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'Napoleon on the Nile' showcases landmark illustrations of Egypt created during French occupation

January 23, 2009

Elaine Quick

Elaine Quick

The upcoming exhibition "Napoleon on the Nile: Soldiers, Artists, and the Rediscovery of Egypt" launches the cultural arts partnership between New York City's Dahesh Museum of Art and Syracuse University. The exhibition will be on display at SUArt Galleries' main campus galleries located in the Shaffer Art Building from Jan. 29-March 29. A public reception will take place Thursday, Feb. 5, from 5-7 p.m.

The partnership offers each institution heightened visibility, new audiences and the potential for dynamic collaborative programming. At the same time, the students, faculty and diverse communities within Syracuse will be introduced to a new way of looking at and thinking about art in the context of history, an approach the Dahesh Museum has pioneered in its 14-year history.

For now, the partnership is projected for two years, but there may be a long-term relationship in the future. "Especially in these challenging economic times," says Domenic Iacono, director of SUArt Galleries, "our two institutions will investigate other ways to collaborate."

Flora Kaplan, the Dahesh Museum's director, agrees: "Our experiment is reaching out to and engaging new audiences. We see the partnership as fluid and look forward to working in new ways and on new projects."

"Napoleon on the Nile" illuminates 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, as well as 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's associate curator, Lisa Small. It is accompanied by a timeline tracing the major events of the Egyptian campaign and a richly illustrated exhibition catalogue.

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