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Napoleon on Madison June 9, 2006
by Mark Rose

[image] Painted in 1867-1868, Jean-Léon Gérôme's "Napoleon in Egypt" lionizes the young general, depicting him in Cairo's City of the Dead, before the military campaign turned into a disaster. Courtesy Dahesh Museum of Art (Princeton Museum of Art/Bruce M. White) [LARGER IMAGE]

"We must go to the Orient; all great glory has always been acquired there."--Napoleon Bonaparte

"Two hundred years ago Napoleon Bonaparte was in Egypt and was not enjoying his tour. His fleet had been sunk at Aboukir Bay, he had suffered his first defeat on land at Acre, and his men were dying of the plague."--Bob Brier

On July 1, 1798, Bonaparte, just 29 years old, arrived off the coast of Egypt. With the young general were some 55,000 troops and another, much smaller group of scholars, engineers, and scientists, collectively known as the savants. As a military expedition, it was a disaster, and Napoleon himself secretly sailed back to France little more than a year later, abandoning his army, which was stranded when Nelson annihilated the French fleet. The expedition's saving grace and enduring legacy was the contribution of the 160 or so savants, whose research and investigations were published in the monumental Description de l'Égypte. This 23-volume compendium is the focus of Napoleon on the Nile: Soldiers, Artists, and the Rediscovery of Egypt, a new exhibition at the Dahesh Museum of Art in New York.

There were ten volumes of illustrations in the Description de l'Égypte, with five devoted to ancient Egypt, three to Egyptian flora and fauna, and two to the "Modern State" (the country and culture as it was in 1798-1799). In all there were 837 copperplate engravings and more than 3,000 individual images. A selection of 80 of the plates, on loan from a private collection, forms the core of Napoleon on the Nile Rediscovery of Egypt. Complementing these are paintings and sculptures from the Dahesh Museum of Art's collections and a range of works and objects from a private collection. This includes decorative pieces (from commemorative medallions to Egyptian-inspired Wedgwood pottery), prints and other illustrations (notably anti-Napoleonic cartoons by James Gillray), and a number of letters and official documents signed by Napoleon and some of his most important generals. Lisa Small, associate curator at the Dahesh, has arranged this varied material in five sections: Napoleon and the Egyptian Campaign, The Savants and the Institut de l'Égypte, Ancient Egypt, Natural History, and Modern Egypt.

Napoleon and the Egyptian Campaign features several depictions of the young general and of his victory over the Mamelukes in the Battle of the Pyramids on July 21, 1798. Napoleon in Egypt, painted by Jean-Léon Gérôme, is the most striking of these glorifications, even though it dates some 70 years after the events. As such it is a measure of Bonaparte's success in terms of his sense of destiny (or of propaganda) if not always in military terms. "Napoleon was nothing if not a big-picture thinker, and he was well aware of the very tangible political and economic benefits of having Egypt as a French colony, as were other key members of the French government who supported and authorized the campaign," says the curator, Lisa Small. "So his invasion was mounted for purely practical geopolitical reasons. But what is truly amazing is that he, as a general in charge of a military operation, thought it important to bring with him the contingent of civilians--the engineers, architects, naturalists, and artists--whose work there formed the basis of what would be the Description de l'Égypte. Napoleon may not have achieved his practical military goals, but he did realize his dream of associating himself with the glories of Egypt, as he is forever connected with this grand project, even if he did not live to see it in its final form."

An opposing viewpoint, with Napoleon an uncouth buffoon and the expedition a farcical catastrophe, is provided by the satirical cartoons of Englishman James Gillray. These include hand-colored 1834 reprints of originals showing Buonaparte hearing of Nelson's victory and French generals retiring, on account of their health....

A large selection of documents, nearly 20 in all, brings visitors to the exhibition about as close as they are going to get to Napoleon, barring a quick trip to his tomb in the Hôtel des Invalides. Many--orders, bulletins, letters--are signed or annotated by Napoleon himself. A petition from one Mustapha Aga seeks assistance from Napoleon--addressed as "Emir of the Armies of the Great may God protect him"--in recovering money owed to him. General Kléber requests funds for purchasing camels. It's an intriguing look into the bureaucracy and daily workings of what was an unprecedented undertaking.

[image] A letter written by Napoleon's second in command General Kléber in 1799 requesting that the Paymaster General disburse funds to purchase camels. Courtesy Dahesh Museum of Art (Private collection) [LARGER IMAGE]

"I think our audience will also find evocative some of the letters signed by Napoleon, especially those that detail his interactions with the Arabic population. Such documents, viewed in a room that contains other prints and wall text that touch on the military aspects of the Egyptian campaign, conjure some parallels with the world situation today," notes Small. "France was bringing Enlightenment and the Revolutionary ideals of Liberté, Egalité and Fraternité to a people they believed to be oppressed by a corrupt and tyrannical regime, believed that they would be welcomed as liberators, and that it would be a quick, precise, and unchallenged military engagement: does that sound familiar?"

The Savants and the Institut de l'Égypte moves from the military to the scientific campaign led by Bonaparte. The Institut de L'Égypte, the center for the savants' work, was established by Napoleon in Cairo on August 1798. He modestly made himself vice president of the Institute and posed various practical matters of research, such as whether or not windmills could be used in the city. But the real work was done by the 167 scholars, known officially as the Commission des Sciences et Artes d'Égypte, who began documenting everything about Egypt, ancient and modern, natural and cultural. It wasn't without danger. Some 34 of them perished, mostly from plague, but a few in skirmishes with the Mamelukes (the French soldiers, when forming defensive squares, reportedly yelled: "Donkeys and scholars in the middle!").

Their achievement, presented in the Description de l'Égypte, helped lay the foundation for Egyptology, from the discovery of the Rosetta Stone to the recording of monuments that have long since deteriorated or been destroyed, and influenced the decorative and fine arts for more than a century. An 1826 bronze medallion on display commemorates the publication of the second edition, showing an allegorical scene with the Latin motto Gallia Victrice Aegyptus Rediviva (Victorius Gaul Rediscovers Egypt). The scholars often included themselves in the plates, in effect documenting themselves documenting the ancient monuments. "The engravings that show the savants at work, drawing and measuring in front of the ruins, are particular favorites of mine," says Small. "I like the self-referential nature of these engravings that include vignettes of their own creation within the image."

If the savants were lionized in some quarters, Gillray was on hand to lampoon them. He did so mercilessly in his Siege de la colonne de Pompée, showing the scholars perched atop an ancient column known as Pompey's Pillar and fending off attacking Mamelukes with a barrage of books and scientific instruments. (One besieger is felled by a tome titled "Projet de Fraternisation avec les Bedouins").

[image] Subscribers to the second edition of the Déscription de l'Égypte received this medal, showing a rather Roman-looking "Gaul" (standing in for Napoleon and his expedition) discovering under a cloak "Egypt" (depicted as a woman wearing a vulture headdress, holding a sistrum or rattle, and reclining on a crocodile). Courtesy Dahesh Museum of Art (Private collection) [LARGER IMAGE]

One of the outstanding paintings in the exhibition is Charles-Louis-Fleury Panckoucke's Monuments of Egypt. The oversize work, on loan from a private collection, shows an imaginary gathering of monuments and sculptures from throughout Egypt and served as the basis for the second edition of the Description. "I think it is among the most evocative works on display," says Small. "It neatly sums up the 'point' of the exhibition, by emphasizing a gathering of famous ancient Egyptian antiquities surrounding a group of soldiers and scholars at work. It is also fascinating to see that image contrasted with the very Napoleonic frontispiece of the first edition--both images are about cultural appropriation, but the Napoleonic cult of personality had to be excised from second edition, which was dedicated to the king."

Ancient Egypt will be the heart of the exhibition for many visitors. It features some 30 plates from the Description, most of monuments but some of inscriptions (including a portion of the Rosetta Stone) and reliefs, human and animal mummies, and artifacts. Of these, it is the views of the ancient sites that most appeal to me, and those represented include Philae, Edfu, Luxor and Karnak, Dendera, and Medinet Habu. A number of paintings from the Dahesh's own collection show how Orientalist painters made use of the same monuments in their works. Especially dramatic are Karl Wilhelm Gentz's The Snake Charmer, which uses Medinet Habu as a backdrop, and the sunset on the Nile River bank in Hermann-David-Salomon Corrodi's Campfire by the River: Kiosk of Trajan at Philae. A real mummified human arm (loaned from a private collection!?) is on display, but the best of the mummy-related objects is a color plate from the Description showing front and side views of a woman's mummified head that was presented to Napoleon's wife Josephine by one of the savants. It's an odd choice of souvenir, but perhaps a precedent for having a mummified human arm in your personal collection.

[image] Napoleon's wife Josephine was presented the mummified head of a woman shown on this plate from the Déscription de l'Égypte. Courtesy Dahesh Museum of Art (Private collection) [LARGER IMAGE]

Art and the recording of Natural History were one and the same in the Description, and this is exemplified in the works of Jules-César Savigny, who was only in his early 20s during the expedition. "I think that the plates by Savigny that exhaustively document each tiny anatomical part of a particular sponge, worm, or crustacean are quite beautiful--viewed alongside the sweeping vistas of ruined or reconstructed temples, they speak to the enormous range of the Description," says Small. Setting aside Savigny's invertebrates, the exhibition features two versions of his engraving of an eagle, one is the colored engraving from the first edition, the other is the black-and-white version from the less-expensive second edition. Another of those with Napoleon was Étienne-Geoffroy Sainte-Hilaire, who would become one of the pre-eminent zoologists of his day. His work is represented in the exhibition by plates showing crocodiles and lizards, bat skulls, and fish. These are all exceptional. Visitors to the museum ought to take as much time with these as they do the plates of ancient monuments.

Modern Egypt looks at the world in which the savants lived. Plates from the Description shown here depict monuments and views of Cairo and Alexandria, portraits of Egyptians, utilitarian objects (from baskets to astrolabes), and industry and arts and crafts, such as weaving and costume. Just as the plates of ancient monuments inspired later painters who portrayed scenes from the past or spectacular ruins, these were a source for Orientalists painting individuals and scenes from daily life. Complementing the Description plates are works from the Dahesh including Peder Monsted's Portrait of a Nubian and Rudolf Ernst's The Metal Workers.

[image] The colorful frontispiece to the second edition of the Déscription de l'Égypte was an engraving showing a pastiche of ancient monuments based on an oil painting by Charles-Louis-Fleury Pancoucke. Courtesy Dahesh Museum of Art (Special Collections, Fordham University Library, Bronx) [LARGER IMAGE]

Napoleon on the Nile is at the Dahesh Museum of Art through September 3, 2006, and I strongly recommend it to anyone interested in Egyptology, the history of archaeology, and fine and decorative arts. Small has done a great job of building, on a framework of plates from the Description de l'Égypte, a comprehensive look at a critical moment in scholarly and artistic development. The exhibit not only sets out the achievement of the savants who accompanied Napoleon's expedition, but also the legacy of that work. Complementing the plates from the Description are illustrations from the time of the expedition and correspondence including Napoleon's own notations and commands. From a small porcelain box celebrating Napoleon's ephemeral triumph in Egypt, to magnificent Orientalist paintings inspired by the works of the savants, Napoleon on the Nile encompasses the full impact of the Description on the West.

The success of this exhibition is due in part because of the straightforward organization dictated by the source material. The historical context, in geopolitical terms and then in the situation Napoleon's scholars confronted in Egypt is set forth, followed by themes derived from the Description itself. But the selection within that framework is thoughtful given the abundance of material available. "The biggest challenge in putting this exhibition together was making a selection from the over 800 engravings in the Description," says Small, noting with no hubris or exaggeration that, "I could mount this entire exhibition again, telling the same story, but use completely different, but equally beautiful plates." That may be true, but the exhibition is, as presented, quite nice.

In more basic like-dislike terms, it should be noted that the text accompanying the individual exhibits is actually rather informative, unlike the minimalist approach at certain other NYC museums that starve patrons in hopes of coercing audio rental ($$) or catalogue acquisition ($$). Bravo. For those who would like to know more, I can recommend two publications on offer at the museum. One is A Distant Muse: Orientalist Works from the Dahesh Museum of Art, written by Lisa Small for an exhibition at the Dahesh in 2000. The other is the catalogue by Bob Brier written for the 1990 exhibition Napoleon in Egypt, at the Hillwood Art Museum at Long Island University-C.W. Post Campus. Brier may be familiar to readers of ARCHAEOLOGY through his numerous contributions to the magazine including "Napoleon in Egypt" and "Egyptomania!".

In February 1802, First Consul Napoleon Bonaparte issued a decree announcing the publication, at the government's expense, of the "memoirs, plans, drawings, and generally all the results relative to science and art obtained during the course of the Expedition." More than two centuries later, this landmark work, the Description de l'Égypte, remains a fascinating document, in equal parts history, science, and art. If you live in the New York metropolitan area or happen to come to the city this summer, stop by the Dahesh and visit Napoleon on Madison. You'll be glad you did.

Mark Rose is the editorial director, online, of ARCHAEOLOGY magazine and the Archaeological Institute of America.

© 2006 by the Archaeological Institute of America