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Unwrapping the Mummy/Monkey

There will soon be a monkey invasion in the Art Institute’s second floor hallway! Or is that a mummy invasion? Starting in April, Gallery 216a will host a small installation of playful prints of monkeys acting like humans, painting their own art, and, well, monkeying around. Jean Baptiste Oudry’s mischievous Still Life with a Monkey, Fruits, and Flowers inspired this selection, but in the process of researching many entertaining 18th- and 19th-century monkey–themed artworks, something a little strange turned up.

A curious early lithograph, signed only with the last name Cheney, came to the museum as part of a collection of medical ephemera including anatomical flap prints, among other wonderful and rare things. The print shows a group of aristocratic people in a sunny Paris apartment watching an operation of sorts on a small table. In the collector’s eye and in the sparse French literature about this little-known print, it was described as the somewhat unsavory subject of the dissection of a monkey. Indeed, the small scale of the recumbent figure could suggest such an odd theme. However, as the cloth wrappings already on the floor, and the seated woman documenting the process for a lithograph suggest, this print is full of surprises.

In fact, another lithograph of this woman in the same apartment exists, and it too is in the Art Institute collection. Entitled Baron Denon Instructing A Young Woman Drawing on a Lithographic Stone, it identifies the location of both prints as the home of the Napoleonic favorite, diplomat, art and antiquities collector, printmaker, Louvre museum director, and Egyptian explorer par excellence, Baron Dominique-Vivant Denon. An impression of the print is known in which the title is given more specifically in ink across the top as Mrs. Cheney & Mr. Denon.

The museum has historically attributed this print to Denon himself, but given the lack of a signature, some scholars suggest that Mrs. Harriet Cheney, an amateur British etcher, was responsible for both. She certainly signed the lithograph of the curious ritual, and included a prominent self portrait. The discovery of her true identity happily increases the number of female artists in our collection, especially those before the 20th century. But what of the mysterious print’s subject?

Denon brought back more that art from Egypt for the then Musée Napoleon (later the Louvre). His personal estate sale included a human mummy, and reports from his lifetime suggest it was well known at the time. So perhaps we’re not looking at just a monkey, but something a little more salacious. . . at least to the modern viewer.

This print depicts the mummy as the highlight of one of perhaps many social gatherings and intellectual soirées. Spurred by Napoleon’s Egyptian Campaign (1798-1801), Egyptomania was only beginning, and so-called “unwrapping parties” did occur. Charms and other protective items were sometimes bound into the cloth wrappings, so onlookers never knew what might be uncovered in the process. As disrespectful a practice as this may sound, it suggests curiosity and perhaps a gradual increase in appreciation for the burial procedures of an ancient culture. Mummies had been put to many more distasteful uses (as far as contemporary audiences might be concerned), including being ground up for medicine in the medieval and Renaissance eras, and administered as “mumia” powder for various ailments. The presence of women at Denon’s event also speaks well of their own budding curiosity for the scientifically unusual, as well as their increased access to such intellectual gatherings.

All of this of course doesn’t entirely rule out the possibility that Baron Demon also absconded with the mummy of an Egyptian monkey in addition to his looted human one. As treasured pets, baboons and other types of monkeys were sometimes retained as afterlife companions as well. So is it a mummy or monkey mummy? Come see our new Harriet Cheney lithograph and decide for yourself!

Image Credits: 

Harriet Cheney. Unwrapping the Mummy, before 1825. Gift of Dr. Ira Frank.

Dominique-Vivant DenonDenon Instructing a Young Woman Drawing on a Lithographic Stone, c. 1820. Department Purchase Fund.