In 1801 Jacques-Louis David brought the world a painting called Bonaparte Crossing the Great Saint Bernard Pass. Thirty three years before in 1768 John Singleton Copley brought us a work called simply Paul Revere. Both paintings are classics and the subjects of each painting are interchangeable. Two different lives, two different continents, at two different stages of their lives. Yet, Bonaparte and Revere could easily change places in either painting. In Paul Revere by John Singleton Copley we find one of Americas revolutionary war heroes sitting in deep thought.
The crisp lines of the painting define clearly the subject. Paul Revere in a darkened room – hand on his chin – thinking. Thinking of what? Maybe what to do with the silver tea pot he holds? Mr. Copley brings out the fact that Paul Revere was a silver smith. We see the tools of his trade on the table beside him. The absence of bright colors accurately reveals life in colonial America. Life as simple and luxuries were few. A silver smiths life would have been hard and simple. John Singleton Copley brings out that life in this painting. The rest of the painting is dark.
Perhaps to keep the viewer drawn to the subject matter. Paul Revere in thought. Nothing else matters – except the fact he is a silver smith – and he is thinking of something. Again – we may be drawn to the subject of his thoughts. Is he thinking of what to do next with his tea pot? Or is he thinking of his future – the wars he will face – his own nations war of revolution? Albeit not knowing of his future infamous ride into the Massachusetts night on that cold April night in 1775. Even so – in 1768 he knew where the winds of war were blowing. He would soon
be leaving the security of the darkened room in a silver smiths shop we find in John Singleton Copley’s masterpiece. We could easily place this person from American history in the Jacques-Louis David painting of Bonaparte Crossing the Great Saint Bernard Pass. Replace the Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte with Paul Revere. We could easily have a painting of a ride in 1775 of a silver smith from Boston. In Jacques-Louis David’s Bonaparte Crossing the Great Saint Bernard Pass we again have the clear 1 crisp lines of the main subject matter. Yet there is much going on around Napoleon – there are several
subtle messages in this master piece. Going beyond the mere talent of Jacques-Louis David he demonstrates in this art work. He was also a man who knew his subject matter personally and had marched with Napoleon in battle. This personal knowledge gave him the liberty to place many things in the painting a simple observer may have not included. The rocks in the lower left of the painting list three great rulers who had crossed the Swiss Alps in their individual conquests. We have the partial name of Hannibal visible on one rock – and then off to
the side in Greek we find Alexander the Great. Yet dominating over both these names is engraved boldly the name Bonaparte. Napoleon Bonaparte was a man small in stature – yet Jacques-Louis David depicts him as a larger than life figure upon his horse. Napoleon was known to be intimidated by horses – yet our artist paints fear in the eyes of Napoleon’s horse. Napoleon Bonaparte was the self proclaimed ruler of the French people – he often ruled with fear and intimidation. Jacques-Louis David depicts the people painted in the haze of the painting background.
No person is seen standing upright – they are all busy about the business of the Emperor. One last little liberty the artist took in his painting. In the lower right hand of the painting is the flag of France. The wind blows it to the right – yet Napoleon’s cape and the horse’s tail blows to the left. Perhaps the artists subtle indication that France was going one way – and Napoleon was leading the opposite direction? The actual regalia Napoleon is wearing is bold and bright. Jacques-Louis David does well in the details with Napoleon and the horse.
Attention to detail in the double battle bridle the horse in wearing to the un-gloved right hand that Napoleon could grab his sword with. The scene is one of a powerful man who will be reckoned with. His eyes are determined in the task at hand. Any Frenchmen who viewed this would immediately be inclined to go and join the revolution. Here was a leader the people 2 could follow – a leader who would lead them to victory. He is strong and powerful in the painting. In the twilight of Napoleon’s life – he could easily be placed at a table in a darkened room contemplating his life.
The scene in John Singleton Copley’s Paul Revere could be Napoleon on Elba or the isle of St. Helena during his exile. No longer surrounded by the glory and color of his years a Emperor – but instead the simplicity and darkened life of a man banished for life from his glory days. Except for a brief escape to campaign in his final battle – Waterloo. Napoleon Bonaparte would live in exile. If John Singleton Copley had painted Napoleon Bonaparte on Elba – would the work look similar to his famous Paul Revere? Suppose Jacques-Louis David had painted the silver smith Paul Revere on
the night of April 17, 1775? Would it resemble his masterpiece Bonaparte Crossing the Great Saint Bernard Pass? Both artist succeed in accurately depicting historical figures. Their attention to detail is seen in both paintings. Styles may appear to be similar in the refined lines and detail in each work. Yet closer observation reveals that John Singleton Copley conveys his message through the simplicity of one man sitting in a darkened room. Through the eyes of Paul Revere you can almost see the minutemen at Lexington and Concord.
You can hear the drums calling the militia to the streets. While Jacques-Louis David uses surrounding images around a central figure to send his message. You can almost feel the wind blowing across the Alps, in the huddled soldiers in the background we can feel their pain and fear of the revolution they face – not only in a government – but in their very lives. Two different artist, on two different continents, with two different subjects – yet – are they really different? The meaning of art is up to the interpretation – and the interpreter is the one viewing the piece.