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Facts & Figures

Revolutionary Campaigns

Napoleon is known principally as a man of war, perhaps the greatest commander the world has ever seen. He swept a whole generation headlong into ever more bloody battles. Forged by the military, war was his craft and held no terrors for him. In his age it was very much part of the portfolio for a Head of State. Numerous accounts survive of Napoleon’s courage in the thick of action. Frequently in the front line and even leading the assault on occasions, he was thrice wounded ….  Scornful of danger, he was intolerant of fear in others. ‘Death is nothing, but to live defeated and abject is to die every day’, he said.

Thierry Lentz in Napoleon, Revolution to Empire, Catalogue, NGV

Perhaps in much the same way as the recent ‘Arab Spring’ in the Arab World, the French Revolution had a profound effect on the whole of Europe, unleashing hope of democratic rule and “liberty, equality and fraternity” amongst the disenfranchised populace. Equally, amongst Europe’s monarchies, it created fear of overthrow (especially in the wake of Louis XVI’s execution). These so-called ‘Revolutionary Wars’ were principally fought in northern Italy and southern Germany, though they spread to Russia and Spain in the early 1800s.

In the hope of crushing the newly formed French Republic, coalitions formed between various European Monarchies. The first of these, in 1793  (known as the First Coalition) was the initiative of the Austrian Empire and Prussia together with Great Britain, Spain and the Kingdoms of Naples and Sardinia. In order to repulse this alliance’s first campaign against the new French Republic, the military laws were changed and conscription introduced (Levée en masse).

Following his elevation to Emperor, Napoleon continued to triumph over the Coalition of European nations that declared war on him and on whom he in turn declared war. These Napoleonic Wars (from 1803 -1814) at first brilliantly successful, saw Napoleon conquer most of Europe, only to be undone by hubris. His invasion of both Spain and Russia (the latter especially) were ill-judged and proved fatal to Napoleon’s reign.  The retreat from Moscow in 1812, when most of his army perished and his “allies” turned against him, was the beginning of the end. He failed to anticipate the rise of Nationalism among his European neighbours – and the negative impact of forced Coalitions. Forced to abdicate in 1814, he returned from exile on Elba to stage one last valiant attempt to regain power and Empire. In his famed One Hundred Days, Napoleon again launched himself into war with England and Europe, but this now legendary Battle of Waterloo was his last. His exile to St Helena ensured the end of his powers.

It has been argued that Napoleon was a military genius, revolutionizing warfare, deploying innovative tactical manoeuvres - and conducting it on an unprecedented scale thanks to mass conscription. He arguably created Modern Warfare both in scale and conduct.

Jacques-Louis DAVID
French 1748-1825
Napoleon Bonaparte, First Consul, crossing the Alps at Great St Bernard Pass, 20 May 1800 (Bonaparte, Premier Consul, franchissant les Alpes, au mont Saint-Bernard, le 20 mai 1800) 1803
oil on canvas
267.5 x 223.0 cm
Versailles, musée national du château (MV 8550)
© RMN (Château de Versailles) - Franck Raux
Above: Perhaps the most striking and memorable of the many hundreds of portraits of Napoleon, this is a potent allegory of power that conveys Napoleon’s mastery over man, beast and even nature. Read more
Above: Perhaps the most striking and memorable of the many hundreds of portraits of Napoleon, this is a potent allegory of power that conveys Napoleon’s mastery over man, beast and even nature. In the French painting tradition, the depiction of leaders on horseback was usually the reserve of royalty. David shows a Napoleon totally in command, the saviour of France from the political instability of the post-Revolutionary period. David painted five versions of this portrait. Close
  • Thomas Charles NAUDET
    French 1773-1810
    The French army crossing Great St Bernard Pass (Passage du col de Saint-Bernard par l'armée française) Consular period 1799-1804
    brush and ink, wash
    35.5 x 50.6 cm
    Fondation Napoléon, Paris
    Acquisition 2008 (inv. 1172)
    © Fondation Napoléon – Stéphane Pons

Above: Situating his composition near the Great St Bernard hospice, Naudet shows in this drawing the reality of the difficult conditions of the crossing. The path had to be widened, bridges reinforced, and all of the armaments carried at shoulder height. Tree trunks were hollowed out to transport the disassembled cannon, which were dragged by mules and, when they became exhausted or died, teams of a hundred men. Naudet’s composition stands in marked contrast to Jacques-Louis David’s heroicised version of Napoleon’s crossing of the Alps.

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