Hosted by the William Benton Museum of Art on Wednesday, Nov. 8, Fadi Awad Elsaid, a Ph.D. candidate hailing from universities in France and Egypt, spoke about the contributions of Nicolas-Jacques Conté (1755 – 1805) on his documentation of modern Egyptian history in light of Ancient Egypt and the French expedition of Egypt at the time. Additionally, Elsaid emphasized the similarities and differences between the two epitomes of this documentation, the “Encyclopédie” and the “Description de l’Égypte.”
Conté was portrayed as a jack of all trades who is more than deserving of acclaim. Despite his artwork being the focus of his legacy for the talk, he was a revolutionary inventor. The scope of his creations is great, considering he invented the contemporary pencil during an era that people associate with communication by ink and quill. Conté was also a proponent for the hot air balloon, and his fascination with machines made its way into his artwork. He drew people who manned machines — some of the last machines designed by craftsmen — showing why his artwork is analyzed to this day.
As a French citizen, Conté played a pivotal role during Napoleon’s expedition, but not in the way one may expect. Despite setbacks, such as losing the Battle of the Nile on Aug. 2, 1798, rendering the army as “the prisoners of its own adventure” and the influence of Britain and the Ottoman Empire preventing any successes, Conté remained with the army. He developed a close relationship with Napoleon, inventing anything he could to aid them and this synergism allowed Napoleon to keep pushing with a desire to triumph.
Elsaid described the period during Napoleon’s expedition to Egypt, around the turn of the 18th century, as both an “interesting moment of history, and an interesting moment of art.”
The colloquial “Encyclopédie” was compiled as a mid-1700s written collection of works. Its main function was its inclusion of both contextual and non-contextual drawings of machines and ordinary objects, either in isolation or accompanied by a scene that provides social context for the object’s use. Transposing the contextual image above the blueprint allows for a reading of the overall piece that starts with forming the conclusion, and ending with pondering the premise.
This practice was repeated almost identically in sections of a loose successor, the “Description de l’Égypte,” first published in 1809. According to Elsaid, the “omnipresence” of the “Encyclopédie” in the newer work is undeniable, as it documents the same things using the previous transposing method, sometimes using identical methods. Also, Conté contributes the addition of workers of various classes only within their social context, re-incorporating a layer of ambiguity lost in the “Encyclopédie.”
Elsaid claims that modern Egyptians had to pay the price for the colossal nature of ancient Egypt and modern France, which can explain why Egyptians are often depicted doing mundane tasks, since the other party assumed superiority. Considering this, and its narrow scope, focusing on Egyptian history specifically instead of universal history like the “Encyclopédie,” another strength of the “Description de l’Égypte” was that people were drawn in a different light, literally, in its depictions.
The use of shadow in drawings included in the “Description de l’Égypte” brought Elsaid’s points full-circle, as they would have not been possible without pencil shading. One in particular depicts two slaves standing naked in a room, identifiable by their shaved facial hair, portraying the darkness they must’ve been feeling at the time.
The slaves’ faces are also barely visible, showing a gray area between his usual use of faces to show someone focused on their work or observing the artist painting them. This is supported when an audience member asked why these drawings are in black and white; despite economic reasons that makes reproducing in monochrome more affordable, the style is used in particular scenes for a purpose.
The art discussed is part of a larger exhibition currently on display at the Benton, titled “Prints and People Before Photography, 1490-1825,” available until Dec. 27, 2023.