Charles Petzold

"Napoleon on the Nile" at Dahesh

October 11, 2006
New York, NY

For a mathematician, Joseph Fourier (1768-1830) led a rather eventful life. He turned 21 in 1789 — l’année cruciale of the French Revolution, and the beginning of the most turbulent era of French history. He soon got involved in politics, and had a hard time staying out of trouble with the various factions of the Revolution. He was arrested on 4 July 1794, then freed, and then rearrested on 17 July. Fourier spent a nervous ten days in jail and was saved from probable execution only by the fall of Robespierre himself on 27 July and his execution on the following day.

Fourier was arrested again on 7 June 1795 for his past involvement in the Revolution, but was released from jail after a royalist scare shifted prevailing sentiment leftwards again. He taught for awhile, and then in March 1798 received a letter from the Minister of the Interior that would change his life forever. Citoyen, the letter began, using the address that had replaced Monsieur by decree of the Convention in 1792.

By May, Fourier had been instructed to be in Toulon, a naval base on the Mediterranean just southeast of Marseille. Together with some 34,000 soldiers and sailors, he boarded one of 180 ships. As the ships set sail on 19 May, they were soon joined by other contingents — a total armada of almost 400 ships, mostly transports, carrying a total of 55,000 men. (About 300 women, mostly wives and mistresses, were also aboard as stowaways and some in disguise as men.) On open sea, the ships covered several square miles. Their destination was a closely guarded secret, known perhaps to 40 men, among them the commander of the expedition, General Napoleon Bonaparte.

Partially stirred by romantic yearnings of the exotic Orient, and partially for the more practical goal of cutting off England’s trade route to India (and perhaps eventually to take India away from the British), the 400 ships led by 13 battleships under Bonaparte’s command were heading across the Mediterranean towards Egypt.

Fourier had been recruited to be part of a unique civilian Commission on the Sciences and Arts that was to accompany the invading army. The full commission comprised 167 men, including civil engineers, surveyors, cartographers, printers, astronomers, aeronauts, botanists, surgeons, pharmacists, archaeologists, architects, interpreters, artists, mathematicians, chemists, mineralogists, and zoologists. This commission was informally known as the savants. (J. Christopher Herold, Bonaparte in Egypt, Harper & Row, 1962, pp. 21, 30, 31.)

Bonaparte left Egypt to return to Paris in 1799, and in a coup d’etat became First Consul of France. The savants were in Egypt for two more years. What they did there would be the foundations of the modern Egyptology, or, as Edward Said called it in his book Orientalism, "that great collective appropriation of one culture by another." Perhaps the most important finding was the Rosetta Stone, which was confiscated by the British and sits today in the British Museum. On the return of the savants to France, they put together a 23-volume Description de L'Egypte that contained numerous engravings of Egyptian people, architecture, vegetation, and animals, published between 1809 and 1828.

Perhaps Fourier had gotten a little too accustomed to the weather of Egypt, and perhaps his remaining years in France were a little too cold for his taste. In 1802, he took the position of prefect of Isère, the department named after the river that flows through the region, located on the Italian border at the foot of the French Alps with headquarters in Grenoble. Fourier didn't like the weather there at all. He called Isére “the native land of Rheumatism” (Herivel, 104) and would carry an extra overcoat whenever he ventured outdoors.

Perhaps that is why, when Fourier began the major scientific and mathematical work of his life, he chose to study the physics of heat.

In 1807 Fourier put his findings together in a 234-page paper entitled Mémoire sur la propagation de la chaleur, and later published the book Théorie analytique de la chaleur in 1822. Although the book is ostensibly about the propagation of heat, Fourier's work with the partial differential equations involved led him to propose a method of describing arbitrary functions using trigonometric series, now called the Fourier series, which dominate our understanding and analysis of periodic phenomenon.

I got interested in Napoleon's Egyptian campaign while researching Fourier for an (unpublished) book several years ago (and from which the above is excerpted).

Deirdre got interested in Napoleon from reading War and Peace about 3-1/2 years ago. She was appalled by Napoleon's callous disregard for the welfare of his troops during the march into Russia, and has since indulged in reading memoirs of some people close to Napoleon during his life.

And that is why we went to an exhibit entitled "Napoleon on the Nile: Soldiers, Artists, and the Rediscovery of Egypt." The exhibit (which lasts through the end of this year) is at the Dahesh Museum on Madison Avenue between 56th and 57th Streets, a museum I had never even heard of but which is normally dedicated to academic art of the 19th and 20th centuries.

The exhibit has numerous items associated with the Egyptian campaign, such as letters and commemorative coins and newspapers recounting Napoleon's exploits, but the best parts are actual mammoth pages from the Description de L'Egypte, some of which are color engravings from the rare first edition. I have a thousand-page Taschen book reproducing these engravings, but nothing quite prepared me for the shear size and beauty of the originals.

If you go to see the exhibit and have only a limited time there, I suggest you scoot to the end where the pages from Description de L'Egypte are displayed, and only when you've thoroughly saturated yourself in them, see some of the other items on display.

But don't miss the wonderful satirical cartoons of James Gillray that mock Napoleon and the savants. I've encountered some other Gillray drawings in several museum and library exhibits over the past few years, and the ones here are particularly well explained. (I find I really need help to deconstruct Gillray's stuff!)