Egyptian Art

Egyptian art, works of art created in the geographic area constituting the nation of Egypt. It is one of the world's oldest arts.

Earliest History

The art of predynastic Egypt (c.4000–3200 BC), known from funerary offerings, consisted largely of painted pottery and figurines, ivory carvings, slate cosmetic palettes, and finely worked flint weapons. In painting, a monumental treatment was given to designs like those drawn in red on buff-colored pottery from Hieraconpolis, a palace city of upper Egypt. Toward the end of the predynastic period, sculptors began to carve monolithic figures of the gods from limestone, such as the Min at Coptos. In the protodynastic and early dynastic periods (3200–2780 BC) some Mesopotamian motifs began to appear. The craftsmanship of the finely worked stone bowls and vases of these periods is particularly remarkable.

The Old Kingdom

With the beginning of the Old Kingdom, centered at Memphis (2680–2258 BC), there was a rapid development of the stylistic conventions that characterized Egyptian art throughout its history. In relief sculpture and painting, the human figure was usually represented with the head in profile, the eye and shoulders in front view, and the pelvis, legs, and feet in profile (the law of frontality). There was little attempt at plastic or spatial illusionism. The reliefs were very low; relief and shallow intaglio are often found in the same piece. Color was applied in flat tones, and there was no attempt at linear perspective. A relief masterpiece from the I dynasty is the palette of Namer (Cairo). It represents animal and human forms in scenes of battle with the ground divided into registers and with emphasis on silhouette in the carving.

In statuary in the round various standing and seated types were developed, but there was strict adherence to the law of frontality and a tendency to emphasize symmetry and to minimize suggestion of movement. Outstanding Old Kingdom examples of sculpture in the round are the Great Chephren, in diorite, the Prince Ra-hetep and Princess Neferet, in painted limestone, the Sheik-el-Beled (mayor of the village), in painted wood (all: Cairo), and the Seated Scribe, in painted limestone (Louvre). Probably because of its relative impermanence, painting was little used as a medium of representation; it appears to have served principally as accessory to sculpture. A rare example is the painting of geese from a tomb at Medum (Cairo).

Religious beliefs of the period held that the happy posthumous existence of the dead depended on the continuation of all phases of their earthly life. The artist's task was therefore to produce a statement of reality in the most durable materials at his command. Tombs were decorated with domestic, military, hunting, and ceremonial scenes. Entombed with the deceased were statues of him and of his servants and attendants, often shown at characteristic occupations.

The Middle Kingdom

The Middle Kingdom, with its capital at Thebes (2000–1786 BC), was a new age of experiment and invention that grew out of the turbulence of the First Intermediate Period (2134–c.2000 BC). The forms of the Old Kingdom were retained, but the unity of style was broken. Increasing formalism was combined with a meticulous delicacy of craftsmanship. The paintings of the rock-cut tombs at Bani Hasan (e.g., Slaves Feeding Oryxes and Cat Stalking Prey, Tomb of Khnemu-hetep) are outstanding for freedom of draftsmanship. In sculpture the sensitive portraits of Sesostris III and Amenemhet III (both: Cairo) are exceptional in Egyptian art, which at all other times showed a reluctance to portray inner feeling.

The New Kingdom

The art of the New Kingdom (1570–1342 BC) can be viewed as the final development of the classic Egyptian style of the Middle Kingdom, a combination of the monumental forms of the Old Kingdom and the drive and inspiration of the Middle Kingdom. The paintings of this period are noted for boldness of design and controlled vitality. In sculpture the emphasis is on bulk, solidity, and impersonality.

During the Amarna period (1372–1350 BC) a free and delicate style developed with many naturalistic tendencies and a new sense of life and movement. In sculpture the new style was carried to the point of caricature, e.g., in the colossal statue of Ikhnaton (Cairo). The outstanding masterpiece of this period is the painted limestone bust of Queen Nefertiti (Berlin Mus.). The delicacy, sophistication, and extreme richness of this style in its late period is best exemplified by the furnishings from the tomb of Tutankhamen.

The Ramesside period (1314–1085 BC) saw an attempt to return to the classic formalism of the earlier New Kingdom, but the vitality that characterized that period could not be recovered. The sculpture, both in relief and in the round, became monotonous and even overbearing except in the numerous battle scenes. The period of decline (1085–730 BC) is characterized by mechanical repetition of earlier forms in the major arts and by the introduction of satirical and often cynical drawings in the papyri. In the Saïte period (730–663 BC) there was an attempt to return to the austerity of the Old Kingdom style, but for the simplicity of the earlier forms a coarse brutality was substituted.

After the conquest of Egypt by the Assyrians in 663 BC all the arts declined with the exception of metalworking, in which a high standard of skill was maintained. Neither the Assyrian nor the subsequent Persian invasions left a mark on Egyptian art, and even under the Ptolemaic dynasty (332–30 BC) Egypt proved extraordinarily resistant to Hellenic conceptions of art. The ancient architectural tradition retained its vitality, as in the temples of Horus at Idfu and Isis at Philae, but painting and sculpture continued to decline. Native naturalism may have influenced the painted Fayum panels and orant (praying) portraits on mummy shrouds, but neither their subjects nor their style is essentially Egyptian. The minor arts, however, continued to flourish; alabaster vases, faience pottery and figurines, glassware, ivories, and metalwork were produced with the ancient skill and in the traditional Egyptian style.

Bibliography

See W. S. Smith, Art and Architecture of Ancient Egypt (1958); W. C. Hayes, The Scepter of Egypt (2 vol., 1959–60); K. Lange and M. Hirmer, Egypt: Architecture, Sculpture, Painting in Three Thousand Years (4th ed., tr. 1968); J. S. Curl, The Egyptian Revival (1982); L. Karnouk, Modern Egyptian Art (1987).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2014, The Columbia University Press.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

The Art of Egypt: The Time of the Pharaohs
Irmgard Woldering.
Greystone Press, 1963
The Art and Architecture of Ancient Egypt
W. Stevenson Smith.
Penguin Books, 1958
The Art of Ancient Egypt: Architecture, Sculpture, Painting, Applied Art
Hermann Ranke.
The Phaidon Press, 1936
Daily Life of the Ancient Egyptians
Bob Brier; Hoyt Hobbs.
Greenwood Press, 1999
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 8 "Arts and Crafts"
The Legacy of Egypt
S. R. K. Glanville.
Clarendon Press, 1942
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 4 "Egyptian Art"
Sculpture through the Ages
Lincoln Rothschild.
Whittlesey House, 1942
Librarian’s tip: "Egypt: Why Change?" begins on p. 3
The Arts and Man
Raymond S. Stites.
Whittlesey house, McGraw-Hill book company, inc., 1940
Librarian’s tip: Chap. IV "The Religious Art of Egyt"
Prehistory and the Beginnings of Civilization
Jacquetta Hawkes; Leonard Woolley.
Harper & Row, 1963
Librarian’s tip: Discussion of Egyptian art begins on p. 763
Art History: An Anthology of Modern Criticism
Wylie Sypher.
Vintage Books, 1963
Librarian’s tip: Discussion of Egyptian art begins on p. 67
Continuity and Change in Art: The Development of Modes of Representation
Ethel S. Blatt; Sidney J. Blatt.
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1984
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 3 "From Topological to Projective Space: Painting in the Ancient, Greco-Roman, and Medieval Periods"
Feminism and Art History: Questioning the Litany
Norma Broude; Mary D. Garrard.
Icon Editions, 1982
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 1 "Matrilineal Reinterpretation of Some Egyptian Sacred Cows"
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