Egyptomania in France | The Art Institute of Chicago

From pyramids and sphinxes to scarabs, lotus flowers, wedjat eyes and hieroglyphics, the iconic patterns and architectural forms of ancient Egypt have influenced artists around the world for millennia.

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The impact of Egyptomania has manifested itself in many forms, including the art of ancient Rome, the architecture of Chicago, and even current pop culture, such as that of Marvel. moon knight. In 2022, we mark the anniversaries of two significant Egyptological discoveries that sparked a resurgence in Egyptomania: the decipherment of hieroglyphs in 1822 using the Rosetta Stone that had been found during Napoleon’s campaign in Egypt and the discovery of King Tut’s tomb in 1922. This article is the first in a series where staff members of the museum’s curatorial departments have been asked to take a closer look at works of art that have reinterpreted, reoriented or inspired the visual heritage of this illustrious North African culture.

—Ashley Arico, Associate Curator of Ancient Egyptian Art, Arts of Africa


Napoleon’s military campaign in North Africa – the “Battle of the Pyramids” (1798-1801) – may have been short-lived and ultimately unsuccessful, but expedition reports provided a new visual lexicon of patterns and Egyptian-inspired themes for French artists and designers. . The printed textile The Monuments of Egypt (below) features historical and fictional depictions of modern and ancient Egypt, including a pyramid whose columned entrance is flanked by monumental statues of seated deities, two obelisks, a sphinx guarding a temple covered in hieroglyphics, and the port of Alexandria .

The images on this upholstery fabric are derived from designs by Louis François Cassas who was commissioned by the ambassador to the Ottoman court to travel through the Eastern Mediterranean from 1784 to 1786 and record ancient monuments, landscapes and scenes of daily life. Engravings of hundreds of Cassas’ drawings were published in 1799 and 1800, just as Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign was attracting the attention of all of France.

Reproduction of the flight. III, plate 98 of Picturesque Journey of Syria, Phenicia, Palestine, and Lower Egypt, flight. II-III (1799-1800)

Original drawing by Louis François Cassas. Courtesy of Heidelberg University Library.

Although widely recognized for their technical skill and aesthetic quality, Cassas’ designs focus on the appeal of the past, less on the inhabitants of today, reflecting an idealized and exotic view of antiquity that was popular in Europe at the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th century. .

Cassas prints were transformed into this upholstery fabric thanks to the innovations of Christophe-Philippe Oberkampf, engraver and colorist who founded one of the most important cotton printing factories in Jouy-en-Josas, France , in 1760, near the court of Versailles. The Monuments of Egypt was roller-printed using an engraved copper cylinder, a technological advance that Oberkampf introduced in France. Although pattern width and repeat length are limited by cylinder size, roller printing allows rapid production of continuous monochrome patterns rendered with extremely fine line.

Jean-Baptiste Huet

Use the zoom tool in the upper right corner to explore the details.

The artistic possibilities of this printing method have found their full expression thanks to Oberkampf’s collaboration with its talented chief designer, Jean Baptiste Huet. Although derived from the work of Louis François Cassas, Oberkampf and Huet revised much of the original material: by extracting specific details, simplifying each design and combining different elements, they were able to produce a balanced and uncluttered composition suitable for the market. .

This upholstery fabric – used for curtains, draped over walls or to cover furniture – was printed in a dark red dye on the smooth surface of a fine cotton fabric that was probably imported from India at great expense. . The subtle suggestion of light and shadow and the sensitive depiction of the human form – characteristic of Jouy-en-Josas textiles – enliven the individual scenes. The designs are further highlighted against a subtly darkened lattice-like background and accented by the block print of negative space with yellow. The effect is reflected in individual elements integrated into an overall balanced design.

It is Oberkampf’s insistence on using the highest quality fabrics and dyes, the adoption of new printing techniques, his work with the most skilled designers and engravers, and his quick response to changing tastes. of its affluent French clientele, which led to its success. In addition to celebrating the fascination of the French population for exotic lands, The Monuments of Egypt expressed a manifest political and patriotic significance in times of revolution.

—Elizabeth Pope, Senior Research Associate, Arts of the Americas and Textiles

Ancient Egypt in film

In 19th century France, the modern invention of photography in 1839 was intimately linked, paradoxically enough, to ancient Egypt. Proponents of the new technique noted that copying the millions of hieroglyphs on large monuments would take legions of draughtsmen decades; with photography, however, a single person could accomplish the task quickly and accurately.

This documentary advance was important to the French, who had both strategic and cultural interests in Egypt, and photography soon joined another relatively new field of study: archaeology. Photographers have taken part in archaeological expeditions to help document excavations, and their archives have both aided antiquity scholars and delighted armchair travelers able to witness the sublime monuments from the comfort of their homes.

In 1849, the journalist Maxime Du Camp, joined by his friend the writer Gustave Flaubert, undertook a two-year expedition to Egypt and its surroundings during which he furiously documented local monuments and inscriptions. He selected 125 to include in the album Egypt, Nubia, Palestine and Syria, which was published in 1852, bringing Du Camp instant fame. In many of Du Camp’s photographs, the monuments are devoid of people, a fiction in keeping with his European audience’s desire to see ancient Egypt without the Egyptians of today; in this way, the European public could appropriate what was then considered the cradle of Western culture.

In many other images, however, like the one above, Du Camp included a local inhabitant. The figure served primarily as a scale, immediately alerting the viewer to the monument’s enormous size without the need for mathematical measurements. But the presence of inhabitants like this also underscored the “exoticism” perceived by contemporary Egyptians, often in contrast to the status of archaeologists and photographers as disinterested men of science.

—Elizabeth Siegel, Curator, Photography and Media

Stay tuned for part two, which will explore Egyptomania in ancient Rome and 19th century American design.


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