A Brief History of Ancient Egyptian Art

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Egyptians loved life on earth so much that they desired to take its pleasures into the after-world. They believed that the rich and powerful (at least) were able to take life’s pleasures with them via placement in royal tombs, the Pyramids. Throughout the dynasties of Ancient Egypt, the role of the tomb and accompanying architecture, sculpture, and painting all worked to ensure that Egyptians would enter the afterlife prepared with all the worldly goods they needed.

Role of Art

Most Egyptian art and painting was done for the sake of the dead. At first items like jewelry, animals (cats, for example), food, and other essential tools and treasures were stockpiled within the tombs. The discovery of King Tut’s cache brought the issue to prominence for those in the Western world thousands of years later, but this practice had been in effect for much of ancient Egyptian history.

For Egyptians who didn’t want to stockpile actual items, yet still wanted to ensure a happy afterlife, many chose painting as a labor-saving and cost-cutting measure, replacing expensive treasures, sculpture, or stone carvings. Painting was not limited to tombs. Many wealthy Egyptians often had murals in their homes, done in richly textured, painterly styles. Yet most of the finest examples of Ancient Egyptian art that remains are remnants from tombs.

Examples of Ancient Art

One of the most important tomb paintings is “Geese of Medum” (2530 BC), which showcases three majestic birds from the tomb of Nefermaat, son of Sneferu, the first pharaoh of the 4th dynasty. It is only a frieze detail, but it already hints at the vitality and power of Ancient Egyptian art.

“Lamenting Women” (1370 BC) on the tomb of Ramose (a minister who lived under 2 pharaohs of the 18th dynasty) depicts the scene of a funderal procession. Although the women in the painting appear flat, their expressions of anguish fairly vibrate with emotion.

“Fowling Scene” (1400 BC) from a nobleman’s tomb in Thebes is a good example of fresco secco, a technique that applies tempera paint to dry plaster, and echoes once again the importance of nature.

Importance of Art

For Ancient Egyptians, it was the “eternal essence” that mattered, the constant, unchanging reality that they sought to convey with their art. Art was not meant to reflect the changing nature of the external world. Even though the artists of Ancient Egypt were keen observers of nature, their art and its subjects were created according to a rigid standardization of forms and symbols.

This is not the reflection of “Primativism,” as it is clear from Egyptian art that their technical skill was advanced and their understanding of natural form was astute. Instead Egyptian art was a direct consequence of intellectual decisions that were geared toward the presentation of an ideal.

For example, in Ancient Egyptian art, every subject is shown from an angle that would make it most clearly identifiable, according to a rank-based scale (small to large) based on social hierarchy. The result is a highly patterned almost diagram-like appearance.

This overriding focus on clarity applied to all subjects. In humans, for example, the human head is always shown in profile, yet both eyes are always drawn in front. Figures are portrayed in the same manner, from small to large, based on their ranking in society. Children are merely small adults. As a result, Ancient Egyptian art appears to have a flat appearance without a hint of perspective, but this was a conscious artistic choice.

Rules of Representation

Full-length Egyptian figures in Ancient Egyptian art are organized by the “rule of proportion,” a strict geometric grid system that ensured accurate repetition of the artistic ideal. This was a foolproof system that regulated the exact distances between parts of the body (divided into 18 equal units) and placed in relation to points on a grid.

Before beginning to draw a figure, the Ancient Egyptian artist would create a grid. This can be seen in the Egyptian painting “Pharaoh Tuthmose III” (1450 BC), where the grid still remains.

Breaking with Tradition

Not only did Egyptians paint tombs, they also painted sculpture, and one outstanding example is “Head of Nefertitti” (1360 BC), which was a portrait of the wife of Pharaoh Akhenaten. This example of Ancient Egyptian art is very unusual, however, because it shows a loosening of the rigid conventions that prevailed for centuries. It shows a wistfulness, a grace and originality rarely seen.

This break with traditional Ancient Egyptian art did not last. Naturalism and subtleness had no role in Ancient Egyptian art, and realism was not important. Instead, this mysterious time in history would remain fixated on creating an art that strived for the ideal.


Source by Christine Zibas

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