What is Egyptomania?
Cleopatre et Cesar by Jean-Léon Gérôme. M.S. Rau, New Orleans (Sold).
Egyptomania refers to the fascination, emulation, and artistic appropriation of ancient Egyptian themes, motifs and narratives within Western art and literature. The phenomenon gained significant momentum during the 19th century, coinciding with Napoleon and his conquest of Egypt, as well as increased exploration and archeological discoveries. Western artists, influenced by the allure of the exotic mystique surrounding ancient Egyptian civilization, sought inspiration from its rich visual and symbolic heritage. The trend manifested in various art forms, including painting, sculpture, decorative arts and architecture, reflecting a broader cultural obsession with Egypt's historical legacy.
One of the key drivers of Egyptomania in Western art was the influx of artifacts and antiquities resulting from archaeological expeditions to Egypt. The discovery of the Rosetta Stone in 1799, and the subsequent deciphering of hieroglyphic script, opened a gateway to understanding ancient Egyptian culture. This newfound knowledge fueled the artistic imagination of the West, aligning seamlessly with the ever-popular Orientalist movement in the academies. The fascination extended beyond the realm of fine arts, permeating everyday life through fashion, interior design, and literature, creating a pervasive cultural phenomenon that captured the imaginations of artists and the general public alike.
Art Deco Egyptian Revival Brooch by Cartier. M.S. Rau, New Orleans (Sold).
The adoption of Egyptian themes allowed Western artists to explore exoticism, spirituality and a sense of timeless grandeur. The appropriation of hieroglyphs, pyramids, sphinxes and other iconic symbols became a visual language through which Western artists, jewelers and writers communicated ideas of mystery, eternity and transcendence. The legacy of Egyptomania and the later Egyptian Revival style is a testament to the enduring appeal of ancient Egyptian aesthetics and symbolism in shaping Western artistic sensibilities and cultural narratives.
Famous Travelers: Exploring Egypt
The Guardians of the Temple by Ferdinand Keller. M.S. Rau, New Orleans (Sold).
Numerous travelers ventured to Egypt during the 19th and 20th centuries, profoundly influencing Western art through their engagements with the ancient civilization.
Among these notable figures, Gustave Flaubert, the esteemed French novelist, embarked on a journey to Egypt in 1849. Although primarily recognized for his literary contributions, Flaubert's meticulous observations during his travels informed his writing and inspired fellow artists.
Sometimes, Egyptomania in art came to shape writer’s stories. The artwork above, Ferdinand Keller’s The Guardians of the Temple, served as both the inspiration and model for illustrations of German historian Georg Ebers’ 1886 novel Uarda: A Romance of Ancient Egypt. The novel follows the life and trials of Bent-Anath, the favorite daughter of Pharaoh Ramses II, and Keller captures the characters at the climax of the beloved narrative: the very moment Bent-Anath is denied entry to the temple by the high priest. Bent-Anath’s aghast expression, along with the cold inflexibility of the priest, builds palpable tension in the dynamic composition.
Cafe House, Cairo (Casting Bullets) by Jean-Léon Gérôme. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Another influential traveler to Egypt was the French painter Jean-Léon Gérôme, who traveled to the country on many occasions. The most prominent French academic painter of the 19th century, Gérôme was also among the foremost inventors of Orientalist themes. Inspired by the year he spent in Rome with Paul Delaroche in 1843-44, he developed an insatiable appetite for traveling and in 1855 made his first trip to Egypt.
Egyptomania and Art Nouveau
The symbolism embedded in Egyptian art—often associated with themes of spirituality, rejuvenation, and the cyclical nature of life—resonated deeply with the philosophical underpinnings of the Art Nouveau movement. The movement, characterized by its emphasis on organic forms and fluid lines, found in the art of ancient Egypt a source of inspiration that harmonized with its quest for a renewed and harmonious aesthetic.
Motifs and design elements drawn from ancient Egyptian art exerted a discernible influence on the masterpieces of Art Nouveau. The distinctive organic forms of plants and animals, seamlessly interwoven with sinuous lines, characteristic of Art Nouveau, found echoes in the stylized representations of lotus flowers and papyrus motifs prevalent in Egyptian art. The prevalence of asymmetry and the integration of intricate patterns, hallmarks of Art Nouveau, echoed the ornate designs adorning ancient Egyptian artifacts. Artists such as René Lalique and Louis Comfort Tiffany, prominent figures in the Art Nouveau movement, were particularly enamored with the geometric precision and symbolic depth found in Egyptian art, incorporating these elements into their own creations.
Favrile Glass Scarab Necklace by Louis Comfort Tiffany. M.S. Rau, New Orleans (Sold).
Specific examples of Art Nouveau artworks that showcase the discernible influence of Egyptomania on the movement include Louis Comfort Tiffany's favrile glass necklace above, which features a scarab beetle, an emblem associated with regeneration in ancient Egypt.
Esna Crystal Vase by Lalique. M.S. Rau, New Orleans (Sold).
Another notable instance is René Lalique's Egypte pendant, which also included scarab beetles in its design. Even following his death, the Lalique firm continued to produce Egyptian-inspired creations, like this vase with a vivid relief pattern of stylized lotus leaves. Created by Marie-Claude Lalique, René Lalique’s granddaughter, in 1985 to commemorate the 125th anniversary of his birth, the pattern was inspired by columns of the Esna temple in Egypt. Beautifully conceived, the vase remains true to the artistic ideals Lalique founded during his life.
Egyptomania and Art Deco
Cartier Egyptian Revival Art Deco Necklace. M.S. Rau, New Orleans (Sold).
The incorporation of Egyptian-inspired aesthetics in Art Deco design and architecture became a hallmark of the movement. The clean lines, bold geometry and stylized representations of nature in ancient Egyptian art seamlessly merged with Art Deco's emphasis on symmetry and modernism.
This fusion is evident in the architectural detailing of buildings such as the Chrysler Building in New York City, where setbacks and ornate spires draw inspiration from the monumental structures of ancient Egypt. The streamlined and linear motifs seen in the iconic buildings of the period were imbued with the symbolic depth and visual vocabulary inherited from Egyptomania, underscoring the movement's ability to synthesize historical influences into a modern and sophisticated visual language.
Luxury jewelers like Cartier and Tiffany also indulged in Egyptomania during this period. In the necklace above, the quartz-based artifact set in the pendant takes the shape of the Eye of Ra, a symbol associated with the Egyptian sun god that was believed to offer protection. The contemporary Art Deco style is the perfect complement to the piece. Platinum, diamonds, onyx and natural pearls accentuate the bright blue of the pendant itself, while the gems lend a hint of 1920s glamour without detracting from the spirit and mystery of the Egyptian motif. Created by Cartier for just a brief period, jewelry creations such as this remain remarkably rare and highly sought after.
Interested in learning more? Check out our collection of Egyptian-inspired art.