A monumental vase made of sheet metal
Monumental vases such as this, in a variety of materials, were the fruit of a general interest in exploring new techniques. The fashion first became apparent in the factories at Sèvres in the last years of the ancien régime and lasted throughout the 19th century. The taste for monumental art also inspired this Egyptian-style vase and pedestal. Blaise-Louis Deharme had contacted the Ministry of the Interior on numerous occasions, requesting them to place commissions with his factory, which was facing financial difficulties. He produced objects in varnished, gilded, and painted sheet metal for use in architecture and home decoration. Jean-Antoine Chaptal (1756-1832), who was Minister for the Interior from 1800 to 1804, asked to see models of vases to decorate government premises. In 1804 he commissioned a Medici vase (also in the Louvre) and this Egyptian vase, which was completed in 1806 and presented at the Exhibition of Industrial Products. It stood in the first salon of the Grand Apartments of the Palais des Tuileries, and after 1808 in the Diana Gallery, paired with the Medici vase.
The craze for all things Egyptian
Napoleon Bonaparte's Egyptian campaign was hailed in numerous publications that glossed over the fact that the expedition was a military disaster. Dominique-Vivant Denon, who had accompanied the troops to Egypt, returned with plenty of material and sketches for his Voyage dans la Basse et la Haute Egypte, published during Bonaparte's campaign in 1802. To give them a stamp of scientific approval, Blaise-Louis Deharme claimed that his first sketches for the vase were based on Denon's work. However, none of Denon's sketches seem to have the source for Deharme's sketches. It appears that Deharme was not equipped with the necessary skills to adapt his source material convincingly. The architect Charles Percier advised him to turn to one of his own students, François Debret (1777-1850), who seems to have based his design on a book, La Description de l'Egypte, on which the Egyptian Institute was then working.
The vase is decorated with palmettes and friezes of human figures that recall Egyptian bas-reliefs. The handles represent snakes resting on the heads of the pharaohs. For the French public of the day, the Egypt of the Pharaohs was closely bound up with the glory of Napoleon's expedition. Two of the faces of the pedestal are illustrated with scenes of the campaign: the battle of the Pyramids and Napoleon's visit to the plague victims in Jaffa.
Modifications of the vase under the Restoration
The relics of Napoleonic glory fell out of favor under the Restoration. This vase was extensively modified, although its Egyptian character was preserved. The two Napoleonic scenes were removed, along with the eagles and the N monograms. They were replaced by the rosettes, Hemhemet crowns, and hieroglyphs that presently embellish the vase. The hieroglyphs are meaningless and purely decorative. Egypt was considered a fascinating and exotic land and a supreme example of a powerful civilization that many rulers dreamed of emulating. This was true both in Napoleon's day and under the Restoration, when Champollion published the fruits of his research, specifically on Egyptian hieroglyphic writing.