The so-called Battle of the Nile was fought in Aboukir Bay, about 15 miles west of Alexandria, on 1st August 1798. Nelson, having spent most of the summer cruising the Eastern Mediterranean looking for Admiral Brueys' Toulon fleet, finally came upon it as it lay at anchor in Aboukir Bay following the disembarkation of the army with which Napoleon was to conquer Egypt. Brueys had chosen a strong position in a well-protected anchorage although Nelson had the advantage of surprise. More significantly, it was already six o'clock in the evening when Nelson sighted the French and, with only two hours of daylight remaining, Brueys was confident that any attack would have to be postponed until the next day, by which time his own fleet would be ready. Nelson, with typical daring, amazed both his own captains as well as the French by ordering his ships into the Bay where they engaged the enemy in a spirited action which lasted almost through the night. The decisive moment came just after 10 o'clock when the French flagship, the huge 120-gun L'Orient, blew up with a tremendous explosion and, when dawn broke, the French annihilation became apparent, with nine of their badly damaged ships captured and another four destroyed. It was a glorious victory for Nelson, one of the greatest in British naval history, and the one which brought him to the pinnacle of his career.
In this work, de Loutherbourg has chosen a night scene and the precise moment of the spectacular explosion of the huge French 120-gun flagship L'Orient at about 10.00pm. Engaged by several British ships, she had been on fire for some time before the blaze reached her powder magazines and when she blew up "with a crashing sound that deafened all around her", the brilliant flash of flame was visible in Alexandria and the noise heard even further away. It is the most enduring image of the battle and one which has been captured repeatedly by many different artists.
As a leading painter of the Romantic movement, de Loutherbourg influenced such artists as J.M.W. Turner, and was an extremely important artist in his own time. Born in Strasbourg, he moved to London in 1771, having been painter to the King of France. He then befriended David Garrick and took up a position as scenic director at the Drury Lane Theatre. Most of his output were landscapes but he also painted a small number of heroic naval battle scenes that directly influenced maritime painting in Britain.
The famous master version of this work is currently held in the collection of London's Tate Britain.