Egyptomania in France | The Art Institute of Chicago

From pyramids and sphinxes to scarabs, lotus flowers, Wedjat eyes and hieroglyphs, iconic ancient Egyptian motifs and architectural forms have influenced artists around the world for millennia.

Of Elizabeth Pope and Elizabeth Seal

The effects of Egyptomania came in many forms, including art from ancient Rome, Chicago architecture, and even current pop culture like Marvel’s moon knight. In 2022 we mark the anniversaries of two major Egyptological discoveries that sparked a resurgence in Egyptomania: the 1822 decipherment of hieroglyphs using the Rosetta Stone found in Egypt during Napoleon’s campaign, and the discovery of King Tut’s tomb in 1922. This article is the first in a series inviting staff from the museum’s curatorial departments to take a closer look at artworks that have been reinterpreted, repurposed, or inspired by the visual heritage of this celebrated North African culture.

—Ashley Arico, Associate Curator, Ancient Egyptian Art, Arts of Africa


Napoleon’s military campaign in North Africa—the “Battle of the Pyramids” (1798–1801)—may have been short-lived and ultimately unsuccessful, but expedition reports provided a new visual lexicon of Egyptian-inspired motifs and themes for French artists and designers. The printed textile The monuments of Egypt (under) presents historical and fictional accounts of modern and ancient Egypt, including a pyramid whose columned entrance is flanked by monumental statues of seated deities, two obelisks, a sphinx guarding a temple covered in hieroglyphs, and the port of Alexandria.

The images on this decoration fabric come from drawings by Louis François Cassas, who traveled through the eastern Mediterranean on behalf of the ambassador to the Ottoman court from 1784 to 1786, recording ancient monuments, landscapes and scenes of everyday life. Engraved prints of hundreds of Cassas’ drawings were published in 1799 and 1800, just as Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign was attracting the attention of all of France.

Reproduction from Vol. III, Plate 98 onwards Picturesque journey through Syria, Phenicia, Palestine and Lower EgyptVol. II-III (1799-1800)

Original drawing by Louis François Cassas. With the kind permission of Heidelberg University Library.

Although widely recognized for their technical prowess and aesthetic quality, Cassas’ drawings focus on the fascination of the past rather than the modern dwellers, reflecting an idealized and exotic view of antiquity as it flourished in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. century was popular in Europe.

Cassas prints were transformed into this furnishing fabric through the innovations of Christophe-Philippe Oberkampf, an engraver and colourist who founded one of the most momentous cotton print factories in 1760 in Jouy-en-Josas, France, near the court of Versailles. The monuments of Egypt was roller printed using an engraved copper cylinder, a technological advance Oberkampf introduced to France. Although the width of the pattern and the length of the repeat are limited by the size of the cylinder, roller printing allows for rapid production of continuous, monochromatic designs rendered with an extremely fine line.

Jean-Baptiste Huet

Use the zoom tool in the top right corner to explore details.

The artistic potential of this printing process found its full expression in Oberkampf’s collaboration with his talented chief designer, Jean Baptiste Huet. Although deriving from the work of Louis François Cassas, Oberkampf and Huet reworked much of the original material: by extracting specific details, simplifying each design and combining different elements, they were able to create a balanced and uncluttered composition fit for the market.

This decorative fabric – used for curtains, wall drapes, or upholstery – was printed with a deep red dye on the smooth surface of a fine cotton fabric, probably imported from India at great expense. The subtle suggestion of light and shadow and the sensitive depiction of the human form – hallmarks of Jouy-en-Josas textiles – enliven the individual scenes. The designs are further emphasized against a subtly darkened grid-like background and accented by block printing of negative space with yellow. The effect leads to individual elements integrated into a balanced overall design.

Oberkampf’s insistence on using the highest quality fabrics and dyes, the introduction of new printing techniques, his work with the most experienced designers and engravers, and his quick response to the changing tastes of his wealthy French clientele all led to his success. In addition to celebrating the French people’s fascination with exotic countries, The monuments of Egypt expressed an overt political and patriotic meaning during a period of revolution.

—Elizabeth Pope, Senior Research Associate, Arts of the Americas and Textiles

Ancient Egypt in the movies

Paradoxically, in 19th-century France, the modern invention of photography in 1839 was closely linked to ancient Egypt. Proponents of the new technique found that copying the millions of hieroglyphs on the great monuments would take decades by legions of draftsmen; However, with photography, a person could quickly and accurately complete the task.

This advance in documentation was important to the French, who had both strategic and cultural interests in Egypt, and photography soon joined another relatively new field of study: archaeology. Photographers took part in archaeological expeditions to document digs, and their records aided both ancient scholars and avid travelers who could see the sublime monuments without leaving the comfort of their homes.

In 1849, the journalist Maxime Du Camp – along with his friend, the writer Gustave Flaubert – embarked on a two-year expedition to Egypt and the surrounding area, furiously documenting the local monuments and inscriptions. He selected 125 of these for inclusion on the album Egypt, Nubia, Palestine and Syria, which was published in 1852 and immediately made Du Camp famous. In many of Du Camp’s photographs, the monuments stand deserted, a fiction consistent with his European audience’s desire to see ancient Egypt without the modern Egyptians; In this way, European audiences were able to express ownership of what was then considered the birthplace of Western culture.

However, in many other images, like the one above, Du Camp has featured a local. The figure served primarily for scale, immediately alerting the viewer to the enormous size of the monument without the need for mathematical measurements. But the presence of locals like these also underscored the perceived “exoticism” of contemporary Egyptians, often in contrast to the status of archaeologists and photographers as disinterested men of science.

—Elizabeth Siegel, curator, photography and media

Stay tuned for part two, which will uncover Egyptomania in ancient Rome and 19th-century American design.


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