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Napoleon on the Nile at the Dahesh Museum of Art

- In the Galleries: Artists and Photographers

Dahesh Museum of Art
580 Madison Avenue
NYC, NY 10022
Napoleon on the Nile
(Napoleon Foundation)
June 8 – December 31, 2006

Dr. Roberta E. Zlokower
September 19, 2006

If you are looking for a quiet respite from midtown bustle, a fascinating and uncomplicated museum experience in a spotless, upscale series of accessible spaces, with one of the best museum restaurants in town, and, as well, an elegant gift shop and auditorium for films and concerts, you need look no further than Madison Avenue at 56th Street in the IBM Building. From the street you may confuse this hidden secret for a tapestry and candle shop, but look carefully, and you will see an entrance to the Dahesh Museum of Art, named for Dr. Dahesh, who lived in Beirut, Lebanon. Dr. Dahesh, born Salim Moussa Achi, a writer and philosopher, collected paintings and sculpture derivative of European academic art. Because of the 1975 civil war in Lebanon, Dr. Dahesh and friends safely transported the collection to the United States, where the Dahesh Museum of Art was founded and opened in 1995.

(Dahesh Museum of Art notes assisted in this review.)
Academic art is the term for the 19th century European schools of art, or academies, which began in Renaissance Italy. Soon every city in Europe and then the United States and Latin America created an academy of art for high level skill and knowledge of aspiring artists. The permanent collections at the Dahesh Museum include several paintings by Jean-Léon Gérôme, an artist from the French Academy, or the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture. Other representative artists include François-Xavier Fabre, Léon Bonnat, and Ernst Karl Eugen Koerner. Themes of European architecture, mythology, history, religion, nature, and the craft of art, itself, were immediately thought-provoking, as I slowly browsed the spacious galleries. In most larger museums, one feels the need to rush from gallery to gallery, amidst the crowds to “catch” exhibit after exhibit. However, at Dahesh, there are limited galleries in un-crowded spaces, with velvet chairs and a nurturing hush.

The ongoing exhibit, “Napoleon on the Nile: Soldiers, Artists, and the Rediscovery of Egypt”, is fascinating for its historical interest and for the “Description of Egypt” (1809-1828), a virtual encyclopedia of print, drawings, paintings, and handwritten text, in which French scholars studied the legacy of Napoleon’s occupation of Egypt, 1798-1801. Although Dahesh is a small museum, be sure to allow a couple of hours, at least an hour in each exhibit, as “Description of Egypt” is magnetizing and mesmerizing. Not only are there geo-political similarities to Napoleon’s occupation of Egypt and more recent political events, but the artifacts, paintings, documents, drawings, letters, and sheer magnitude of the French military quest actually led to a discovery and understanding of Egyptology and the subsequent school of “Orientalism” in two centuries of art.

Although the French surrendered to the British in Alexandria, Egypt, in 1801, Napoleon soon (1804) crowned himself Emperor of France. Five years later, in 1809, the first volume of the “Description of Egypt” appeared, and in 1828 it was completed, more than a two decade project of expeditions, study, documentation, and fine art work. Subscribers to the various editions of this “encyclopedic project” were given bound volumes and medals (depicting French scholars discovering Egypt, with the other side of the medals depicting the Egyptian zodiac and the name of the subscriber). Napoleon’s protégées relished and celebrated the culture and art of this new land.

There were two editions of “Description of Egypt”. The first, according to an 1802 decree by Napoleon that funds be provided for this extensive research project, which was completed in 1828, and the second, begun in 1820 by a private publisher, which was more concise, completed in 1829 and dedicated to the King, rather than to Napoleon. There are volumes of ruins and temples (Ancient Egypt), flora and fauna of Egypt (Natural History), and architecture and public squares (Modern Egypt). The Dahesh Museum of Art is offering programs to its members and general art enthusiasts that compliment this exhibit. Consult the Museum website,, for details and dates.

The Museum is presenting in October a film festival, “Art on Screen”, related to the 24th Montreal International Festival of Films on Art. There are art programs for children and cooking/wine tasting adventures at the Museum’s elegant Café Opaline, where I enjoyed a marvelous lunch of rare tuna and cold crab salad with a generous diet soda. Had I planned more time, the wine menu is extensive, as is the lunch menu, and the magnificent views from the Café windows add to the high style of this artistic retreat. Treat yourself to a morning or afternoon at the Dahesh Museum of Art, and save time for the eclectic gift shop, where you can find reasonable and rare gifts for celebrations and holidays.

William Adolphe Bouguereau
The Water Girl (Young Girl Going to the Spring), 1885
Oil on canvas
(c) Dahesh Museum of Art
Photo courtesy of Dahesh Museum

Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, O.M., R.A.
The Staircase, 1870
Oil on panel
(c) Dahesh Museum of Art
Photo courtesy of Dahesh Museum

Ignaz-Marcel Gaugengigl
The Painter
Oil on panel
(c) Dahesh Museum of Art
Photo courtesy of Dahesh Museum

Children in the Gallery
Photo courtesy of Dahesh Museum

French, 1824-1904
Napoleon in Egypt, ca. 1867-68
Oil on canvas
Princeton University Art Museum
Photo courtesy of Dahesh Museum

Café Opaline at the Dahesh Museum
Photo courtesy of Dahesh Museum

For more information, contact Dr. Roberta E. Zlokower at