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History of Art: Ancient Egypt

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This post is part of a series called A Beginner's Guide to Art History.
History of Art: Mesopotamia
History of Art: Ancient Greece

Welcome back to our series on art history. In this article we’ll move forward from Mesopotamia to ancient Egypt where we’ll get into hieroglyphics, paintings, sculpture, and more! 

The ancient Egyptians focused a lot of their artwork on figurative works, religion, rituals, and communication through hieroglyphics. We’ll run through an overview of 3,000 years from 3000 BCE (after the end of the Neolithic era in the region) to 30 BCE before the Romans invaded and took over (think Cleopatra and Caesar. Let’s dive into history!

Ancient Egyptian painting Image by By Sahprw - Own work CC BY-SA 40
Ancient Egyptian painting. Image by Sa.hprw.

Early Dynastic Period, 3000–2686 BCE

Also known as the “Archaic” period, this time follows the Neolithic era and unification of Upper and Lower Egypt. It’s at this time that Egypt comes to be ruled by a god-like king, which is something we started to see near the end of our article on Mesopotamia. With civilization comes a ruling body, and with our species, we tend to really get into all-powerful ruling entities.

Sun-dried bricks, which were common to Mesopotamia, and architecture that included decorative elements (arches and recessed walls as well as decorations themselves) carried over into Egypt. With a more established ruling class came more involved funeral rituals. Ancient Egyptians are renowned for their elaborate funeral practices for rulers and the like.

Mastaba example Image by Jon Bodsworth
Mastaba example. Image by Jon Bodsworth - www.egyptarchive.co.uk.

This is where things like the Step pyramid, which is a structure that uses a series of flat platforms, and the mastaba, an ancient Egyptian tomb, began to be used more often for Egypt’s elite class. When we think of ancient Egyptian tombs, we are talking about the richest of their society creating elaborate structures and art pieces to honor the dead (or send them off into the afterlife). An interesting note to be made is that a lot of the artwork uncovered as a part of these elaborate tombs throughout history wasn’t really meant to be seen or used by the living.

Narmer palette Image via Wikimedia Commons
Narmer palette. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

The first king of Egypt is identified either as Menes or Narmer. Currently it’s believed they are the same person, so more often than not you’ll find people refer to the first pharaoh as Narmer. 

Narmer is shown in the Narmer Palette wearing the crowns of both Upper and Lower Egypt as a sign of having unified the two. At least, that’s the thinking behind the interpretation of it. It’s possible the palette is also purely symbolic. Regardless, the palette is one of the earliest examples of hieroglyphic inscriptions, dating to around 3100 BCE or so, and includes some classic art styles seen throughout ancient Egyptian art.

Old Kingdom, 2686–2181 BCE

The Old Kingdom era starts around the Third Dynasty of Egypt. This coincides with Djoser, who ruled for a couple decades somewhere around 2691–2625 BCE (other sources say 2686–2613). Djoser ordered the construction of a Step pyramid at Saqqara called the Pyramid of Djoser. It’s throughout the Old Kingdom era that Egypt’s first pyramids were created.

Pyramid of Djoser Image by Charlesjsharp
Pyramid of Djoser. Image by Charlesjsharp.

It’s also during the reign of Djoser that we get his vizier, Imhotep, who you might recognize in name as the wacky, power-hungry necromancer of the Mummy movie series. In reality, Imhotep was an architect, engineer, and physician. He designed the Pyramid of Djoser, and it’s possible he was responsible for the first known use of stone columns within ancient Egypt. Later he was revered as a poet and philosopher thanks to the divine status he received after death (around 2,000 years after his death).

Another quite notable pyramid constructed during the Old Kingdom era is the Great Pyramid at Giza. It’s thought to have been commissioned by Khufu during the Fourth Dynasty. The oldest and largest of the three pyramids at Giza, it’s considered to be one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

Great Pyramid at Giza Image By Nina - Own work CC BY 25
Great Pyramid at Giza. Image By Nina.

Likely constructed over the span of a decade (or more), the pyramid consists of limestone, granite, and mortar. Limestone was used for the casing. Casing stones are slanted, flat-topped stones that create the face of the pyramid. In order to cut stone like limestone and graphite, Egyptians hammered wood wedges into the stone, soaked the wedges with water, and as the wedges expanded from the water they cracked the rock, allowing pieces to be cut or broken away. 

Stones traveled to the construction site on boats via the Nile River where they were then built into the pyramid that still stands today. As for how exactly the pyramid was built, there are so many theories including slave labor, skilled workers, blocked being rolled or dragged, and more.  

Statue of Iaiib and his wife Chuaut Giza 4th dynasty
Statue of Iaiib and his wife Chuaut, Giza; 4th dynasty. Image by Einsamer Schütze.

Other artistic contributions of the Old Kingdom to Egypt include the first life-size statues created in wood, copper, and stone as well as portraits of individuals, which we see quite often in subsequent centuries. Structures and objects were decorated with relief carvings that depicted landscapes, plants, animals, and more. 

Artworks were centered around the afterlife, though I always wonder how much is missing since a great deal of them come from ancient tombs. All in all, the Old Kingdom comprises four dynasties through 500 years or so.

Middle Kingdom, 2000–1700 BCE

Next, we jump ahead to the Middle Kingdom. This era brought us the block statue, which was a memorial sculpture depicting a figure squatting or seated with their arms resting on their knees. Often the figure wears a cloak, rendering their body into a block-like shape. There are two types of statues in this genre: with a cloak that covers the feet and with the feet and legs exposed.

Block statue of Senemut
Block statue of Senemut. Image by Andreas Praefcke.

Nobles were also rendered into busts and other statues. This, unlike a lot of artwork before it, included depictions of women in a context that has nothing to do with being a fertility statue or a goddess.

Head and Torso of a Noblewoman ca 18441837 BCE
Head and Torso of a Noblewoman, ca. 1844–1837 B.C.E. Image by Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund.

Interestingly, these statues were able to show beauty standards, makeup, and hair styles of the time period within the carving itself.

New Kingdom, 1550–1069 BCE

The New Kingdom era begins around the time Ahmose I reunited Egypt around the 17th Dynasty. Since we’re focused on art in this article rather than all of Egypt’s history, it suffices to say that this kicked off Egypt’s third great cultural era.

This era is notable for being a time in which royals were quite extravagant. Luckily for the world of art, when the rich are being fancy, fantastic artwork tends to be created. What better way to show wealth or honor the living and the dead than with paintings, sculptures, and more?

A relief of a royal couple in the Amarna-period style
A relief of a royal couple in the Amarna-period style. Image by Andreas Praefcke.

The Amarna period in the late Eighteenth Dynasty saw a change in the overall art style. Figures were more androgynous and expressive than before. Fingers and toes were long and slender, faces were elongated, and stomachs, thighs, and chests were shown to be fatter than before. Previously figures would be shown to have two right feet or two left feet, while in the Amarna style they had each a right and left foot.

Around 1200 BCE, Ramses and those who followed focused on large works including relief pieces where designs were cut into stone rather than the background being cut away. Since these pieces were big, they’re not as highly detailed as the smaller works that preceded them.

Throughout the New Kingdom period, the dead were buried with the Book of the Dead. A collection of texts consisting of spells intended to assist a person’s journey into the afterlife were written and painted onto papyrus and buried with them in their coffin. This tradition carried on through this era into the next.

A portion of the Book of the Dead Image via Wikimedia Commons
A portion of the Book of the Dead. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

People who commissioned these texts for themselves or for loved ones were rich, since papyrus was expensive, and creating such a “book” could garner a scribe half a year’s wages. Interestingly, pre-made collections could be purchased, allowing buyers to have the dead person’s name placed within the text upon purchase. The Papyrus of Ani is an example of one such “book”.

Late Period (664–332 BCE) and Beyond

Sometime after the New Kingdom comes the Late Period. The scale of artwork diminished compared to the eras that came before. Bronze figures became more common during this time and carried into the Ptolemaic period that followed. Animals, especially figures like Bastet and Apis, were rendered in bronze during the Late Period.

 Gayer-Anderson Cat believed to be a representation of Bastet
Gayer-Anderson Cat, believed to be a representation of Bastet. Image by Einsamer Schütze.

Following the Late Period, Egypt was taken over by the Persians, Greeks, and Romans (in that order). Alexander the Great conquered the Persians to bring about the Ptolemaic Kingdom (332–30 BCE), and later Octavius defeated Marc Antony, got rid of Cleopatra, and annexed Egypt in the name of the Roman Empire (30 BCE to 4th Century CE). 

Our next two articles will cover ancient Greece and Rome respectively, so understanding those cultural and artistic influences on the region is best saved until later.

Painting Styles

After running through an overview of the timeline, I wanted to take some time out to chat about the paintings found throughout ancient Egypt. Often when I think of art from these eras, it’s paintings or painted media (relief, sculpture, etc.) that come to mind.

Surfaces that were painted were likely prepared with layers of whitewash and/or gesso, a primer-like paint. It’s suggested that minerals were used with an unknown binder (possibly egg tempera). It’s said that Egyptians were strict about painting. They used six colors: red, yellow, green, blue, white, and black. A small paint box found in the tomb of Tutankhamen contained these six colors.

An example of a scribes palette
An example of a scribe's palette. Image by Harrogate Museums and Arts.

From 4000 BCE onward, color washes were used within painting. The first uses of blue pigment were found to date back to 3000 BCE. Later they used vegetable dyes in addition to mineral pigments, and were the first in known history to create “lake pigments”. A lake pigment is a pigment that’s been rendered insoluble by mixing it with tannin, metallic salt, or some other compound. This sort of pigment was used for thousands of years following this period, allowing for a wider range of pigments to be created.

Egyptian Wall Painting Woman Holding a Sistrum
Egyptian Wall Painting Woman Holding a Sistrum. Image via Wikimedia Commons

Aside from their contributions to pigments and paints themselves, the Egyptians had a classic style used for thousands of years (until the Amarna period) that consisted of figures shown with heads in profile, bodies facing forward, and feet in profile (often shown as two left feet or two right feet). 

Furthermore, unless children or gods were being illustrated in these paintings, all human figures were shown  in the same proportions (18 fists high). The rigidity of these figures contrasts quite a bit with the expressive Amarna period I wrote about above.

Conclusion

From relief and sculptures to paintings and papyrus texts, the ancient Egyptians made huge contributions to the art world. It’s quite lucky that so many of their dynasties were focused on an afterlife since many extravagant burial sites have given us numerous pieces of art and preserved them for study in the hopes of understanding their lives, culture, and history.

These are just the highlights of several thousand years of artistic expression and history. Ancient Egypt is filled with some fantastic artwork that has a lot to say about its cultural history. I implore you to read on about each era in Egyptian art and to get to know the figures contained within each era, whether they’re historical or mythological figures.

Want to read more about Egyptian art? Check out these books and links below!

Article sources include the following:

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