Napoleon on the Nile: Soldiers, Artists, and the Rediscovery of Egypt




January 29 – March 29, 2009

SUArt Galleries


Napoleon on the Nile illuminated how French military ambitions and the quest for scientific knowledge (and political control) came to shape the West’s enduring image of Egypt, inspiring generations of painters, photographers, architects and decorative artists. While Napoleon’s military exploits ended poorly, he achieved what was to be perhaps his greatest legacy: the publication of the multi-volume Description de l’Egypte, widely recognized as the single most important European scholarly study of ancient and modern Egypt and the focus of this exhibition.

Initiated under the patronage of Napoleon and completed in 1829 during the reign of King Charles X, the Description was among the most significant consequences of the French military’s occupation of Egypt. The exhibition is composed of more than 80 large, exquisitely detailed engraved illustrations from the Description, which forms the foundational work of modern Egyptology, along with vivid Orientalist paintings and drawings that were influenced by them.  The exhibition also includes a selection of campaign letters and documents, which reveal the artistic legacy of Gen. Napoleon Bonaparte’s brief occupation of Egypt, begun in 1798 and ending in 1801.

The astonishing range and precision of the Description images was captured by Napoleon’s savants, a small army of scholars whose project was to systematically explore, describe and document every aspect of the country—its ancient and modern buildings and monuments, topography, commerce, customs, and flora and fauna. Supported by Napoleon and protected by his army, this select group of engineers, scientists, mathematicians, naturalists, and artists served the political mission of the expedition by providing comprehensive information and skills an occupying force needed to govern and rebuild effectively. At the same time, they advanced Napoleon’s ideological goals by rediscovering the wonders of Pharaonic Egyptian civilization, with which Napoleon, in his dual roles of liberator/conqueror, was happy to be associated.

The exhibition was originally organized by the Dahesh Museum of Art.