The Dahesh Museum of Art is presenting “Napoleon on the Nile: Soldiers, Artists, and the Rediscovery of Egypt,” on view to September 3. The exhibition is devoted to the Déscription de L’Égypte, an illustrated compendium published in the Nineteenth Century that shaped Europe’s understanding of Egypt and depictions of this distant land.
While brief, the French military’s 1798-1801 occupation of Egypt profoundly changed not only the course of modern Egyptian history and culture, but also the world’s understanding of Egypt, ancient and modern.
The great multivolume book (1809-29), begun with Napoleon’s patronage and completed under King Charles X, remains the single most important European study of Egypt. Its large, magnificent plate illustrations influenced the course of Western fine and decorative arts for two centuries. The private collection of Professor Robert Brier of New York City contains both bound and unbound versions of the Déscription, allowing for the extensive display of the plates that form the core of this exhibition.
General Napoleon Bonaparte’s occupation of Egypt from 1798 to 1801 was meant to disrupt Britain’s colonial empire. While his military exploits ended poorly, the book serves as perhaps his greatest legacy.
Along with an army of 36,000 men whose goal it was to wrest Egypt from the Mamelukes, Napoleon was accompanied by more than 150 savants or scientists – engineers, mathematicians, zoologists, botanists, archeologists, translators, journalists, artists and physicians, including Baron Vivant Denon, later to become the first director of the Louvre.
While Napoleon fought to secure Egypt for the French, the savants were assigned to catalog all of Egypt’s many wonders, from the architectural ruins of a still mysterious ancient civilization (some no longer extant) to the indigenous flora and fauna. The results took roughly 20 years and 2,000 skilled draftsmen and typographers to organize and complete. No other country had ever been studied in such depth.
These 12 volumes of plates (accompanied by 24 volumes of text) became a sought-after image bank consulted by artists seeking authenticity in their own work. Soon fashionable Nineteenth Century Europeans began creating Egyptian-themed buildings, interiors, clothes, decorative objects and paintings.
Dahesh Museum curator Lisa Small has selected letters, medals, decorative arts, drawings, watercolors, paintings, illustrated books, prints and photographs from the Brier Collection to complement the museum’s own holdings to fully convey Europe’s visual imaginings of Egypt between Napoleon’s ill-fated invasion and the start of World War I. A broad array of film programs complement the exhibition, as does a catalog containing essays by Lisa Small and Robert Brier.
The museum is at 580 Madison Avenue. For information, 212-579-0606 or www.daheshmuseum.org.