This painting, by the French artist Antoine-Jean Gros, depicts General Napoleon Bonaparte during the Battle of Arcole, in 1796. Painted early in Napoleon’s career as a French soldier, it shows him as a revolutionary general, a dashing leader with long flowing hair. Just a few years later, in 1804, Napoleon would end the French Republic by declaring himself Emperor.
In the spring of 1796, Napoleon Bonaparte was a little-known junior general with some useful political connections but no obvious signs of military promise. A year later, his reputation as a commander would be known across Europe. The campaign that assured the future Emperor’s rise was his swift and devastating conquest of Northern Italy. Arcole, fought 15-17 September 1796, was a key battle in that campaign.
During the early stages of the campaign, the Armée d’Italie under Bonaparte’s command had knocked the kingdom of Piedmont out of the war. He had then defeated the main Austrian forces in northern Italy, leaving the survivors trapped in the fortress of Mantua. Arcole was fought as the French responded to General Alvinczi’s attempt to lead an army to the rescue of his countrymen. The Austrians were initially successful, until Bonaparte set upon a daring flank manoeuvre which was intended to restore the situation by cutting off Alvinczi’s line of retreat.
For this to work, the French needed to seize the crossing of the River Alpone at Arcole. However, the bridge was well defended and initial French attacks faltered. Hoping to inspire his men, Bonaparte seized a flag and led an attack in person. Remarkably, he remained unscathed despite a hail of bullets, but several of his staff were killed and the attack petered out. In reality, the French did not even make it onto the bridge itself, and Bonaparte was eventually dragged to the safety of a muddy ditch. It would take two more days of hard fighting before Arcole was captured.
The painting, on the other hand, shows Bonaparte clearly leading his men to victory. Perhaps to avoid having to overtly misrepresent the scene, the artist, Antoine-Jean Gros, has focussed on Bonaparte himself, who is here every inch the dynamic leader. Even now, though, the young general’s cold and steely gaze shows the same calculating nature that is more apparent in later depictions of him as Emperor. Since this is still Bonaparte the Republican hero, though, his men are not forgotten. Looking closely at his drawn sword, it can be seen that it is inscribed with the words “Armée d’Italie”. Thus Bonaparte is literally wielding a sword but that sword represents the real weapon wielded by a general – that is to say, the troops under his command.
In this campaign, Bonaparte had taken a collection of demoralised and dispirited regiments, and forged them into a single army who would follow him to victory. Within months, Mantua had fallen and Bonaparte, his reputation established, was leading his troops against Austria itself.
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This object is in the collection of Palace of Versailles