'In order to really destroy England we must seize Egypt'.
Napoleon Bonaparte, August 1797.
After the Treaty of Campoformio in October 1797, the French Republic remained at war with England as its only adversary. The decision to invade Egypt was taken in March 1798 with the aim of bringing England to peace by destroying those supposed foundations of her wealth, commerce, and her link to the colonies in India and the East. Egypt was seen as a vital staging post to India and had the added potential of becoming a lucrative colony for France in its own right. An attack on the country was also part of a plan to divert English seapower, thereby leaving the Channel open and exposing England itself to French invasion the following autumn.
Once in Egypt, Bonaparte enjoyed supreme authority for the first time. Unlike in any of his previous campaigns, he did not keep in contact with his political masters in Paris. He issued a proclamation in Arabic (having seized an Arabic press from the Vatican before the expedition sailed) blaming the Mamelukes, the Egyptian rulers, for the dissatisfaction of the Egyptian people and urging revolt.
The military campaign was easily fought and won. The advanced musketry and square divisions of the French defeated the swords of the Mamelukes first at Shubra Kit (13 July) and then at the Battle of the Pyramids on 21 July.
Caton Woodville trained in Düsseldorf and Paris, and established his reputation painting Napoleonic battle scenes and incidents from Victorian campaigns in Egypt, Afghanistan, Africa and elsewhere. Napoleon conferring the Croix d'Honneur on a French Trooper, an oil which shares the same dimensions as the present picture, was executed in 1912 and was sold at Christie's London, 20 March 1998, for £52,100. Caton Woodville was meticulous in his research, and many of the characters depicted can be seen in both paintings.
The two paintings share the same provenance as the four distinguished pictures by Caton Woodville in the Tate: Napoleon crossing the Bridge to Lobau Island (1912), General Wolfe climbing the Heights of Abraham on the Morning of the Battle of Quebec (1906), Marshal Ney at Eylau (1913) and Poniatowski's last charge at Leipzig (1912). The four were gifted to the Tate in 1939 by the grandfather of the present vendor.