The Best of Egyptian art?

Typical Egyptian painting

If you’ve ever spent a few minutes looking at Egyptian art, you’ve probably noticed something odd: their human figures are remarkably stiff. In paintings and relief carvings, all of the figures strike the same awkward pose: shoulders toward the viewer, hips forward. Here is a typical example:

Statue after statue stands rigidly still, hands at its sides, feet together. (Some sit rigidly.) Walk into the Greek gallery next door and the contrast is remarkable. Greek statues don’t sit, they sprawl. They don’t just stand, they lean. They run. They saunter. They struggle. Greek statues feel alive.

Typical Greek painting of a woman

The ancient Egyptians were not bad artists. This ring decorated with tiny horse statues is exquisite. The faces on their best statues rival the Greeks, and they outshine the Greeks in rendering women, whom the Greeks oddly could not draw. Paintings of Greek men look like actual humans; paintings of Greek women, however, are stylized–here is an example, because otherwise you won’t believe me. Take a good look at her face. Note the way her forehead descends directly to the tip of her nose in a straight line, without curving as it passes the eyes, nor out along the nose. It would be quite disconcerting if you saw such a profile on a real person; to make it work, they would need a pointed forehead that juts out considerably and “curves” into the skull in a box-like straight edge beneath their hair. 

(By contrast, Greek men were sometimes allowed a normal nasal bridge.)

Their renderings of non-human subjects, like scarabs and hippos, are also excellent. All in all, the Egyptians were clearly skilled artists who for some reason did not draw human movement.

One theory I have seen is that the Egyptians simply did not know how to draw humans in different poses. They could look at people, they could copy various details about people, like their faces and clothes, but they couldn’t come up with the mental idea of drawing a figure that didn’t have its shoulders facing the audience.

This is essentially the ratchet theory of culture. It proposes that talent is common, but true innovators are rare. Once an innovation occurs, however, it enters the cultural lexicon and talented people can copy it.

Terra cotta figurine, predynastic period, about 3500 BC through 3400 BC. From the Brooklyn Museum

But this theory depends on the assumption that the Egyptians couldn’t do any better. What if their style was a choice?

So I went looking for ancient Egyptian art that didn’t fit the mold, pieces that aren’t stereotypically Egyptian, and I found them pretty quickly. Take this statuette from the Brooklyn Museum. Their website states:

Based on images painted on jars of the same date, the female figure with upraised arms appears to be celebrating a ritual. The bird-like face probably represents her nose, the source of the breath of life. The dark patch on her head represents hair, also a human trait. Her white skirt indicates a high-status individual.

Now, this is a very primitive piece, and very old. The sculptor did not bother with fiddly details like “a face”. But it clearly expresses movement, and it is not an isolated piece–as the museum notes, similar figures were painted on jars at the time. Clearly the Egyptians of circa 3,450 BC understood “movement” and could express it in art.

Here is a painting of two Egyptian dancing girls (and flute players). Given the technical limitations of paint and surfaces, they are as well drawn as a great many Greek works.

Battle scene from King Tut’s tomb

Here is one of my favorite Egyptian pieces, a battle scene from King Tut’s tomb.

Yes, the figures are mostly placed in the typical Egyptian posture, shoulders toward us, hips away, but their usual stasis is gone. The painting is a riot; people are everywhere.

Here is a much older depiction of the aftermath of an Egyptian battle, showing a lion and carrion birds feasting on corpses:

It is obviously a more primitive piece, carved before Egyptian style had been completely standardized. But we still see that the figures are allowed to lie every which way; some are in the typical pose, but others, like the captives at the top, are not.

In general, Egyptian art is more expressive when the figures involved have lower social status. Pharaohs are grandiose statues with chiseled pecs, staring quietly into the middle distance; captured slaves are allowed to look around.

One of my favorite pieces I found during this search is this statuette of a boy (warning, nudity.) It is not actually exceptional, but it made me laugh. Children were often depicted without clothes in Egyptian art, and he’s not flipping us off (my first reaction), but putting a finger to his lips in a “childlike” pose. This stele of Ramasses II as a child also features the finer to the lips pose; here is another child with his finger to his lips, in the statue of Nykara and his family.

Akhenaten and Aten, the sun

We do have some records of what the Egyptians thought of their art. Akhenaten, a pharaoh of the 18th dynasty who died around 1335 BC introduced a radical suite of reforms, including an attempt to convert Egypt to monotheism and demands that his artists sculpt his potbelly and scrawny arms rather than make him super buff. He was also depicted in more natural settings than other pharaohs, like this carving of the royal family playing with their children. (Though the artist seems to have never seen a child.)

This artistic shift produced a few statues that are so strange looking that they have inspired theories that he was part alien. I think it more likely that he was an ordinary guy who didn’t exercise and ate too much, maybe with a bit of inbreeding in his family tree. (I don’t know about his parents, but Akhenaten himself married his half-sister, Nefertiti.) I find speculation that he had Marfan’s syndrome more credible than the alien hypothesis.

After Akhenaten’s death, not only were his reforms rolled back, but many of his statues were defaced and subsequent rulers basically tried to make everyone forget about him.

At any rate, Akehnaten’s demand that artists change their style to depict him more realistically gives it away: artists were depicting their subjects unnaturally on purpose. Clearly at least some ancient Egyptian artists could depict people in realistic poses, but they chose not to develop this style because it didn’t fit with the (usual) purpose of their art. Most pharaohs did not want their statues to be realistic; they wanted them to command the fear and awe of the masses.

If someone were judging the quality of American artists based on portraits of our presidents, they would also note an absence of naturalistic posing or movement. They’re all standing or sitting, even that rather unusual one with Obama. Few of our monuments–take the Lincoln Memorial–feature dynamic sculptures.

Formal portraits tend to be quite static, and the Egyptians made a lot of formal portraits.

And since the Egyptians generally didn’t bother making realistic looking portraits, they didn’t develop the talent.

From the MFA

Once the Greeks and Romans show up, Egyptian art changes quite a bit. Take this mummy mask of a young woman, from about 100-130 AD. The Greek influence is particularly noticeable in her hairstyle and in the side view, available on the MFA website, which reveals the sharp, Greek-style edge where her forehead ought to curve smoothly into her skull.

This statue from the same era also looks very Greek-inspired.

Of course, the fact that the Egyptians could pick up an art style once they were exposed to it doesn’t tell us whether they could have developed it on their own. Perhaps they could have, with a few more rulers like Akhenaten, brave (or brazen) enough to break the mold, or if art had become a more mass-market phenomenon.






8 thoughts on “The Best of Egyptian art?

  1. The portraits of the Roman emperors seem relevant here. (There’s a very noticeable shift from high artistic quality to terrible artistic quality, which for unknown reasons corresponds decently well with the shift from paganism to Christianity.)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Absolutely. The artwork generally gets much more unrealistic in Late Antiquity.
      For example, more important figures are suddenly painted much larger than less important ones.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Perhaps different groups of humans made art in exactly the way they were able to translate sense to material. And the abilities overlapped through groups in appearances. Such that art shows the development of the biologically determined human being rather than the creativity of a transcendent-communing “human being” which began at 10k and pretty much stayed the same until now, allowing for learning. Perhaps there was no learning, only evolutionarily biological developing, and the manifestation of exactly ability equivocal with the biological activity. Like a culture of bacteria instead of a flourishing god ordained special creature.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Fascinating! I hadn’t really though about this, but it is expected for the Egyptologists to assume that because the Egyptians DIDN’T (that we know of) they COULDN’T. But this is part and parcel with lots of other discoveries recently indicating that (1) “those ancient cultures weren’t actually so primitive and tiny like we thought”, and (2) “hey, these ancient sources weren’t actually exaggerating and he actually described the correct numbers and sizes, contrary to we smart historians of today thought!”

    I’m thinking of, for example, recent discoveries of the extents of Mayan civilization using LIDAR scanning of rainforests, and a discovery of a ship exactly the size like Herodotus described. (How’s this for a hubristic headline: “This Nile Shipwreck Is First Evidence That Herodotus Wasn’t Lying About Egyptian Boats”??)


    • At first I thought you were saying that the Mayans used LIDAR, and I thought that was a bit much, but then I realized what you meant.

      There’s so much context to art. I can just imagine some future archaeologists digging up the MLK memorial and wondering why the statue wasn’t finished, why American sculptors were so much worse than Greek ones, etc.

      I like your headline.


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