Courtesy Library of Congress

A child prodigy, Jean-Francois Champollion resolved to decipher Egyptian hieroglyphics when at age 10 he saw a famous collection of Egyptian artifacts. At 17, he had mastered several languages, and when he read his paper, “Egypt Under the Pharaohs,” to the staff at the Grenoble high school, he was made a faculty member on the spot.

Champollion studied Sanskrit, Arabic, Persian, Hebrew and Coptic, a late form of Egyptian. Building on the work of such predecessors as the British scientist Thomas Young, Champollion broke the hieroglyphic code in 1822.

This portrait was painted by Léon Cogniet in 1831, a year before Champollion’s death at age 42.