Napoleon’s Mirage: Politics and Propaganda in the Art of Bonaparte’s Egyptian Campaign

Carter Glogowski

Authors:  Carter Glowgoski

Faculty Mentor:  Melissa Hyde

College:  College of the Arts


On July 1st, 1798, Napoleon Bonaparte first set foot in Egypt. The ensuing campaign down the Nile and into the Levant failed militarily. Yet, on the cultural and scientific fronts, Napoleon won a lasting victory in terms of propaganda. As Bonaparte’s influence swelled upon his return to France, he capitalized on the work of artists, scholars and scientists who followed his army across the desert on a quest for ancient ruins. These men played a key role in publishing prints, displaying pillaged antiquities, and creating public works of art which served to memorialize, idealize and Romanize Bonaparte in Egypt. Thus, they helped to construct an Orientalized image of contemporary Egyptian culture as inferior to the West. This project investigates Bonaparte’s imperialist expedition to Egypt and its impact on the French conception of the region’s past and present through French intellectual and art history. I explore paintings and monuments created to glorify Bonaparte’s campaign in Egypt during his reign as emperor, analyze the publication of the encyclopedic Description de l’Égypte and its principle author’s connection to the Louvre; and finally, examine the enduring influence of Napoleon’s expedition to Egypt in French material culture during the nineteenth century.

Poster Pitch

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27 Responses
  1. Carter Glogowski

    Hi everyone, thanks for checking out my research! I will be on this page from 2:00-3:00, so feel free to ask me questions about my research!

  2. Hope Scheff

    Hi Carter!

    Your poster primarily discusses Bonaparte’s history and I am intrigued by your abstract’s address of material culture.

    Do you think the Egyptomania that swept France after Bonaparte’s expeditions was a nationalistic gesture on the part of the French (as a means to connect themselves to or, to display their pride for their new France)? Or, was such commercial mania a way for the French to heighten their statuses by displaying their worldly knowledge and global interests?

    1. Carter Glogowski

      That is a fantastic question Hope! Egyptomania certainly didn’t start with Bonaparte’s campaign, but it took a different spin. When it comes to public art, Egyptianizing motifs served to glorify the Napoleonic expedition in Egypt in particular. As for trends in private decorative arts, it was probably a combination of demonstrating knowledge and refinement, as well as giving a nod to the French campaign.

      Does that answer your question?

      1. Hope Scheff

        Yes, thank you!

        In regards to the decorative arts, do you think the 19th c. French fervor can be understood in the same manner as that of the later Third Reich in Germany (regarding the similar political, economic, social, and historical conditions experienced by both countries during their respective eras)?

        1. Carter Glogowski

          In general, European colonial powers were engaging in nationalist cultural production during the nineteenth century. Romanticizing a nationalist past was common throughout Europe well into the twentieth century. Egyptomania in decorative arts fit into the wider scheme of the French colonial narrative, which in turn lent itself to aggrandizing French nationalism. In short, while the mechanism for creating a nationalist mythos are often similar, comparing nineteenth century France and Nazi Germany is a bit of a stretch in my view–the political circumstances were very different.

  3. Hi Carter,

    Your presentation is great! It’s fascinating how Napoleon turned what was essentially a military failure into a massive propagandistic success. Your topic reminded me of the French colonial fascination with Algeria, and I wanted to know if you think these French images of North Africa later in the century have their roots in these Orientalist works under Napoleon.

  4. Melissa Hyde

    Hi Carter,
    What has been the most interesting (or surprising?) aspect of your research so far? Has it taken you in directions you did not expect?

    1. Carter Glogowski

      Thanks for your question Dr. Hyde! The longevity of the Egyptian Campaign as a motif unto itself has been the most fascinating part for me. On top of the already surprising success Bonaparte had spinning the expedition as a success, that later French rulers and artists would continue to capitalize on the campaign by commissioning and making art about the campaign, thirty years after the fact and even later, is beyond fascinating to me. I did not anticipate the extent to which I found this to be true.

  5. Jessica Reade

    Hi Carter!

    You’re poster pitch was GREAT! You are a great presenter!

    Do you have a favorite art piece depicting the Egyptian Campaign?

    1. Anonymous

      Thank you Jessica! Two works of art that stand out to me are Antoine-Jean Gros’ “Bonaparte Visiting the Plague Victims at Jaffa” (1804) and Anne Louis Girodet’s “Revolt of Cairo” (1810). Both paintings have a lot to say about power dynamics and cultural politics surround the Egyptian Campaign. Gros’ painting, which features in the left-hand column of my poster, shows a princely, almost divine Bonaparte surrounded by sick and dying French soldiers. To me, it conveys idea that Napoleon was a shining star despite being surrounded by the death and misery of a failed campaign, which plays directly into the idea of a state-sponsored propaganda campaign to shift public opinion about the expedition.

  6. Morgan

    Hello Carter,

    First of all, you did an amazing job in your pitch and your topic comes across as clear and concise. I want to ask more about orientalism. Can you think of any modern rulers from the twentieth century who imitated Napolean’s orientalizing tactics in propaganda? And why do you believe that orientalism was such an effective tactic is Western patronization of the East.

    1. Carter Glogowski

      Thanks Morgan and excellent questions! As to why Orientalism was effective, the most basic answer is that it creates an in-group (Western European civilization) and an out-group (so-called “Orientals”). In a colonial context, this amounted to the ability to shape narratives about cultures, which was used to justify conquest and exploitation. If you have not read Edward Said’s book “Orientalism,” I highly recommend it.

      The most blatant example that comes to mind in the twentieth century is the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1900. There were sections of the Champs des Mars that were constructed streets and villages from around the world, similar to EPCOT. In this case though, there were “human zoos” which primitivized the people they “displayed.” Its hard to get much worse than that. Sadly, there are many more examples, some of which persist today. The controversies surrounding the Musée du Quai Branly are worth digging into as well.

      1. Morgan

        Hello Carter,

        If you don’t mind continuing with this train of thought, I would like to ask about the in-group, out-group dichotomy. I specialize in medieval Spain, but I believe that there are some overlapping concepts between Spain and France. Spain too had this concept that historians called the others within and the others without. When applied to orientalism in Napolean France, I am curious as to who were the others within France that were exoticized and patronized. What minority group, either religious, ethnic, or racial, did France apply similar tactics as orientalism to? And how did this help in creating the French national identity?

  7. Carter Glogowski

    A wonderful question Indica! Short answer: absolutely. The Egyptian Campaign represents France’s first colonial foray into North Africa and it certainly set later trends in motion. Many Orientalist painters, Gêrome for example, continued to paint scenes of the Egyptian Campaign later in the 19th c. The Arc de Triomphe, completed under Louis Philippe, includes two friezes of the Egyptian Campaign sculpted in 1831. As you may know, France invaded Algeria in 1830, just before Louis Philippe came to power. The timing is telling in this case.

  8. Gabriel A Martin

    As a French major, your project is of particular interest to me. I am actually currently enrolled in a class that deals with idea of the Extrême Orient (the Far East) in French cultural production. Was this effort to orientalize Egypt made on the part of the savants or was it a directive of Napoleon?

  9. Gabriel A Martin

    As a French major, your project is of particular interest to me. I am currently enrolled in a class the deals with the idea of the Extrême Orient in French cultural production. Although this class deals with the effects of colonialism on French novels, the precedent seems to have been set before with Napoleon. Would you say that this orientalization was done at the behest of Napoleon or was a production of the savants themselves?

    1. Carter Glogowski

      Thanks for your question Gabriel, sounds like an interesting class! In truth, it was both. The Description de l’Égypte, for example, was published independent of the Napoleonic establishment and Orientalizing Egypt served the private interests of many of the Savants. But Napoleon was also cognizant of his image, establishing channels to commission official art on behalf of himself and his regime. The question then is how much Napoleon was personally involved in commissioning art versus a character like Vivant-Denon, a Savant in Egypt and later the Directeur des Beaux Arts during Bonaparte’s reign.

      To give you a quick answer, Orientalization is a process that involves an intellectual or cultural apparatus. So, I think it is helpful to consider how different parts of that apparatus influences other parts. In this case, artists, Savants and imperial commissioners all played a role.

      Fantastic question!

  10. Mark

    Hey, this is a really interesting poster. So what are some of the characteristics of the paintings favored after Napoleon’s campaign?

    1. Carter Glogowski

      Thanks for your question Mark! In general, Bonaparte is depicted as a heroic central figure leading his men or defeating militarily outclassed Egyptians. They have the marks of Orientalist paintings, portraying the French as justified in their conquest vis-à-vis subhuman depictions of Egyptians. There are several cases of paintings that depict fictitious versions of brutal events. The Guérin painting of “Napoleon Pardoning the Rebels at Cairo” in the center column of my poster shows a group of child-like, seemingly remorseful and frightened Egyptians looking up to a merciful, father-like Bonaparte. In stark contrast to Guérin’s pardon, Bonaparte actually ordered the men who revolted against his forces in Cairo beheaded. So, in general paintings of the Egyptian Campaign sell the story as a moral victory for Napoleon.

  11. Emily Boykin

    What a long way you and I have both come since our first classes with Dr. Hyde! I am so excited to see this work, and would really love to read it if you feel comfortable with sharing. I think this perfectly encapsulates your two interests/majors, and best of luck in your future endeavors.

    1. Carter Glogowski

      Thank you so much Emily! I’d be more than happy to share my paper once it’s all finished up. Wishing you the best of luck as well!