A French masterpiece has come to New York for the first time ever, and has been greeted with a curious silence.
It’s Jacques-Louis David’s “Bonaparte Crossing the Alps,” from 1801, and you know it even if you’ve never seen it in person. To commemorate Napoleon’s victory over Austria at the Battle of Marengo, David painted him charging up a mountain on a piebald steed, right arm pointing skyward, trademark bicorne on his head, cool and cocksure as his horse bucks its front heels. In copies the artist and his studio made afterward Napoleon wears a red cape, but here, in the original, he’s wrapped in a mantle of gold, starchy and solid in the Alpine air.
Usually, to see “Bonaparte Crossing the Alps,” you have to trek to the suburbs of Paris, where it hangs in the Château de Malmaison, the home of Empress Joséphine. Until May, you’ll find it in a gallery on the fourth floor of the Brooklyn Museum – and it is not alone.
In a faceoff between two visions of the political power of art, the museum has hung another equestrian portrait: “Napoleon Leading the Army Over the Alps,” by Kehinde Wiley, which pictures a young black man in the same pose, the bicorne replaced by a bandanna, the riding boots swapped for Timberlands. The two Napoleons appear alongside a few engravings, cartoons and imperial medals from the museum’s collection, in the exhibition “Jacques-Louis David Meets Kehinde Wiley,” which was first presented at the Malmaison last year.
Wiley’s and David’s paintings appear in Brooklyn under spotlights, in a red-carpeted room. Between the canvases is an ostentatious gold monogram of the two artists’ initials, framed by heavy velvet curtains.
David was born during the reign of Louis XV. In the 1780s he became the leading figure of neoclassicism. In pictures like “The Oath of the Horatii,” now at the Louvre, and “The Death of Socrates,” at the Met, he purged French art of its rococo frippery and foreshadowed the moral stringency of the Reign of Terror. When the Bastille fell David joined the Jacobins, and he designed the Revolution’s propaganda both on canvas (Marat dead in the bath) and in the streets, where he masterminded lavish parades featuring huge effigies of Reason and Liberty.
David took his politics out of the studio and right into the new legislature. He served as a member of the National Convention, where he voted to deliver Louis XVI to the guillotine. Many artists aim to speak truth to power. Only David actually drew blood.
After Robespierre’s fall, David went to jail twice. When he got out he stepped back from politics – but by 1799 France had a new boss, and David channeled his propagandistic genius into a new vessel. Napoleon had taken power in a bloodless coup d’état, and the next year he solidified his political supremacy with a victory in Piedmont, where the 30-year-old general surprised the Austrians by traversing the Alps’ most hazardous pass.
He wanted the victory to become a legend, and David delivered. Instead of the mule Napoleon actually rode, he provided a near-untamed war horse. The billowing gold mantle recalls the Roman and Italian sculptures Napoleon had recently pillaged and brought to the Louvre. Napoleon has no weapon drawn, and doesn’t even wear a glove on his raised right hand. David has invented a wholly new iconography for a modern ruler, bereft of the old monarchical symbols, in which authority derives not from divine right but from valor.
In Wiley’s “Napoleon,” from 2005, the Alpine setting has given way to an abstract ground of red and gold brocade, speckled, strange to say, by swimming spermatozoa. The artist found his model via what he called “street casting”: He is a young man called Williams, his name inscribed on the Alpine rock next to “Bonaparte.”
There are passages, especially the brocaded background and the naughty sperm, that offer hints of transgression. Unlike David’s Napoleon, Wiley’s Napoleon is as teasing as it is heroic, and lightly queers the masculine pretensions of military painting. But by and large, his art treats the mere presence of a black sitter as a sufficient corrective to the oversights of European art. (The artist drives that point home in a video in the next gallery.)
Contemporary art ought to offer more: Not just clapping back at the past, but reconstituting it into newer, fresher languages. Think here of Kerry James Marshall, Njideka Akunyili Crosby, and other black figurative painters for whom European painting is one vital source among many that they assume as part of a global inheritance.
Right now is a rumbling, exciting moment for places like the Brooklyn Museum, which is taking on the challenge of exposing the past inequities of art and art institutions. But what if public school students here on a field trip encountered David’s Napoleon alongside a portrait of a black French citizen by one of David’s students, such as Anne-Louis Girodet’s “Portrait of Citizen Belley,” in which a freed slave wears a tricolor sash? Might that, more than Wiley’s Napoleon, help them see themselves in the art of the past, and inspire a love for art of all ages?
‘Jacques-Louis David Meets Kehinde Wiley’
Through May 10 at the Brooklyn Museum; 200 Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn; 718-638-5000, brooklynmuseum.org.