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Fantasia arabe by Eugène Delacroix, 1833 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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Women of Algiers by Eugène Delacroix, 1834 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Egyptology and Orientalisme

The Rosetta Stone

There was a period of Egyptomania, just as there had been a period of turquerie. Interest in Egypt followed Napoléon’s campaign in Egypt and Syria (1798 – 1801).

Napoléon was defeated by Horatio Nelson of the British Royal Navy at the Battle of the Nile, in 1801. By then l’Armée d’Orient had spent three years in the Near East or Asia Minor and all things oriental had become immensely popular, obelisks in particular. Bonaparte’s objective was to undermine British trade with India. He failed, but, in 1799, Pierre-François Bouchard, an officer in the French Army discovered the Rosetta Stone. Egyptology was born. The Rosetta Stone was a rock stele with inscriptions in 1) Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, 2) Demotic script, a predecessor to Ancient Coptic, and 3) Greek script.

Jean-François Champollion  (23 December 1790 – 4 March 1832), a French scholar, deciphered the Rosetta Stone’s Egyptian hieroglyphs. British polymath Thomas Young (13 June 1773 – 10 May 1829) had translated the Demotic script and had made some progress deciphering the Egyptian hieroglyphs. However, success evaded Young.

The stone, a rock stele, had been transported to the British Museum where it is still housed. The British had defeated the French at the above-mentioned Battle of the Nile, in 1801, led by the legendary Horatio Nelson. The Rosetta Stone was therefore a British acquisition.

Deciphering: phonetic or ideographic

A main obstacle to linguists deciphering a newly found language is whether or not the symbols of the language are phonetic (sounds) or ideographic (images). In the case of the Rosetta Stone, they were both phonetic and ideographic. The Egyptian hieroglyphs were also a paraphrase rather than a translation of the Ancient Greek script. His knowledge of Ancient Greek and progress in mastering Eastern languages helped Champollion decipher hieroglyphs. He published his results in 1822. Later in the decade, after visiting Egypt, Champollion published further findings.

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Rosetta Stone (National Geographic)


The exotic has always fascinated artists and all manner of designers. Obelisks, not to be confused with Odalisques, were plentiful and were taken by ship to Europe, or, at times, made in Europe. I have often wondered whether or not Maelzel, who invented the modern metronome in 1815, was influenced by obelisks. Mechanical metronomes are shaped like elongated pyramids. The Washington Monument is an obelisk. Many are located in Rome, Italy. has (See List of obelisks in Rome, Wikipedia.)


The Lateran Obelisk, Rome (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The largest obelisk, the Lateran obelisk, is located in Rome. When it was transported from Alexandria to Rome, it weighed 455 tons and stood at 37.2 meters (122 feet)  After its collapse, a higher obelisk was built: 45.7 meters (149.9 feet). The Lateran obelisk was made for the temple of Amun in Karnak. At the very top of the rebuilt obelisk stands a crucifix, which could explain the difference in height. Most Oriental obélisques were viewed as precious and pillaged. Obelisks had several destinations and smaller ones were used in the decorative arts. Many are engraved with names or very intricate bas-reliefs.


Obélisque de Paris, gravure (Photo credit: Le Point.fr) 

Eugène Delacroix

Eugène Delacroix (26 April 1798 – 13 August 1863) was a Romantic painter as well as a lithographer. Lithographs are copies and therefore more affordable than an original painting. Movement is a main characteristic of Delacroix paintings and it suggests passion. The Romantics expressed their sentiments. Such paintings as the Massacre at Chios and the Death of Sardanapalus convey despair. The Massacre at Chios depicts Greek survivors of a massacre awaiting to be taken as prisoners or slaves. The enslavement of prisoners was a common fate after a victory and they could remain captives for many years, if a ransom were not paid. Before committing suicide, having suffered a final defeat, Sardanapalus has eunuchs kill his concubines.

It is said, however, that in real life Delacroix controlled his passions: reason over passion. He was with near certainty an illegitimate son of the very famous Talleyrand, a Prince and, arguably, the most powerful man in France. He was Napoleon’s éminence grise and may have orchestrated his defeat at Waterloo. Talleyrand is also the man behind the Congress of Vienna (1815), an event foretelling of such partitioning as the Sykes-Picot Agreement.

As for Delacroix, the leader of the French Romantics, his father protected him discreetly and promoted his career. After Talleyrand’s death, Delacroix was the protégé of the Duke of Morny, Talleyrand’s grandson.


Delacroix early in his career (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


I intended to show the art of several Orientalists, one of whom is Delacroix who actually travelled to the Near East. My favourite orientalist is Jean-Léon Gérôme, but there are gems among Horace Vernet’s paintings and the artwork of other Orientalists. Orientalism crossed the English Channel and grew into an inspiration to members of the Aesthetic Movement, next to Japonism. The Orient became affordable as a decorative art.

In 2011, art critic Julia Cartwright exclaimed:

“There are lovely things at every turn, Persian potteries, hangings of every variety, cabinets and rugs. I fell in love with a sunflower paper at fourpence ha’penny a yard.”
(The Guardian)

Love to everyone 



Greece on the Ruins of Missolonghi, 1826 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

© Micheline Walker
30 August 2016