15 Things You Should Know About Jacques-Louis David's 'Napoleon Crossing the Alps'

Wikimedia // Public Domain
Wikimedia // Public Domain

18th century French painter Jacques-Louis David possessed an incredible talent and a deep admiration for Napoleon Bonaparte. Both are clear in the striking portrait Napoleon Crossing the Alps, but few know that this painting was a defining moment for both its artist and subject.

1. NAPOLEON CROSSING THE ALPS MARKED A NEW ERA FOR FRANCE.

David's history-based works not only marked political movements in France but also contributed to them. His Death of Socrates (1787) fanned the flames of rebellion, while The Death of Marat (1793) memorialized its subject as a martyr of the French Revolution. At the turn of the 19th century, France was on the rise thanks to Napoleon Bonaparte, who'd staged a coup d’état against the revolutionary government.

2. IT WAS INSPIRED BY NAPOLEON'S VICTORY AT THE BATTLE OF MARENGO.

In the spring of 1800, Napoleon's forces trekked through the Alps by way of the Great St. Bernard Pass for a surprise attack on Austrian armies in what is now northern Italy. On June 14, the Battle of Marengo pushed the Austrians out of the territory completely, and bolstered Napoleon's position in European politics. Painted over four months in 1800 and 1801, Napoleon Crossing The Alps was intended to illustrate this important victory.

3. IT WAS CREATED AS AN ACT OF DIPLOMACY.

Looking to strengthen relations with France, Charles IV of Spain met with Bonaparte for an exchange of grand gifts. Napoleon offered pistols made in Versailles, fine dresses sewn in Paris, jewels, and armor. Charles IV presented 16 Spanish horses from own stables, portraits of himself and his queen painted by Spanish artist Francisco Goya, and Napoleon Crossing The Alps, which the king commissioned from David, a renowned French painter.

4. IT WAS NOT DAVID'S FIRST ATTEMPT AT PAINTING NAPOLEON.

In 1797, David began a painting of the general meant to commemorate the peace treaty with Austria at Campo-Formio. He painted the face and sketched the body, but then abandoned the portrait and shifted his attention to The Intervention of the Sabine Women (1799). But the unfinished portrait went on to be displayed in the Louvre, and its image was used on the 100 Francs note in the 1960s.

5. NAPOLEON REFUSED TO SIT FOR THE PORTRAIT.

The self-appointed First Consul of France argued, "Nobody knows if the portraits of the great men resemble them, it is enough that their genius lives there." To overcome this obstacle, David employed an earlier portrait of Napoleon and his uniform from the Battle of Montenegro as reference. The painter had one of his sons wear the outfit while perched on a ladder to get as close to a live model as he could manage.

6. NONETHELESS, NAPOLEON HAD NOTES.

He requested an equestrian portrait, which was a genre that royalty tended to prefer. Napoleon demanded he be portrayed as "calme sur un cheval fougueux,” which translates roughly to "calm on a fiery horse." David delivered.

7. IT'S AN INACCURATE DEPICTION OF THE BATTLE OF MARENGO.

David has a history of idealizing his subjects, making them look younger, fitter, and more beautiful. Napoleon was no exception. Some suggest this youthful makeover reflects David's admiration of Napoleon. However, an even more noteworthy discrepancy is that Napoleon did not actually lead his men across the Alps. He followed a few days after, and not on a galloping horse, but on a mule better suited to the narrow path cut by his troops.

8. IN THE PAINTING, DAVID COMPARES NAPOLEON TO GREAT MILITARY ICONS.

In the lower left corner of the painting, you can see carved on the rocks: BONAPARTE, HANNIBAL, KAROLUS MAGNUS. The Carthaginian general Hannibal had crossed the intimidating mountain range during the Second Punic War in 218 BCE. When he was King of the Franks, Charlemagne (a.k.a. Karolus Magnus) crossed the Alps in 773 in his war against the Lombards. By including these names, David suggests that Napoleon and his victories will be remembered for centuries like Hannibal's and Charlemagne's.

9. NAPOLEON DIDN'T GET TO KEEP IT.

Napoleon Crossing the Alps was intended for Charles IV's royal palace in Madrid. There, it was hung among paintings of other great military leaders as a symbol of Spain and France's friendly relationship.

10. NAPOLEON LIKED THE PAINTING SO MUCH, HE WANTED MORE.

Not just more portraits of himself, mind you. Napoleon wanted David to make this exact composition three more times. Since the original was in Charles IV's palace, Napoleon commissioned more for his domain. He wanted one hung in his preferred home Château de Saint-Cloud, one in the library at Les Invalides in Paris, and one for the palace of the Cisalpine Republic in Milan, which was then a sister republic of France. David also painted a fifth, which he kept in his studio until his death in 1825; his daughter later gifted it back to the Bonaparte family.

11. ALL FIVE PAINTINGS SHARE THREE TITLES.

The most popular is Napoleon Crossing the Alps, but Napoleon at the Saint-Bernard Pass and Bonaparte Crossing the Alps are also acceptable.

12. THERE ARE MINOR DIFFERENCES BETWEEN THE FIVE PAINTINGS.

The color of Napoleon's cloak changes from the original gold to crimson. With it, the color of his horse shifts from piebald black and white in the original, to brown, or dappled grey with gold locks. And the riding accouterments—like standing martingale and girth—feature different colors and details. Likewise, David's signature shifts, and one is not signed at all.

13. NAPOLEON CROSSING THE ALPS LED TO DAVID GETTING A MAJOR PROMOTION.

By 1804, Napoleon had crowned himself emperor of France, and his preferred portrait painter was now "First Painter to the Emperor." David went on to create fawning portraits like Napoleon in his Study (1812), and Consecration of the Emperor Napoleon I and Coronation of the Empress Josephine (1805-07) for his powerful patron.

14. AFTER NAPOLEON'S FALL, DAVID WENT INTO EXILE.

When Napoleon's regime fell after his defeat at Waterloo, the French monarchy was reinstated. David was sent into exile along with all of those who voted for the death of Louis XVI back in 1792, and moved to Brussels, where he continued to paint.

15. NAPOLEON HAS HAD A DAMAGING IMPACT ON DAVID'S LEGACY.

Art historians tend to favor David's pre-Napoleonic Era works. Napoleon Crossing The Alps has been criticized for its stiffness, which makes it seem more a statue than a frozen moment. Though David would paint until the end of his life, none of his subsequent works reached the acclaim of those created in the late 1700s, like Oath of the Horatii, The Death of Socrates, and The Death of Marat. His earlier works earned him a reputation as a groundbreaker and pioneer of Neoclassicism. However, his Napoleon portraits are remembered more for their history than artistry.

10 Juicy Facts About Leeches

Ian Cook
Ian Cook

Leeches get a bad rap, but they’re actually pretty cool once you get to know them—and we're finding out more about them, even today. Recently, a team led by Anna Phillips, curator of parasitic worms at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, discovered a new species of medicinal leech (pictured above) in a Maryland swamp. We asked parasite expert and curator at the American Museum of Natural History Mark E. Siddall to share some surprising facts about the worms we love to hate. 

1. Not all leeches suck blood.

Hematophagous, or blood-feeding, species are only one type of leech. “The vast majority of species are [hematophagous],” Siddall tells Mental Floss, “but it depends on the environment. In North America, there are probably more freshwater leeches that don’t feed on blood than there are blood-feeders.” And even among the hematophagous species, there are not too many who are after you. “Very few of them are interested in feeding on human blood,” Siddall says. “Certainly they’ll do it, if they’re given the opportunity, but they’re not what they’re spending most of their time feeding on.” 

2. Leeches are everywhere.

Japanese leech on a log
Pieria, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

“Every continent on the planet has leeches, with the exception of Antarctica,” Siddall says. “And even then there are marine leeches in Antarctic waters.” Humans have co-existed with leeches for so long, according to Siddall, that just about every language has a word for leech. 

3. Leeches have made a comeback in medicine.

Bloodletting for bloodletting’s sake has fallen out of favor with Western physicians, but that doesn’t mean medicinal leeches are enjoying a cushy retirement. Today, surgeons keep them on hand in the operating room and use them as mini-vacuums to clean up blood. “That is a perfectly sensible use of leeches,” Siddall says. Other uses, though, are less sensible: “The more naturopathic application of leeches in order to get rid of bad blood or to cure, I don’t know, whatever happens to ail you, is complete hooey,” he says. How on Earth would leeches take away bad blood and leave good blood? It’s silly.” 

4. Novelist Amy Tan has her own species of leeches.

Land-based leeches made an appearance in Tan’s 2005 book Saving Fish from Drowning, a fact that instantly put the author in leech researchers’ good graces. “There are not a lot of novels out there with terrestrial leeches in them,” Siddall says. So when he and his colleagues identified a new species of tiny terrestrial leeches, they gave the leech Tan’s name. The author loved it. “I am thrilled to be immortalized as Chtonobdella tanae,” Tan said in a press statement. “I am now planning my trip to Queensland, Australia, where I hope to take leisurely walks through the jungle, accompanied by a dozen or so of my namesake feeding on my ankles.”

5. Leeches can get pretty big.

The giant Amazon leech (Haementeria ghilianii) can grow up to 18 inches and live up to 20 years. And yes, this one’s a blood-feeder. Like all hematophagous species, H. ghilianii sticks its proboscis (which can be up to 6 inches long) into a host, drinks its fill, and falls off. Scientists thought the species was extinct until a zoologist found two specimens in the 1970s, one of whom he named Grandma Moses. We are not making this up.

6. Leeches make good bait.

Many walleye anglers swear by leeches. “A leech on any presentation moves more than other types of live bait," pro fisher Jerry Hein told Fishing League Worldwide. "I grew up fishing them, and I think they're the most effective live bait around no matter where you go." There’s an entire leech industry to provide fishers with their bait. One year, weather conditions kept the leeches from showing up in their typical habitats, which prevented their collection and sale. Speaking to CBS news, one tackle shop owner called the absence of leeches “the worst nightmare in the bait industry.”

7. Leech scientists use themselves as bait.

Siddall and his colleagues collect and study wild leeches. That means hours of trekking through leech territory, looking for specimens. “Whether we’re wandering in water or traipsing through a bamboo forest,” Siddall says, “we are relying on the fact that leeches are attracted to us.” Do the leeches feed on them? “Oh my god, yes. We try to get them before they feed on us … but sometimes, obviously, you can’t help it.”

8. Leech sex is mesmerizing.

Like many worms, leeches are all hermaphroditic. The specifics of mating vary by species, but most twine themselves together and trade sperm packets. (The two leeches in the video above are both named Norbert.)

9. Some leech species make surprisingly caring parents. 

“There’s a whole family of leeches that, when they lay their eggs, will cover them with their own bodies,” Siddall says. “They’ll lay the eggs, cover them with their bodies, and fan the eggs to prevent fungus or bacteria from getting on them, and then when the eggs hatch, they will attach to the parent. They’re not feeding on the parent, just hanging on, and then when the parent leech goes to its next blood meal it’s carrying its offspring to its next blood meal. That’s pretty profound parental care, especially for invertebrates.”

10. You might be the next to discover a new leech species. 

Despite living side-by-side with leeches for thousands of years, we’ve still got a lot to learn about them. Scientists are aware of about 700 different species, but they know there are many more out there. “I’ll tell you what I wish for,” Siddall says. “If you ever get fed on by a leech, rather than tearing off and burning it and throwing it in the trash, maybe observe it and see if you can see any color patterns. Understand that there’s a real possibility that it could be a new species. So watch them, let them finish. They’re not gonna take much blood. And who knows? It could be scientifically useful.”

22 Weird Jobs From 100 Years Ago

Metal Floss via YouTube
Metal Floss via YouTube

Before everyone started working in tech, people actually had their choice of eclectic and strange vocations that put food on their old-timey tables. Discover what lamplighters, lectores, and knocker-uppers did back in the day as Mental Floss editor-in-chief Erin McCarthy runs down 22 Weird Old Jobs from 100 Years Ago.

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