Dressed as a general of the French Revolution, Napoleon stands outside Cairo, on a road lined with Mamluk mausoleums from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. He surveys the city. Napoleon arrived in Egypt with his generals in 1798 and attempted to add this land to France’s growing empire. The British defeated the French navy at the Battle of the Nile, one of the greatest naval disasters of all time, and put an end to his dreams of expansion to Africa. At the moment shown, this event is in the future. It is ironic to see Napoleon, flush with conquest, beside the Mamluk tombs, the burial places of slaves who rose to military glory and imperial rule; the monuments speak of the vanity of empire building and the fate that awaits even the most successful conquerors. Gérôme’s meticulously rendered Orientalist scenes, based on his travels in Constantinople (1853), Egypt (1856), and elsewhere, rival photography and form a counterweight to his re-creations of Greco-Roman antiquity.
Signed lower left: J. L. GEROME.
During the Second Empire (1852–70), Napoleon III, the nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte and the second emperor of France, encouraged the cult of his uncle, whose 1798 Egyptian expedition is the subject of this painting. Gérôme placed the legendary general before an exotic, Orientalist setting—the Mamluk tombs outside Cairo. The resting place of rulers who owed the rise of their dynasty to military prowess, the tombs would have been a subject of reflection for Bonaparte during his own meteoric ascent to power. Late-nineteenth-century viewers might also have recalled the domed Church of the Invalides in Paris, to which Napoleon’s remains had been brought in 1840 from St. Helena, the place of his exile and death.
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