shows a sturdy steed rising into the air, Napoleon so powerful and fearless that the mountains are no longer imposing before him; the rock in the foreground bears the inscriptions “Hannibal” and “Charlemagne” – the artist praises Napoleon by comparing him to the great conquerors of antiquity.

This episode takes place in the spring of 1800. Having won the support of the people after the coup d’état of 18 Brumaire, Napoleon immediately launched a war against the Duchy of Austria, with the intention of regaining the lost territories. Napoleon brought a reserve army across the Alps through the Great St. Bernard Pass and surrounded the enemy’s rear.

But the real situation was… Because of the climatic and geographical conditions, Napoleon crossed the Alps on a mule and wearing a grey frock coat.

The painter David’s successful interpretation of Napoleon’s gallant and imposing image has forever remained in the hearts of the world.


“I did not succeed Louis XVI, but Charlemagne.”      –NAPOLEON 1ST, To Pius VII, on the day of the coronation in the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, December 2, 1804.

Jacques-Louis David
Sacre de Napoléon Ier,1805-1807
huile sur toile,621 × 979 cm
Musée du Louvre, département des peintures du Louvre, Paris (France)

On December 2, 1804, in Notre Dame de Paris, Napoleon received the crown from Pope Pius VII, put it on his head, and then crowned Empress Josephine with his own hands. Since then, the First French Empire was established, and Napoleon inherited the name of Charles the Great and made himself emperor.

In 1804, David received the title of “First Painter” from the emperor. He commemorated this official ceremony with a huge oil painting of a group of figures, six meters wide and ten meters long, which was officially completed in 1807.

The artist chose the episode of Napoleon’s coronation by his wife Joseph. The light is suggested in the center of the canvas, immediately drawing the viewer’s attention to the main character, surrounded by more than a hundred people in various costumes and postures, which the artist mastered to bring out the complexity of the setting and the cascading effects of light and shadow.



“It will be enough for you to say: I was at the battle of Austerlitz, for one to answer you: here is a bravo!”

–Napoleon 1er

La colonne Vendôme en 2022
Jean-Baptiste Lepère, Jacques Gondouin
1810(Reconstruction 1873-1875)
Place Vendôme, Paris

The Battle of Austerlitz on December 2, 1805 took place during the war between the French Empire and the anti-French Third Alliance. Under the leadership of Napoleon, the French won a decisive victory over the Russian and Austrian allies – the anti-French Third Alliance collapsed and the Holy Roman Empire came to an end.

Napoleon I had this commemorative column erected in 1810 on the Place Vendôme. The column, which is 44.3 meters high and 3.6 meters in diameter, was inspired by the Column of Trajan. The relief made of stones adorned with bronze is melted by more than a hundred pieces of trophies, and is engraved in spiral with the events of the fifty-four battles.

The corners of the column are decorated with the eagle, symbol of the empire, while at the top stands a statue of Napoleon, wearing the laurel wreath of the Roman emperor, holding the sword in one hand and the globe of victory in the other.







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