Napoleon and His Army Effecting a Wonderful Passage of the Alps, at Mount St. Bernard
Napoleon on his characteristic white horse is at the forefront of this image, which depicts the French army’s early attempt to cross the Alps. Other men, who are both on horseback and on foot, surround him. At the end of the visible portion of the procession are men tugging at something that is not included in the print. Beyond this group of men is a river and the Alps. Seemingly endlessly trailing up the Alps are Napoleon’s troops. These men slowly fade from the visible and individual to a unified blur. The only visible trees are in the upper right-hand corner of the image behind a series of crags.
Copyright 2009, Department of Special Collections, Memorial Library, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Madison, WI
CA 8939 v.2
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The Life of Napoleon Bonaparte volume II (1828) by William Henry Ireland (1777-1835)
William Henry Ireland’s account of Napoleon Bonaparte's passage of the Alps is a strikingly positive depiction. It is described as a “singular instance of military enthusiasm,” and “was crowned with complete success” (W. Ireland, Life of Napoleon 64). The purpose of the passage was to initiate a surprise attack against the Austrians. According to Ireland, “The Austrians were driven from their batteries, the Piedmontese army lost all spirit of resistance, and the people of Italy, as if awakening from a dream of many ages at the cry of liberty, aided the arms of France, by overturning the government of their respective sovereigns” (W. Ireland, Life of Napoleon Bonaparte 64). The results of Napoleon’s military decisiveness were substantial: “This sudden attack turned the balance in favour of the French; the Austrian artillery was carried; their order of battle broken up; and terror, dismay, and slaughter were apparent in every direction." It ultimately "amounted to nearly three thousand in killed, wounded, and prisoners” (W. Ireland, Life of Napoleon Bonaparte 65). In a letter Bonaparte sent to the French directory, he was highly complimentary of his own military excellence. He wrote “If we have lost few men, this fortunate circumstance is due to the prompt execution and the sudden effect produced on the enemy’s forces by the immense masses rushing forward, and likewise to the dreadful fire of our invincible column. Were I called upon the designate the soldiers who have distinguished themselves in this battle, I should be obliged to name every carabineer of the advanced guard and nearly all the staff-officers” (qtd. W. Ireland, Life of Napoleon Bonaparte 66). Toward the end of the letter, Napoleon does show some appreciation for his troops; however, it is not nearly as flattering as the valor he attributes to his own work.
Napoleon and his troops' passage of the Alps at this location was comparable only to Hannibal, a leader of the Roman Republic, who also crossed the Alps in winter in approximately 200 BC. Another political figure, whose influence at this point in the wars surpassed Napoleon’s, was General Moreau. Moreau and the troops he commanded had successfully defeated the Austrians using a tactic that was against the advice of Napoleon. Napoleon, then, decided to recruit some of Moreau’s men in order to conduct a successful surprise attack on the Austrians by way of the St. Bernard Pass, although this was not initially revealed, even to Moreau. General Berthier helped to organize the expedition (C. Herold, Age of Napoleon 134).
The Battle of Marengo, fought in Piedmont, Italy, shortly followed Napoleon’s passage through the Alps. Closely following that battle, General Moreau won another less publicized battle against the Austrians at Hochstadt, which further solidified his status as a worthy contemporary of Napoleon’s.
In the text corresponding to the image:
“The whole of these accoutrements and necessaries might make a weight of between sixty to seventy pounds. The men yoked themselves, about one hundred to a cable, and in this manner dragged the cannon up the mountains, General Marmont commanding upon that memorable occasion” (W. Ireland, The Life of Napoleon Bonaparte 275)
“…And it was in vain they held their horses fast by the closed reins of their bridles, that did not preserve them from dangerous, and sometimes fatal,slides; the men themselves, in spite of all their precautions, often fell; and,whatever difficulties they suffered in recovering themselves, they still ran the risk of drawing their horses out of the path and perishing with them” (W. Ireland, The Life of Napoleon Bonaparte 276)
Letter Napoleon wrote to his brother Lucien, Minister of the Interior, which arrived at Paris May 23rd and was written May 18th: “'I am at the foot of the Great Alps, in the midst of the Valais. The Great St. Bernard offered many obstacles, which have been surmounted. The third of the artillery is in Italy: the army is descending by forced marches. Berthier is in Piedmont. In three days all will be over.' –Bonaparte" (qtd. W. Ireland, The Life of Napoleon Bonaparte 277)
Another associated image is David’s portrait of Bonaparte, “Crossing the Alps on a sleek, light gray charger in 1800” (S. Englund, Napoleon: A Political Life 318-319). This heroic image was in fact more propagandistic than true. Instead of the heroism and valor indicated in David’s portrait, Napoleon truly “crossed St. Bernard Pass on a mule, and he was wrapped in furs, without a flowing red cape” (S. Englund, Napoleon: A Political Life 318-319).
Napoleon on his characteristic white horse is at the forefront of this image, which depicts the French army’s early attempt to cross the Alps. Other men, both on horseback and on foot, surround him. At the end of the visible portion of the procession are men tugging at something that is not included in the print. Beyond this group of men is a river and the Alps. Seemingly endlessly trailing up the Alps are Napoleon’s troops. These men slowly fade from visible individuals to a unified blur. The only visible trees are in the upper right-hand corner of the image behind a series of crags.
This image is a clear representation of the romantic theme of the sublime. Mountains are a motif of the sublime due to the wonder in the viewer they inspire. The layout of the engraving makes it is impossible to see where the mountains end. Moreover, it is impossible to see where the trail of soldiers ends. This invokes a sense of mystery and subsequently fear, for the viewer is unable to see conclusively where the men are headed.
The significance to romantic aesthetics is very clear in this image. A mountain range, the Alps, forms the backdrop of the image. This is an archetypal romantic feature, for mountains were “seen as able to inspire the purity and realization of a better life” (L. Egendorf, Romanticism 42). One predominant characteristic of Romanticism is the desire for a return to nature. Mountains were considered a means to do so, for they provided the epitome of solitude. Additionally, they were void of materialism, which was heavily criticized by the romantics. Because the image depicts Napoleon on the brink of crossing the Alps, a hidden political agenda is revealed. By successfully crossing the Alps, and characterizing the passage as “wonderful,” a political agenda in favor of the Napoleonic Wars is exposed with the implication that Napoleon could offer a better life.
Because the source of this image is a biography of Napoleon, one would presume the accompanying images to have historical accuracy. However, this image transforms the crossing of the Alps into something “wonderful,” as evidenced by the caption. Historical record, on the other hand, characterizes the passage as nearly impossible.
Egendorf, Laura. English Romanticism. San Diego, CA: Greenhaven Press Inc., 2001.
Englund, Steven. Napoleon: A Political Life. New York: Scribner, 2004.
Herold, C. The Age of Napoleon. New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1963.
Ireland, W.H. The Life of Napoleon Bonaparte volume II. London: John Cumberland, 1828.
1 leaf, 260 p. : col. plates. ; 25 cm.