The idealization of Bonaparte

The idealization of Bonaparte

Bonaparte at the Pont d'Arcole (November 17, 1796).

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais - G. Blot

Publication date: March 2016

Historical context

The Italian campaign was the springboard for Bonaparte's career. To lead the hesitant soldiers in his wake, Bonaparte took up a standard and rushed forward ...

Image Analysis

Like an apparition, Bonaparte, then aged 27, entered the composition to seem to have to stay there only for the duration of an assault. The sword in the right hand, the standard in the left hand, the gaze turned back but the body propelled towards the left of the painting, the hero is only movement, like the fight suggested by the smoke of the fires which in the background ablaze factories. Treated like a relief, perfectly sculptural, and in this respect in conformity with the classical tradition, this composition, by its heroic ardor and by the vivacity of its pictorial execution, does not announce the romanticism of which Gros is in France the main precursor.


Having left for Italy in 1793 after his failure the previous year at the Prix de Rome, Gros settled for a moment in Genoa where, in 1796, he met Joséphine de Beauharnais who took him to Milan to present him to her husband. Admitted in the entourage of Bonaparte, the young painter will soon be appointed a member of the commission responsible for the selection and sequestration of works of art intended for the Grande Galerie du Louvre, then integrated into the army as inspector for magazines. It was in this context that the execution in Milan, in 1796, of this portrait whose sketch Bonaparte had approved and which, exhibited at the Salon of 1801, was to be engraved at the request of the model.

An idealized evocation of the victorious young general, this painting is Gros's first masterpiece and one of the first milestones in Bonapartist propaganda painting. We can imagine here the great compositions which were to make the artist one of the great painters, with his master David, of the Napoleonic epic, of Bonaparte visiting the plague victims of Jaffa (1804) to Napoleon visiting the battlefield of Eylau (1808). The Bonaparte family was also always very attached to this emblematic work representing the founder of the dynasty at the beginning of his glory: the canvas did not leave the imperial family until the time of the sequestration of 1870 and it was immediately returned to the Empress Eugenie, who was to donate it to the French state in 1879.

  • revolutionary wars
  • Napoleonic legend
  • Bonaparte (Napoleon)
  • official portrait
  • Napoleonic propaganda


Juan Carlos CARMIGNANI and Jean TRANIÉ Napoleon Bonaparte: 1 the first Italian campaign 1796-1797 Paris, Pygmalion, 1990.Gugliamo FERRERO Bonaparte in Italy 1796-1797 Paris, Fallois, 1994.Annie JOURDAN Napoleon, hero, imperator, patron Paris, Aubier, 1998. Jean TULARD (dir.) Napoleon dictionary Paris, Fayard, 1987. Jean TULARD (dir.) The History of Napoleon through painting Paris, Belfond, 1991 Collective The French Revolution and Europe 1789-1799 , exhibition catalog Paris, RMN, 1989.

To cite this article

Robert FOHR and Pascal TORRÈS, "The Idealization of Bonaparte"

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