About the artwork
Napoleonic subjects were proscribed for artists after 1815. But as Napoleon's reputation was gradually revived, particularly after 1830, it became possible to once again make pictures of the Emperor. There were many Bonapartists in France and the return of Napoleon's remains from St Helena to Paris in 1840 was an extremely popular event.
State commissions for art celebrating French military achievement and glory generally could now accommodate Napoleon's victories as well as, say, those of Louis XIIII. Perhaps surprisingly, there were many admirers of Napoleon in Britain, associating his memory either with enlightened progress in opposition to reactionary monarchy or alternatively with military genius. His brutal suppression of nations, huge military losses and genocidal colonial policy were somehow glossed over.
This painting was commissioned by Arthur George, 3rd Earl of Onslow, who was a passionate collector of Napoleonic material. Queen Victoria also owned one of the several versions of this picture .The story of the picture's genesis is curious. The Earl of Onslow was walking with Delaroche in the Louvre one day in 1848. Standing in front of David's famous painting of Napoleon Crossing the Alps he commented on how implausibly theatrical it was and requested Delaroche to do the same subject in a more accurate way.
Delaroche studied the accounts of Napoleon's crossing of the St Bernard Pass and possibly visited the site to get first hand knowledge of the landscape. The mountain guide who had accompanied Napoleon was dead by 1848 but his account of what was probably the most important event in his life was well known as was Napoleon's own account in his memoirs and the account by the historian Adolphe Thiers.
The Emperor had crossed the St. Bernard, not on a magnificent white stallion as shown by David, but on a sure-footed mule and with someone familiar with the terrain. It is this unheroic episode that Delaroche depicts and with the viewpoint of one who might have actually been there standing next to Napoleon turning around to cast a glance at him.
Rather than Napoleon making an expansive gesture pointing onward and upward as he does in David's picture he is instead shown thoughtful, even apprehensive, about the forthcoming battles ahead. By 1848 Delaroche had already made two major paintings of Napoleon, both suggesting his reflective introspective solitude as he contemplates the tasks of genius. This third is treated similarly.
In 1850 the completed picture arrived in England and was reviewed by the critic of The Atheneum. The mundane realism of the treatment apparently did not please:
‘An Officer in a French costume, mounted on a mule, is conducted by a rough peasant through a dangerous pass, whose traces are scarcely discernible through the deep-lying snow; and his aide-de-camp is just visible in a ravine of the towering Alps. These facts are rendered with a fidelity that has not omitted the plait of a drapery, the shaggy texture of the four-footed animal, nor a detail of the harness on his back. The drifting of the imbedded snow, the pendent icicle which a solitary sun-ray in a transient moment has made-all are given with a truth which will be dear to those who exalt the Dutch School for like qualities into the foremost rank of excellence. But the lofty and daring genius that led the humble Lieutenant of Ajaccio to be ruler and arbiter of the destinies of the larger part of Europe will be sought in vain by M. Delaroche.’
Delaroche's reputation declined after about 1870, particularly as avant-garde tastes developed for various forms of more direct realism. His pictures however remained popular and the postcard of the National Gallery's 'The Execution of Lady Jane Grey' is one of their best sellers.
The Walker's picture was bought from Lord Onslow's sale in 1893 and presented to the Gallery in the same year by Henry Yates Thompson.
Hippolyte (Paul) Delaroche (1797 - 1856) was one of the most successful French artists of the first half of the 19th century. His father was a leading Parisian art dealer, his maternal uncle was conservator for the print department of the Bibliotheque National and his elder brother Jules was already two years into his own artistic education when his younger brother enrolled at the Ecole des Beaux Artes in 1817.
It was an interesting time to be an art student. Napoleon had been exiled to St Helena in 1815 after his defeat at Waterloo and the French monarchy had been restored. Napoleon's leading artist, the classical painter Jaques Louis David had followed his leader into exile and was to spend the rest of his life in Brussels. S
everal other artists were compromised by their association with Napoleon because they had painted his portrait or painted pictures of his military achievements and they were, for a short while uncertain how their fortunes would fare. One of these, Baron Gros, who had been a pupil of David, and had made several celebratory paintings of Napoleon, was Delaroche's master. Gros later declared of Delaroche ‘He was the glory of my school‘.
Delaroche represents a kind of popular middle way between the two leading contemporary styles in French painting. Between continuing Classicism, above all exemplified by the paintings of Ingres who had been David's pupil, and a newly emerging ‘Romantic’ style, whose looser textured paint surfaces and highly dramatic, often violent subject matter is best exemplified by Delacroix.
Delaroche's distinctive achievement was to bring an intimate quality to poignant or tragic subjects and his use of close-up viewpoints gives to several of his pictures what we would nowadays perhaps describe as a psychological edge. He made several pictures of fashionable English historical subjects such as 'The Death of Elizabeth 1', 'The Execution of Lady Jane Grey', 'The Princes in the Tower of London', and 'Charles I insulted by the soldiers of Cromwell'. The German playwright Heine characterised Delaroche as ‘the court painter to all decapitated sovereigns’.
Additionally Delaroche obtained many state commissions, most famously his ‘Hemicycle’ - a huge semi-circular mural in the apse of the Ecole des Beaux Artes showing the progress of the arts. He was an extremely successful portraitist too. Delaroche's reputation was further extended by the great number of high quality steel engraved reproductions of his pictures that were sold throughout the world -particularly in the United States, to which at one time he considered emigrating.