Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps is an 1812 Romantic historical painting by English artist J.M.W Turner.
Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps Analysis
It is an imposing picture combining the naturalistic and historical themes in a Romantic key and is considered to be one of the most famous paintings by Turner.
History of Hannibal’s crossing of the Alps
The historical event is the toilsome and deadly crossing of the North Italian Alps by Hannibal and his army in 218 BC. It is the Carthaginian invasion of Italy during the Second Punic War which will lead to the astounding Roman disaster at Cannae, prior to the ultimate Roman victory in the war.
Turner envisions the North African and Hibernian host led by Hannibal as it struggles against the merciless Alpine landscape and weather. A storm is about to break over the trail of soldiers while, on the right, a snowy avalanche has already begun.
Nature, indeed, is the protagonist of this painting; the historical context merely serves to give it a frame for action. If we did not know by the title that it is the misshapen Carthaginian army that is about to suffer casualties by attrition, we could assume the men to belong to any historical army.
It will be noted that Turner has not furnished his soldiers — who appear as minute and impotent figures in the lowest register of the canvas — with any easily recognizable national characteristic. Their identity is irrelevant to what is about to happen.
This is a landscape that Turner had most likely seen during his Italian voyages, in Val d’Aosta. (The nearby Great St Bernard Pass is one of the openings in the mountain chain through which the invader army could have passed.)
Above this scene of desolation, a sublime architecture of arches has appeared; indeed an entire vault can be imagined in the dark shape that the storm has erected above the tumult of men below. We are immediately concerned that the rapidly concentrating weight of that vault will soon collapse. The conspicuous crags on the left and the right of the lower register are set as if to mimic the fundaments of the colossal arch.
At the same time, the passage in between the mountaintops which the army is traversing is similarly shaped as an arch, with two planes intersecting. As it resembles a bowl tilting to the left, and as the vault-like structure from the air appears to be collapsing, we envision for a moment how Hannibal’s men will soon be enclosed in a fatal sphere and crushed.
A vortex of wind carrying frozen particles makes here, in Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps, its first momentous appearance in Turner’s imagery.
The spectacle of nature imagined by Turner is sublime, in the particularly deliberate meaning of that word as it would have been known (and dear) to the artist. It evokes feelings of vague distress which we, however, enjoy, and which constitute a thrill in the presence of an overbearing, superhuman circumstance. Indeed, the snowstorm is an ideal representation of a sublime experience.
The use of contrast
One device by which Turner conjures the breathtaking impression of the powers of nature before which the human being is nothing is the luminous contrast. In the far distance of this scene, the strong sun is winning its battle with the clouds, and an entire region is still illuminated by rays of gold. While in the upper middle, and fairly close to our position as viewers, thunderous concentrations of dark snow and sleet appear triumphant.
What contributes more than anything to the impression of the sublime, wrote Edmund Burke, the main theorist of that category of human perception, is the overwhelming scale of the powers, such as those of nature, that we witness. Another contributor is our inability to distinguish well the various parts of the mighty phenomenon before us so that we are unsure about cause and effect.
Turner’s scene in Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps is therefore intentionally subfusc in parts and generally indistinct. A mist permeates every space except those closest to us. Its exhalations and movement make the entire event on the right mysterious. Caught in the midst of its occurrence, it appears to us as some kind of avalanche. All we truly know is that it is happening and that it is mighty.
It would appear that Turner’s Carthaginians are suffering a kind of retribution for the acts of plunders that they will commit following their descent into Italy, particularly in Capua. Turner is thereby inserting an anachronistic element into his scene, with consequences being represented as preceding the acts, adding further confusion to the order between effects and causes.
Salassian (Gallic) soldiers are taking advantage of the disorder in the Carthaginian host and attacking an isolated section of Hannibal’s army, a story that Turner derived from classical sources. The punishment of the ravaging invaders, therefore, comes in the form of violent revenge from the Alpine natives as well as in the form of merciless nature.
Upon realizing the anachronistic element, the entire composition gains a sharper dreamlike quality: it combines temporally removed events in a single vision. The haziness of Turner’s ensemble does much to encourage this perception, too.
This reading of the painting is aided by an epic poem, titled Fallacies of Hope, which Turner appended to it at the exhibition before the Royal Academy.
As to the supreme commander of the Carthaginians, Hannibal, he is, according to some interpretations, to be found in the midst of his troops riding his elephant. The grandeur of the exotic animal, which can be espied on the right, is, once more, nullified by the higher grandeurs of nature, in this case, the Alpine snowstorm.
Events when Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps was created by Turner
Turner’s painting, given to the public in 1812, the year of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia, was intended as a comment upon the French imperial endeavor and as a kind of retort to Jacques-Louis David’s celebratory Napoleon Crossing the Alps of c. 1801, which shows the then First Consul of France crossing the St Bernard Pass on his horse and leading an intervention into Liguria to free up the besieged forces at Genoa.
Through his snowstorm and the juxtaposed verses of Fallacies of Hope Turner is pointing to the vanity of the human desire to triumph over other humans, to impose one’s will, and to take away other people’s possessions. The meaning of that endeavor, he seems to say, is misery, and nature certainly shows no sympathy.
As is well known, the Napoleonic adventure will turn into a disaster when the Grand Armée attempts to retreat from Western Russia during the stormy winter season, with enemy raiders attacking intermittently any isolated body of men.
Location of Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps
After J.M.W Turner’s death in 1851, and a five-year court battle, Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps was left to the British nation in 1856 along with the other finished paintings in Turner’s ownership. The painting can now be found in the Tate Gallery, along with a number of his other paintings, in London, England.