Navigating the Napoleonic influence on Egyptian art

Literature and art fuse together in “Napoleon on the Nile” to tell the story of Napoleon Bonaparte’s thwarted endeavor to add Egypt to his growing French empire.The historical exhibit was brought to the Fleming Museum from the Dahesh Museum of Art in New York City by Curator of Collections and Exhibitions Aimee Marcereau DeGalan.The exhibit showcases the multi-volume “Description de l’Égypte,” an influential  publication, one of which is housed in the Special Collections of the Bailey/Howe Library.   Completed in 1829, the “Description” is the work of Bonaparte’s savants, manager of collections and exhibitions for the Fleming Museum Margaret Tamulonis said.Paintings, maps, documents and artifacts, some from the “Description,” line the walls of the museum. As a whole, the exhibit delves into culture, perception and imperialism, exuding a mystique that once surrounded Egyptian culture. At the time, the volumes of the “Description” showcased a renewed interest in Egyptian culture. Napoleon was the first to uncover then unfamiliar information about Egypt in “Description.” The then modern fascination with Egypt developed out of an interest in the unknown, senior Nathan Levine said. The exhibit examines multiple aspects of Napoleon and the Egyptian campaign through the mediums of oil painting, architectural drafts and literature.   “It’s about the developing perception of Egypt due to Napoleon’s work,” Tamulonis said. Speeches from Napoleon addressing his soldiers, newspaper articles from TheConnecticut Currant and revealing British caricatures of Napoleon’s propaganda examine the Egyptian campaign from all angles.  In the exhibit, English caricaturist James Gillray dissected Bonaparte’s propaganda.The caricatures glossed over his failures — making them appear as great triumphs — and mocked Napoleon and the Egyptian expedition as a whole.   According to the Fleming, Gillray’s “Seige de la colonne de Pompée; Science in the Pillory” is perhaps one of his most famous caricatures. It playfully depicts Bonaparte’s savants and surveyors trapped by natives atop a column in Cairo. The paintings included in the exhibit are Orientalist art, or imitations of Eastern culture by Western artists, Tamulonis said. Such perceptions are seen throughout the various paintings, ranging from images of relaxing Egyptian royalty to snake charmers and laborers. The exhibit illustrates the interaction between military powers, artistic ability and the rich culture of Egypt with a wide range of historical and artistic components. Napoleon on the Nile is showing in the East gallery of the Fleming Museum until Dec. 18.