Compared with prehistoric art, which focused on animals, Ancient Egyptian art portrayed a wealth of subjects. The Egyptians covered the corridors of tombs and the walls of temples with row upon row of brightly painted figures in low relief. We see hippopotamus hunts, parties, food preparation, farming, religious processions, payment of taxes to the pharaoh, pottery-making, fishing, embalming of the dead, and more. Interspersed with the human beings are representations of plants that grew along the Nile, cattle and other domesticated animals, birds, and wild beasts such as crocodiles.
Egyptian artists had numerous conventions for representing the human body. These were not just details to identify the figures – for example, the pharaoh’s crown and scepter. The conventions were used for every human. The body was shown with the head in profile but a full-frontal eye. Look at the nearest person’s profile, and you’ll see why that kind of eye is incorrect.
The legs were in profile, but the torso was turned full front. Walking figures had both feet flat on the ground at the same time, rather than having the heel of one foot lifted, as happens when humans walk.
Men were shown wearing a pleated linen kilt, women a short-sleeved linen dress. Nudity was reserved for the lower classes, and was rare even then. Gods (including the pharaoh) and other important figures were always shown larger than everyone else: a simple way of indicating their importance. With the notable exception of the New Kingdom pharaoh Akhenaten (see More, below), artists don’t represent individual characteristics.
It’s easy to tell a Greek sculpture of 600 BC from one of 400 BC, or a French painting of 1400 AD from one of 1600 AD. In Egyptian art over the course of nearly 3,000 years (from ca. 3000 to ca. 100 BC), the most remarkable feature is the lack of change. Egyptians learned very early how to represent human beings sitting or standing, but they did not go further than that. Since there is no noticeable progression in Egyptian art, only a trained Egyptologist can tell the difference between Egyptian reliefs a couple thousand years apart.
Why so little change? Perhaps those who were interested in change were prohibited by the pharaoh from executing any but the official, conventional style of art – the style that was accepted for portraying the pharaoh’s importance and grandeur. The pharaoh certainly had enough religious, political, and economic power to suppress art of which he disapproved.
But there is probably a more basic reason for the lack of change. To an extent unparalleled in other ancient civilizations, the Egyptians were concerned with the afterlife. A pharaoh’s first project was to plan his own tomb. Even the poorest peasant was buried with food and clothing for his later use. The next world was visualized as a pleasant continuation of this world. That seems to have made Egyptians less concerned with striving for progress in this life in any field, including art.
- How can you see the reliefs on a genuine Egyptian temple without leaving the United States? Visit the Temple of Dendur (15 BCE) in New York’s Metropolitan Museum.
- Pharaoh Akhenaten (ruled 1353-1336 BC) tried to make Egyptians worship a single god rather than the 700-plus gods in the Egyptian pantheon. What was behind his attempt, what happened after his death, and why do artists portray his head as shaped like an eggplant? Click here to find out more, or check Wikipedia.
- Almost 20 years ago, I wrote a couple dozen essays on the history of painting for BeyondBooks.com, a subscription service that provided online supplementary materials for high-school students. The site’s owners have given me permission to publish the essays (copyright © 2001 Beyond Books) on my website. This lightly edited essay is the first of six in the section on painting before 1300 AD. I’ve only lightly edited this essay because copyright issues could get thorny … I’m using this series to get my mind back in gear for getting into book form my Innovators in Painting, a companion to Innovators in Sculpture. Both focus not on the art of separate civilizations, but on the major innovations that gave all artists greater power to make viewers stop, look, and think about sculptures. I’m using it to get my mind back in gear for getting into book form my Innovators in Painting, a companion to my Innovators in Sculpture. The Innovators books focus not on the art of separate civilizations, but on the major innovations that gave all artists greater power to make viewers stop, look, and think about sculptures.
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