Today’s Art for the Month of June selection, ‘The Egyptian Expedition under the Orders of Bonaparte’ by French painter Leon Cogniet, can be found on the ceiling of Lourve. I have yet to visit the famous museum, and this is one of many beautiful paintings which I would love to experience there in person. Cogneit’s magnificent work has so many rich detail to absorb, which you can inspect behind the cut, included below
First off, ‘Egyptian Expedition’ is a far cry from Antoine-Jean Gros‘s ‘Bonaparte Visiting the Plague Victims of Jaffa’ and other blatant propaganda pieces commissioned under the French Consulate. Painted nearly 13 years after Napoleon’s death, Cogniet’s portrayal of the rising general seems relatively neutral—all except for the chaos shown amongst his soldiers. While the ambitious commander-in-chief’s presence is unmistakable, he is only glimpsed in the background, cast in shadow under a canopy while surveying the scene in the foreground. Indeed, the many interactions between the French troops and the Egyptians are the focus of this piece.
I’m sure students of the era may find numerous historical and cultural commentaries with ‘Egyptian Expedition,’ as Bonaparte’s campaign in the East—even in his own time—was regarded as a failure, however I can enjoy this work simply for its human observations within Cogniet’s busy narrative. On the right is a Frenchman scolding a slave his feet. To the lower left is a group of people who seem to be discussing a map. And at the bottom center are two Egyptians and a French solider carrying up a sarcophagus, obviously one of many treasures pillaged during the Napoleon’s occupation. These parties do not appear to be working on the same frequency, possibly operating with their own interests in mind.
Found at the center are our two foremost figures, a French General alongside a white-clothed Egyptian, and judging by their body language neither seem particularly satisfied with the expedition. In fact, I would argue that the viewer is urged to identify with the reluctant expression of the Egyptian.
Above all I enjoy how elegantly these subjects are represented throughout the scene, possessing all the aesthetic qualities and subtle nuances I’ve come to expect in old master paintings of the era.