The Louvre: A Passion for Egypt

Mohammed Elrazzaz, Monday 19 Nov 2012

As the Louvre in Paris prepares for its 220th anniversary, Ahram Online explores the history and highlights of its impressive collection of Egyptian Art

The Louvre

It should come as no surprise that, two hundred and twenty years after its inauguration, the Louvre boasts unparalleled collections of artifacts and masterpieces, with Egypt having more than its fair share of representation.

From ancient Egyptian and Hellenistic art, all the way to Coptic and Islamic art, the quality and scope of the Egyptian collections are everything you would expect from a legendary museum in a country that paved the way for the Egyptomania that swept across Europe following Napoleon’s Egyptian Campaign in 1798 and the publishing of the Description de l'Egypte a few years later.

A tour de force of Egyptian Art

While there are eight curatorial departments in the Grand Louvre, Egypt is the only country to have a full department dedicated exclusively to its art: The Egyptian Antiquities Department. Moreover, Hellenistic, Coptic and Islamic artifacts adorn the collections of other departments, and efforts are underway to inaugurate a ninth department that will feature many Egyptian artifacts: the Department of the East Mediterranean in the Roman Empire.

New permanent galleries have already been opened towards that purpose, exhibiting objects and artworks from the East Mediterranean (Egypt and around) from the period between the first century BC and the sixth century AD: Hellenistic funerary art, Coptic textiles, and Nubian artifacts.

In addition, the new Department of Islamic Art (opened last September) has some Egyptian masterpieces of international fame, like the magnificent eleventh-century Fatimid rock crystal ewer (previously displayed at the Department of Decorative Arts), originally part of the treasury of the Abbey of Saint-Denis. A fifteenth-century Mamluk vestibule reassembled in an epic effort to put together three hundred stones is yet another example.

The most impressive collection is the Egyptian Antiquities Department. With thousands of objects, it is a tour de force not only of art, but also of objects from everyday life and ones related to religious rituals that the Louvre has been collecting over the past two hundred years: papyri, steles, sarcophagi, mummies and more. Among the highlights of this collection are the stone and ivory objects of Naqada I, the Stele of the Serpent King discovered in Abydos, the Seated Scribe statue, the statue of the lion-headed Sekhmet, and the famed Zodiac of Dendara, one of the earliest known sky maps.  

The significance of the collection is self-evident, and so is the aesthetic quality of most of the pieces. Nevertheless, the history of the collection is yet another dimension that further adds to its value. In fact, the collection can never be fully appreciated without understanding the odyssey involved in gathering its components.

Back to the roots

“I'm thrilled just thinking about what I have to show you ... this interesting series of monuments that reveals the cult, the beliefs, and the public and private life of an entire people before your eyes” - Jean-Francois Champollion upon inaugurating the Egyptian Antiquities Department in 1827.

Champollion, the famous linguist and Egyptologist who decoded the hieroglyphs in 1822, was appointed as the first curator of the Louvre’s newly created Department of Egyptian Antiquities in 1826, having convinced the French King Charles X to purchase thousands of pieces from the prized collections of such antiquity collectors and traders as Bernardino Drovetti and Henry Salt. This multiplied the earlier collection that owed its existence in great part to confiscated royal collections in the wake of the French Revolution (mostly statues).

The Egyptian collection became one of the earliest collections at the Louvre, which first opened to the public in 1793. What was once a fortress and then a royal residence would later become the nucleus of one of the world’s best museums.

The nineteenth century proved fundamental for the growth of the department. During the 1850s and 60s, further acquisitions were made by the museum, this time targeting private collections like those of Count Michael Tyszkiewicz (Polish collector and Egyptologist) and Antoine Clot (French physician, better known in Egypt as Clot Bey). The biggest thrust, however, came with Auguste Mariette, who became the first Director of Antiquities in Egypt. Famous for rebuilding the Egyptian Museum, he is better remembered in France for having sent some 6,000 Egyptian artifacts back to Paris.

The twentieth century saw new acquisitions, this time through donation rather than purchasing. The most prominent case is that of the American collector Atherton Curtis, who left 1,500 objects to the Louvre.

One might wonder why the Rosetta Stone is not part of the collection. Discovered by a French soldier and deciphered by a French linguist, the Stone ended up in British hands following the defeat of the French troops in Egypt, and now it is one of the jewels of the British Museum, together with other pieces confiscated by the British in Egypt.

The collection provoked – and still provokes – questions about its legitimacy. In a famous case, the Louvre returned five frescoes (from the tomb of Tetaki) to Egypt in 2009 after the later had broken off its ties to the Louvre over these frescoes.

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