What are the characteristics of Ancient Egyptian art? Why did they use a very recognizable style that lasted for hundreds of years? Discuss three examples of Egyptian art and describe them stylistically using artistic terms that relate to them. Define the terms. Include the title, the patron, the location, and the artist if there is one given.
Ancient Egyptian artworks are today displayed in the most famous museums all over the world. The art of ancient Egypt -at least aesthetically- pleases the modern eye, while its uniformity makes Egyptian artworks among the most recognizable of world art. However, the way we see ancient Egyptian art today is very different than what the ancient Egyptians had in mind when creating it. To begin with, art in the modern sense of the word did not exist in ancient Egypt (Robins 21). That means that the ancient Egyptians did not create art for art’s sake. Instead, their art had a functional purpose and in order to achieve this purpose a set of rules was observed by artists for almost the whole of Ancient Egyptian history.
Egyptian art is primarily religious and can be found mainly in tombs and temples, buildings that were meant to last forever even when their owners or creators were long dead. Ιt is closely connected to the Egyptian belief in the existence of life after death and aimed at ensuring the survival of the dead in the afterlife or facilitate the worshipping of the various Egyptian deities (Robins 21). In order to serve these particular purposes the Egyptian artist followed strictly a canon of proportions which changed very little over time. The human body was depicted in its prime: youthful, elegant and healthy. The statues always had a frontal view while in wall paintings the figures were designed inside a grid which determined the size of each part of the body. At the same time, the bodies were depicted in a combination of profile and frontal views, something that ensured that the most characteristic aspects would be represented. The most important figures, for example these of the pharaoh or the tomb owner were traditionally presented in a larger scale than all other figures in order to show their importance (Robins 21-31).
The Old Kingdom statue of Khafre from Gizeh, dates from c 2575-2525 BC (Tansey and Kleiner 76, picture 3.13). It is made from diorite, a solid, almost unbreakable material which in itself symbolizes the eternal character of the work. The king is seated on a throne, a young and vigorous man, in a frontal position, his body motionless, his arms close to his thighs, his gaze eternally still and calm. The statue is symmetrical, follows closely the Egyptian canon in representation, technique and ideology, and gives a sense of solidity and rigidity that evades time (Tansey and Kleiner 75).
The façade –front part- of the New Kingdom temple of Ramses II in Abu Simbel (c. 1275-1225 BC, Tansey and Kleiner 85, picture 3.26) shows how little Egyptian art changed over time. Colossal statues of the seated king created out of the natural rock of the site decorate the façade. The king is presented seated on a throne like the previous example; his posture is also frontal, his arms are placed strictly on his thighs, wears a similar false beard and headdress (Tansey and Kleiner 85). On his feet smaller figures are standing above hieroglyphic script. The colossal size of the statues aims to impress and at the same time show the eternal aspect of both the building and its owner.
The New Kingdom wall painting from the tomb of Nebamun at Thebes dates from c 1350 BC (Robins 22, picture 11). Three figures are depicted in the river Nile along with birds, animals, plants and fish. Nebamun is placed at the centre as the most important person in the group. He is accompanied by his wife and child. All figures are depicted in the typical Egyptian combination of profile and frontal views. Although the scene has a sense of naturalism at first glance, when re-examined it is obvious that realism was not the intention of the artist. For example the cat could not possibly stand on the edge of a papyrus plant while hunting, Nebamun could not have been so much taller than his wife, while the size of the child is even less realistic (Robins 22). It is more probable that the artist wanted to present a setting from the everyday life of the tomb owner while he was alive in order to ensure his continuous existence in the afterlife.
Ancient Egyptian art presents a striking uniformity for most of its 3000 year history. A uniformity that makes Egyptian works of art recognizable in whatever context they are placed in, but which can also lead to severe misunderstandings about their nature and meaning. A thorough understanding of their art brings the ancient Egyptians closer to every researcher and their civilization is then better appreciated.
Robins, G. The Art of Ancient Egypt. Cambridge, Massachussets: Harvard University Press, 2000
Tansey, Richard G. and Fred S. Kleiner. Gardner’s Art Through the Ages. Orlando, FL: Harcourt Brace College Publishers, 1996.