The "Egyptian Service"

In August 1799, Napoleon returned to France from an ill-fated imperial adventure in Egypt, leaving behind a demoralized force headed by Jean-Baptiste Kléber, the Revolutionary hero shortly to be assassinated in Cairo. “L’oiseau était déniché” was how the disappointed Kleber described Napoleon’s departure: The bird had flown the coop.

In France, Napoleon touted the campaign as a triumph despite the late debacles at Acre and in Aboukir Bay, where not only lives but also the expedition’s greatest prize, the Rosetta Stone, were lost. Back home in France, his propaganda touched off a wave of popular enthusiasm for all things Egyptian. This “Egyptomania” was additionally fueled by the publication of compelling eye-witness travelers’ accounts, such as the artist Vivant Denon’s illustrated Voyage dans la basse et la haute Egypte.

These immensely popular publications provided rich sources of imagery for fine and decorative artists. Wallpapers featuring Egyptian motifs, furniture carved with Egyptian emblems, and variations on themes from Egyptian architecture (including the 1806 peristyle of the Hôtel de Beauharnais in Paris) flooded French homes and buildings.

Perhaps the strangest—certainly the most fragile—of these artifacts was the “Egyptian Service,” a 115-piece, Egyptian-themed porcelain dinner service commissioned from the Sèvres porcelain factory by Napoleon in 1804. ...

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