Define your generation here. Generation What
Egypt’s 19th-century brush with fine arts
David Roberts, Ruins of Kom Ombo, 1830s - Courtesy: Rochdale Arts & Heritage Service

The other showed up in Alexandria on July 2, 1798, in the guise of an opportunistic, idealistic 29-year-old French general. When Napoléon Bonaparte landed with 38,000 soldiers and 167 savants, the shock was cultural as much as it was military.

While he failed at his primary mission to bring Egypt under French dominion, Napoléon was intent on importing European “enlightenment” to a country he perceived as one that had sunk into “cultural darkness”[1] since its adherence to Constantinople in the 16th century. Following the conquest of Egypt and the incorporation of its Mamluk-based regime as a province under the Ottoman Empire in 1517, constant power struggles had led to wars, famines and negligence, which affected intellectual progress and cultural developments. Evolving around architectural projects, poetry and decorative arts such as calligraphy, pottery and textiles, visual culture was based on an interaction of multiple styles, yet subdued by these crises and the belief, propagated by the Ottomans,[2] that figurative art was not compatible with Islam.

Bonaparte in Egypt by Jean-Leon Gerome, 1867.jpg

Bonaparte in Egypt by Jean-Leon Gerome, 1867

In retrospect, the violence of the cultural encounter caused the defeat of Napoléon, but set in motion forces that would change the nation. Sheikh Hassan al-Attar, the only non-Egyptian (Moroccan) to hold the office of mufti of Al-Azhar and who taught Arabic to some of the expedition scientists, rightly foresaw an intellectual revolution.

For three years, the French faced resistance from Egyptians, many of whom saw the scientists and artists as ‘infidels’ or ‘sorcerers.’ In his eyewitness account Napoléon in Egypt (1798), Abdel Rahman al-Jabarti, an Egyptian scholar trained at Al-Azhar University, described at length his amazement upon seeing for the very first time the printing press and European theater and fine arts (fenoon gamila), particularly visual representations of humans and their living surroundings. “Amongst them, [Michel] Rigo paints [oil] portraits. He was so skilled that seeing his portraits, one would have said they were about to speak.” Rigo, the official portrait painter of the French mission, was commissioned to paint the locals and used all possible means to lure them to accept to be painted, claimed fellow savant Antoine Galland: “When Rigo proceeded to put color to the drawing, the sitter, repulsed, ran away, telling everywhere that he came from a house where one had taken away his head and half of his body.”

Following the French military defeat in 1801, Mohamed Ali (r. 1805-1848), an ambitious Albanian commander in the Ottoman army who was originally sent to fight the French, quickly filled the power vacuum to create his own empire. During his reign, Mohamed Ali commissioned European artists to paint his portrait, the results of which would be carried by his escort along the streets of Cairo for the masses to admire in an attempt to imitate Europe and immortalize his name. The self-proclaimed khedive, considered the founder of modern Egypt, and his spendthrift dynasty would rule during the next 150 years and undertake a vast program of modernization and industrialization, arguably preparing the ground for the Nahda (cultural renaissance) of the mid-19th century until the mid-20th century.

Mohamed Ali by Louis Charles Auguste Couder.jpg

Mohamed Ali by Louis Charles Auguste Couder

As a result, Egyptian students were dispatched to Europe to study scientific and military skills. It was 25-year-old Sheikh Rifaa al-Tahtawi (1801-1873), sent as imam to chaperon the first mission at the military academy in Paris, who would impact the modernization of Egypt the most – not the students. His six-year stay in France culminated in the 1834 publication of his most important book The Quintessence of Paris, advocating that Egypt and the Muslim world had much to learn from Europe. Tahtawi, whose self-confident and open-minded philosophy of reform came to be the defining creed of early Islamic modernism, wrote that the mission had to attend daily drawing classes and that he struggled to find an Arabic word to translate théâtre. Upon his return, the turbaned young Al-Azhar scholar submitted a plan to Mohamed Ali to preserve Egypt’s deteriorating antiquities, having witnessed the French fascination with ancient Egyptian art. Ultimately, Egypt set up its own museums, including the Egyptian Museum of Antiquities (1835), the Museum of Arab (Islamic) Art (1884), the Greco-Roman Museum (1892) and the Coptic Museum (1908). In addition, Tahtawi established the Faculty of Tongues (Alsun), to translate from French to Arabic 2000 science, literary and humanities books and introduce his audience to secular authority and political rights and liberty.

Champollion’s 1822 decipherment of the hieroglyphs inscribed on the Rosetta Stone and the (1809-1829) publication of the 24-volume Description de l’Égypte, the culmination of the collaborative work of Napoléon’s savants, had stirred considerable global interest in both ancient and present-day Egypt. As a result, while Egyptians were sent to study abroad, European Egyptologists, writers and artists flocked to Egypt’s capital of half a million inhabitants looking for their imagined Arabian nights, forming a ‘mini-Montparnasse’. Many of these artists – later known as Orientalists – made one journey or more to Egypt, such as French painter and sculptor Jean-Léon Gérôme, while others stayed for years, such as British painter John Frédérik Lewis and French post-impressionist Emile Bernard.

Jirjis al-Gohari, Egypt's only Coptic minister of finance, by Michel Rigo.png

Jirjis al-Gohari, Egypt’s only Coptic minister of finance, by Michel Rigo

By the end of the 19th century, an artistic circle, initiated by a group of Europeans living in Egypt and devoid of any native artists, were organizing salons.[3] In 1891, Khedive Tewfik inaugurated Le Salon de Peinture, the first official exhibition held at Le Théâtre Khedival or Cairo Opera House. Its success led to subsequent exhibitions between 1894 and 1902 exhibiting works produced by European painters. Exhibited artists Beppi Martin (from France) and Paolo Forcella (from Italy) became the earliest professors at the Cairo’s Fine Arts School. These fashionable paintings addressed the Khedive, the aristocracy and foreigners living in Egypt. The nation, by now under the British Empire’s supremacy, seemed doomed not to produce but consume imported palace-style art.

Mohamed Ali’s dynasty suffered from an inferiority complex that revered imported culture and disbelieved in local artistic capability, while objections of religious conservatives who wanted to ban pictorial art discouraged and kept Egyptians away. “Obliged by their religion to abandon sculpture and paintings, the Arab race seems to have concentrated all its genius on poetry.” At the dawn of the twentieth century, another enlightened religious challenged the conservatives.

Mohamed Abdou, grand mufti of Egypt from 1899 to 1905 and a celebrated Islamic reformist, in his article-turned-fatwa Images and Statues, Their Benefits and Legality (1904) defends the educational benefits of preserving knowledge in the form of drawings, paintings and statues. “If you understood anything from this, that was my hope,” wrote the seemingly infuriated mufti. “But if you did not, I do not have the time to explain to you in any greater length than this.” Abdou’s casually toned fatwa continues to find an uncanny significance as the controversy around image making still persists and we witness, largely with passivity, the continuous destruction and neglect of our regional visual heritage. Abdou did not specifically use the term “fine arts” in his fatwa, but he supported pictorial representation as “excellent avenues to greater knowledge”[4]. His progressive school of thought that affirms the power of Islam to adapt to the modern environment was arguably a significant innovation in Islamic thinking.

Tahtawi and Abdou, two progressive religious reformists, Egyptian men with considerable education and forward thinking, succeeded in defying mainstream traditional thinking and spoke of different forms of arts. They helped paved the way for the emergence of a more indigenous art production at the turn of the 20th century.

[1] Engineer Edme-François Jomard, cited in Anouar Louca’s “Les contacts culturels de l’Egypte avec l’Occident” in: L’Egypte d’aujourd’hui: permanence et changements 1805-1976 (1977).

[2] Ahmad Yusuf Ahmad, Muhammad Abu Salih al-Alfi and Muhammad Fathi al-Alfi, Al-Haraka al-Fanniyya fi Misr, Cairo, UNESCO, 1970.

[3] Mohamed Sadek El Kabakhangy, The History of the Egyptian Art Movement until 1945, El Haya el Masreya El Ama lel Ketab, 1986.

[4] Arthur Goldschmidt Jr., Historical and Biographical Dictionary of Modern Egypt, 1995

Fatenn Mostafa Kanafani