Wednesday, May 1, 2013

The Egyptian Expedition Under the Command of Bonaparte, by Léon Cogniet

This wonderful picture, from 1835, can be found on the ceiling at the Louvre.  It was painted by Léon Cogniet (1794 – 1880), a French historical and portrait painter.  Cogniet was born in Paris. In 1812, he entered the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, where he studied under Pierre-Narcisse Guérin alongside such heady company as Delacroix and Géricault.

Cogniet won the Prix de Rome in 1817 and was a resident at the Villa Medici from then until 1822.  He became famous for the painting Marius Among the Ruins of Carthage (1824), and later decorated several ceilings in the Louvre and the Halle de Godiaque in the Hôtel de Ville, Paris, and a chapel in the church of Madeleine.  At first he painted in classical style, but later adopted the more spirited free-flowing brushwork of the Romanticists.

While looking at this picture, it’s important to remember that Napoleon also created a beachhead in the Middle East.  The Emperor had decided that France’s navel power was not up to the task of defeating the Royal Navy in the English Channel, and proposed a military expedition to seize Egypt, undermining Britain’s access to its trade interests in India.  Napoleon’s plan was to form an alliance with the Muslim enemy of the British in India, Tipu Sultan.   (Clearly, forging agreements with Third World madmen is not a 20th Century phenomenon.) 

Napoleon was elected a member of the French Academy of Science in May 1798.  For his Egyptian expedition, he brought with him 167 scientists: mathematicians, naturalists, chemists and geodesists among them; their discoveries included the Rosetta Stone, and their work was published in the Description de l'Égypte in 1809.  This work was a treasure trove for aesthetes, Orientalists and scientists – and is still consulted today for its candor and fresh approach to the region.

Napoleon invaded Malta en route to Egypt in 1798, losing only three men in the process.  The Emperor’s luck held once in Egypt – in the battle of Shubra Khit against the Mamluks (Egypt’s military caste), only 29 French were killed while 2,000 Egyptians were lost.  However, Horatio Nelson and the British fleet captured or destroyed all but two French vessels in the Battle of the Nile, and Bonaparte's goal of a strengthened French position in the Mediterranean was frustrated.

Napoleon moved his army into the Ottoman province of Damascus (Syria and Galilee) in 1799, with 13,000 French soldiers he conquered the coastal towns of Arish, Gaza, Jaffa, and Haifa.  There, he ordered 1,400 prisoners to be executed by bayonet or drowning to save bullets.  The massacre would last three days.  Never a sentimentalist, when his own men were stricken with bubonic plague, Napoleon ordered them to be poisoned as they returned to Egypt. 

Napoleon had to abandon his dreams of Eastern conquest to return to Europe in 1801 to ward off further defeats for the French Army.  Not taking into account the extraordinary loss of life and cavalier attitude towards human suffering, Napoleon’s expedition was a scientific and artistic bonanza.  French Orientalist painting was transformed by this ultimately unsuccessful invasion of Egypt and Syria, which stimulated great public interest in Egyptology.

This wonderfully complex picture is almost allegorical in its attempt to comprise the Egyptian adventure.  The Emperor, of course, is upon a platform, the canopy overhead both protecting him from the sun and preventing him from overwhelming the picture.  On one hand, an officer, his back to us, reports on worldly affairs while an artist, on the other hand, sketches the mammoth statues in the distance.  (Look to the extreme right of the frame.)

Extreme left of the frame, a scholar pore over his notes while, before him, antiquarians collect and catalog treasures.  In the center foreground, a soldier gazes rapturously at a sarcophagus carried by two workmen (one, clearly disgusted).  Beside the soldier looking on, a white-clad Egyptian takes in the scene with a look of disdain.

The most interesting figure is to the far right of the frame talking to the chained slave: Jean-François Champollion (1790 – 1832).  Cogniet would do a larger, more formal portrait of Champollion, but here he shows the scholar holding the Rosetta Stone, from which he would decipher the hieroglyphs of the Ancient Egyptians.

More Cogniet tomorrow!


lyle said...

what is the size of this painting?

James Abbott said...

22 × 17 cm (8.7 × 6.7 in)

josh said...

did napoleon commission Cogniet to make this painting and was he actually there with the expedition ?

James Abbott said...

Yes, to both.