Back to Scholarship

From Picturesque Cairo to Abstract Islamic Designs: L’Art arabe and the Economy of Nineteenth-Century Book Publishing

Following Napoleon’s short-lived 1798 campaign in Egypt, a large number of illustrated books exploring Muslim civilization in general, and Islamic Cairo in particular, appeared to cater to the growing European fascination with the Muslim world. These publications were especially popular in France and Great Britain, countries that had strong political interests in Egypt during the nineteenth century. More recently, they have attracted the attention of art historians and scholars of Orientalism and the nineteenth-century culture of travel.

This article focuses on one of these books, namely the widely cited three-volume illustrated book on Islamic Cairo, L’Art arabe d’après les monuments du Caire depuis le VIIème siècle jusqu’à la fin du XVIIIème siècle (Arab Art: As Seen Through the Monuments of Cairo from the Seventh to the Eighteenth Century), by the French Egyptologist Émile Prisse d’Avennes (1807–79). L’Art arabe was published between 1869 and 1877 in Paris by the prestigious private press Veuve A. Morel et Cie. Well known among scholars, designers, and collectors of Islamic art, Prisse d’Avennes’s book has been widely disseminated and reprinted since the nineteenth century. This multi-volume work is important on its own terms, but its historical importance can be further augmented by an exploration of various archival sources—information that is rarely available for books published during the nineteenth century—which can help us to understand the circumstances surrounding its production.

This article looks closely at these primary documents, in particular, personal letters that Prisse d’Avennes sent to his friend and collaborator on L’Art arabe, the French artist Charles Cournault (1815–1904), which are held in a private collection but were published in the 2013 volume on Prisse d’Avennes. This study will also focus on documents related to the publisher August-Jean Morel: letters exchanged between Prisse d’Avennes and the French ministry sponsoring his travel to Egypt, in addition to relevant materials stored in Prisse d’Avennes’s archive at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France. This latter collection encompasses manuscript notes and approximately 2,000 visual documents, including drawings, photographs, and prints authored by Prisse and other known or anonymous artists.

Looking at these various primary sources will shed light on the decision-making process of Prisse d’Avennes and his publishers that determined their choice of images for the publication. In examining the process of conceptualization of L’Art arabe, this study seeks to decenter Prisse d’Avennes as the sole defining authorial voice behind the publication; rather, it establishes that the multi-volume work that bears his name was a collaborative venture. L’Art arabe served as a forum for multiple and sometimes discordant viewpoints on how to represent Islamic architecture. Most importantly, Prisse d’Avennes’s relationships with the book’s sponsor and publisher, as well as the various printmakers with whom he worked, largely impacted the final product of the volume, which instigated a shift in focus away from the contextualized representations of Cairene architecture that Prisse d’Avennes favored toward the abstract images of Islamic ornament that were fashionable at the time.

Relevant research areas: Africa, 19th Century, Book arts