- The Washington Times - Friday, August 5, 2005

WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — His horse is wild-eyed and strong, a gallant force rearing on a mountainside as soldiers in the background move a cannon alongside a rocky ledge.

The horseman himself, however, is a study in calm. His right hand is stretched above the horse’s mane, and his smooth face looks confident. A golden-sheathed sword dangles alongside his impeccable uniform.

He is Napoleon Bonaparte, framed by the painter Jacques-Louis David in a scene that reinterprets the general’s crossing of the Alps to invade Italy.

The painting was commissioned by the king of Spain, who thought a flattering portrait would curry enough favor to keep Napoleon from taking over his country.

“Bonaparte Crossing the Alps at Gran-Saint-Bernard” was a nice gesture, but it didn’t work. Napoleon, who later would crown himself emperor, soon crossed the Pyrenees and conquered Spain.

“Empire to Exile,” an exhibit of David’s work on view at the Clark Art Institute through Sept. 5, traces Napoleon’s rise from general to emperor in the early 19th century and ends with the painter’s work that was done when he left France.

It’s a collection of both stunning artwork and political propaganda. Take, for example, “Bonaparte Crossing the Alps.” Despite its overwhelming majesty and the details David painted into the general and his stallion, the painter had a few things off.

For one, the portrait doesn’t really look like Napoleon. Also, the general traversed the Alps on the back of a mule, not a fiery steed.

“He wasn’t trying to capture historical accuracy as much as he was concentrating on painting Napoleon as a conquering hero,” says Michael Cassin, the Clark’s curator of education.

David’s political and artistic careers had long been intertwined. He was active in the French Revolution and frequently was commissioned to design banners for revolutionary parades and create paintings to inspire the political upheaval. However, his revo- lutionary commitment landed him more than commissions. He was imprisoned for a year in 1794 and took advantage of the time to try to reassert himself as a painter.

In a self-portrait he painted while in jail, David — who hides an embarrassing facial tumor — is clutching a paintbrush and palette, as if defining himself as an artist instead of a politico. Still, France — and more important, Napoleon — recognized him as both. He left prison as one of Europe’s leading artists, and when Napoleon became emperor, he gave David the title of First Painter.

The neoclassical works he began churning out soon influenced French society and style. The designs he used to paint his subjects’ clothing and their surroundings were soon copied by furniture makers and clothing designers.

“When Napoleon became emperor, David became a kind of visual czar,” Mr. Cassin says. “He was not only the person who recorded Napoleon’s victories, he also created the visualization of everything to do with Napoleon’s style.”

Within years of Napoleon’s giving himself the title of emperor, his image moved from warrior to statesman.

“Napoleon in His Study at the Tuiler-ies,” which was commissioned in 1811 by a Scottish nobleman, still shows Napoleon as a military man. He’s clad in a dress uniform as his sword is cradled in a chair, still within easy reach. Just as noticeable as his weapon, though, is a draft of the Code Napoleon, which became the cornerstone of French law.

A clock behind him shows the time at almost quarter past four, and the candles in the rooms are burned down to the last of their wax.

Within a few years, France would be invaded by a new European alliance and Napoleon would be exiled to the island of Elba. He returned to France in 1815 but went into exile again after his defeat at Waterloo at the hands of the British general Wellington.

After Napoleon’s fall, David moved to Brussels, where he began painting portraits of fellow exiles. Though some of his subjects still proudly wear their French uniforms, the paintings are more austere than his earlier works. He seems to meet his subjects eye to eye, with many of their gazes staring straight off the canvas.

David also spent his later years painting mythological scenes, sometimes using his new political contacts as his models. In “Cupid and Psyche,” he had the son of an American diplomat pose as a nude, winged Cupid awkwardly leaving a bed he shared with Psyche. The painting offended some critics, who were put off by David’s depiction of Cupid as a gangly teenager coupled with a placid and serene lover. The work, although not traditional, captures the essence of Cupid’s representation of love’s physical side, while his Psyche embodies love’s emotional aspect.

As in his interpretation of Napoleon about to invade Italy, David also took liberties with the literal truth in his later works.

“He’s like a contemporary moviemaker who rethinks an old story and puts a new twist on it,” Mr. Cassin says.

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