From January 29 to March 29, 2009, a wide array of art pieces and historical objects con- nected to the French occupation of Egypt in the late 18th and early 19th centuries occupied the Shaffer Art Building of the Syracuse University Art (SUArt) Galleries. The exhibit, Napoleon on the Nile: Soldiers, Artists, and the Rediscovery of Egypt, contained various objects and items on loan from the Dahesh Museum of Art. SUArt Galleries Director Domenic Iacono said: “The French took what pieces they wanted back to Paris to study them, to put context to them....it is an intellectual exercise; it’s fascinating to look at in the gallery.”
The collection was established originally by a Lebanese doctor, but the conflict in Beirut threatened its safety and it was moved in 1980 to the Dahesh in New York City. Unfortunately, the Dahesh Museum has had to close its doors recently because of a lack of funding. “The collections from the museum needed to be stored and maintained,” Iacono says. “We contacted the Dahesh to see if they needed help.... [T]he meetings to acquire this particular collection began over a year ago.”
In communicating the importance of this period on Europe’s relationship with the region, Mehrzad Boroujerdi, director of the Middle Eastern Studies Program and an associate professor of political science, emphasizes the political geography of the time period. Pointing at the map over his desk, Boroujerdi explained that at the time, “England’s crown jewel was India,” and hence Napoleon wanted to, in essence, find another hub that would help France rival England’s growing imperial power. “Egypt was the intellectual sponge for the Arab world.... [I]t had the history, the size, the Nile, and natural resources.” After the French returned home from this adventure, they started the first schools of Oriental studies.
“I found it to be fascinating; this isn’t just an exhibit of art work. It’s the science and the archeology of it,” Associate Director and Curator of the SUArt Galleries David Prince said of the col- lection. Prince helped manage the installation of the exhibit, as well as directing the organization of each piece within the exhibit with Andrew Saluti, the Galleries’ designer and preparator.
Representations of Egyptian life in this exhibit included items showing recreation, build- ings, animals, and language, including letters between Napoleon and the Egyptian people. Another feature of the collection was a variety of academic paintings, a style popular in the 19th century and a genre of painting of which the SUArt Galleries has a collection already. Also contained in the collection were renderings of rocks and vegetation as well as stones, metals, coins, and glyphs from Thebes that depict a less Orientalist gaze than the one the French artists portrayed in paintings.
Going forward, Iacono said, the museum studies program here at SU now has the ability to collaborate with the Dahesh: “There is potential in the future for SU to loan students for internships working with a collection from the Dahesh.”
Samantha Blake Morgenstern is a third-year magazine journalism major, Spanish minor, and fashion communications milestone member.