Chiparus Egyptian Dancer – In 1798 Napoleon set out on a voyage to Egypt in an attempt to gain control of Egyptian trade routes and thus counterbalance British power in India. Though the expedition was ill-conceived and short-lived, it fired Western fantasies and laid the foundation for a deep and lasting passion for the Orient. Other events, such as Jean-Francois Champollion’s deciphering of the Rosetta stone in 1831, and the 1922 discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb with its undreamed of riches, periodically revived this passion for the East. In 1836 the splendor and mystery of ancient Egypt penetrated the very heart of Paris, as an obelisk from the Temple of Ammon at Luxor was erected in the Place de la Concorde.
Over the years the vogue for all things even vaguely Egyptian took many forms, influencing the decorative arts, fashion, even the theater. In 1832 the Sèrves porcelain factory created a series of three ‘Egyptian’ vases, the result of collaboration between the artist Alexandre Brongniart and the venerable Egyptologist Champollion. Champollion served as technical adviser for the vases, whose decoration was taken from Theban frescoes, and when he died before the projects completion, the archaeologist Charles Lenormand took over as adviser, so eager was the Sèrves company to maintain authenticity.
Evidence of the continuing interest in Egyptian themes is found in the popularity at the turn of the century of anything based on an Egyptian motif. Anatol France’s novel Thais, published in 1890, became the theme of an opera first produced in 1894 by Jules Massenet, which relates the story of an Alexandrian hetaera of the fourth century A.D who is converted by a monk. The religious eroticism of the opera appealed to Parisians. Chiparus, ever mindful of drawing from culture of his day, made a statuette of Thais, which is a rare piece of which only four are known to exist.
In the 1920’s the Egyptian mystique was still strong, as evidence by Maurice Rostand’s play ‘The Secret of the Sphinx’. First produced in 1924, it echoed the old legend of the Egyptian curse, for in it a young man dies after hearing the voice of the Sphinx
The cultural movement based on Egyptian themes is often referred to as Orientalism. The terms covers a great deal, from the ‘Japonisme‘ that provided motifs and colour schemes for Art Nouveau designs to the vivid colours and exotic form adopted by Parisian fashion designers like Poiret. A great measure of the Ballets Russes’s success is attributed to its ‘Orientalist’ colours, costumes and even story lines. Diaghilev, ever the shrewd businessman, recognised the force of this appeal. In his early Paris seasons, he had offered ballets from the classic repertoire, such as ‘Gaselle’ and ‘Les Sylphised’, but soon abandoned these in favour of works with a clearly Orientalist theme.
Many of the Chiparus bronze figures show the influence of Orientalism, whether it be in their costumes and jewellery, their headgear, or their poses. Often the titles of his pieces bear witness to a direct Oriental influence.
To view a selection of our Chiparus figures like this figure please click here.