The History Of Egypt

The History Of Egypt

Egypt marked the passage of time with kings and dynasties as evidenced in Egyptian art. Egyptian monumental art began on a large scale with Pharaonic rule, originating when King Narmer (Menes) united Upper and Lower Egypt. Egyptian kings were considered gods and were depicted as such in art of the time as is seen in the Palette of Narmer. King Narmer is the largest figure with his head and legs in profile view, and his eye and upper torso in frontal view (Adams, p.47-48). The history of Egypt has been divided by modern scholars into Predynastic Period (5450-3100 B.C.) Early Dynastic Period (3100-2649 B.C.), followed by the Old Kingdom (2649-2150 B.C.), Middle Kingdom (1991-1700 B.C.), New Kingdom (1550-1070 B.C.) and the Late Dynastic Period (688-332 B.C.). These periods included “intermediate periods” (2143-1991 B.C., 1699-1641 B.C., and 1070-660 B.C.) of anarchy and foreign domination (Adams, p.47). The art of the Predynastic period consisted mainly of painted pottery and figurines, ivory carvings, slate cosmetic palettes, and finely worked flint weapons (http:/ During the later part of the Dynastic period, sculptors began to carve monolithic figures of the gods from limestone, such as the Min at Coptos. Remarkable Mesopotamian motifs and craftsmanship began to appear on stone bowls and vases. (

During the Old Kingdom period, the Pharaoh’s power was expressed in the pyramid in which he was buried. Egyptians believed that the next life had to be provided for in every detail. Tombs were decorated with depictions of the deceased at his funerary meal, activities of the estate and countryside, and the anything necessary to sustain the spirit. Religious beliefs of the period held that a happy life after death existence depended on the continuation of all phases of the earthly life of the deceased. The most impressive pyramids were built in Cairo at Giza, on the West Bank of the Nile. These are the pyramid of Khufu (which was the largest); the pyramid of his son, Khafre; and the pyramid of Khafre’s son, Menkaure. Sculpture during this period was equally impressive. The more important the person, the more impressive the sculpture. The statue of Khafre depicts this convention (Adams, p. 50-51).

Sculptures and paintings in the Middle Kingdom Period are more naturalistic and delicate than those of the Old Kingdom Period. The sculptured forms were more rounded and the faces showed more expression. For example, the portrait of Sesostris III who referred to himself as the shepherd of his people. His portrait appeared to show the concern in his face with worry lines and a slight frown on his forehead. Paintings during the period showed birds and fish appearing to fly and swim which conveyed a sense of volume (Adams p.55, p. 59).

The art of the New Kingdom (1570-1342 B.C.) shows a classic Egyptian style of the Middle Kingdom, a combination of the monumental forms of the Old Kingdom, and the drive and inspiration of the Middle Kingdom. The paintings of this period are noted for boldness of design and controlled vitality. In sculpture, the emphasis is on bulk, solidity, and impersonality (

During the Amarna Period (1349-1336 B.C.), the artistic style was greatly influenced by Akhenaten IV, the Eighteenth Dynasty king, who challenged the entrenched religious cults adopting a new and unpopular religious system that was relatively monotheistic (Adams, p.60). The best-known sculpture from the Amarna period is the naturalistic painted limestone bust of Akhenaten’s wife, Nefertiti. The small sculpture of Akhenaten and Nefertiti playing with their daughters illustrates stylistic, iconographic, and a new humanity in the Amarna style. At the end of the Amarnaian period, Egypt reverted to its previous beliefs and revised traditional artistic style (Adams p.60-61).

During the Eighteenth and Nineteenth dynasties, the Egyptians built their most imposing temples in Nubia. During the last hundred years of the New Kingdom (1170-1070 B.C.), Egypt and Nubia declined. The economic and artistic high point of this period is referred to as Merotic (Adams p. 63). Meroe Pyramids were derived from Egyptian pyramids but were more impressive although they were smaller than the Old Kingdom Egyptian royal pyramids.

In contrast, the Greek style of pottery was called Geometric from 1000-700 B.C. The Orientalizing style from 700-640 B.C. showed influences from Eastern art, with the development of monumental sculptures. Stylistic categories of Greek art that followed Orientalizing Art are Archaic (600-480 B.C.), Classical (530-400 B.C.), and Hellenistic (420-1st Century B.C.). Stylistic conventions characterized Egyptian art throughout its history. The human figure was usually represented with the head in profile, the eye and shoulders in front view, and the pelvis, legs, and feet in profile. Color was applied in flat tones (Adams, p. 85-87).

During the Archaic Period (640-490 B.C.), vase painters depicted mythological scenes, and toward the end of the archaic period, many scenes from contemporary life. Sculpture emerged as a principal form of artistic expression with a technique known as black-figure. The artists painted figures in black silhouette with a slip made of clay and water. The Greeks learned from the Egyptians how to carve blocks of stone but adapted the technique to suite their own tastes (Adams p.86, p.88).

In the Early Classical Period (490-450 B.C.), a new humanism began to find its aesthetic expression in terms of a perfect balance between probability and abstraction of form. The red-figure painting technique was introduced in the late Archaic period and continued through the fourth century B.C. The artists were free to paint in a more realistic way and the skin tones appeared to be more natural than with the black color previously used. Painters began to depict element of landscape during the mid-fifth century B.C. (Adams p. 87).

The aesthetic ideal based on the representation of human character as an expression of a divine system embodying a rational ethic and ordered reality was integral to the culture during the Classical Period (450-400 B.C.). The most magnificent original sculptures from this period are those from the temples of the Athenian acropolis. A change in artistic style coincided with the Persians’ final departure from Greek. The new developments of this new style can be seen in the marble Kritios Boy reflecting a moment in self-awareness in Greek history marked by the change from Archaic to Early Classical. Changing from marble to bronze for large-scale sculpture marked another development in the Early Classical period (Adams, p. 90).

In the Late Classical Period (400-300 B.C.), there was increased emphasis on the expression of emotion in art as with the “Warrior by a Grave.” This piece shows a warrior sitting by a grave appearing to be in mourning and meditation (Adams p.87). The works of art produced during this period reflect the cultural and intellectual achievements of Greece and had a far-reaching influence on subsequent Western art and culture. During this period, the Greeks built a temple (to house the gods) with plans derived from the megaron found in Mycenaean palaces, embellishing it with an exterior colonnade. The Athenian artist, Phidias, designed the Parthenon. The leading Athenian sculptor was Praxiteles. It was through his work that the female (Aphrodite) entered the canon of beauty in Greek art, which had been previously restricted to the male nude. (Adams, p. 95).

With the conquest of Alexander the Great, Greek art entered its last great phase, the Hellenistic period (323-31 B.C.). The Greek interest in naturalism led to a delight in illusionism and terracotta figurines. An increase in portrait type sculpture such as children, as with Sleeping Eros; and old people, Old Market Woman, are represented during this period. Theatricality and melodrama express extremes of emotion and inner character is conveyed through an emphasis on formal realism (Adams p.110).

Greek art was a model throughout the Mediterranean and provided the Classical model from that time forward. Rome had its own local style of art yet with a Greek influence in sculpture, painting, and architecture. Romans identified their own gods with counterparts in the Greek pantheon and adopted Greek iconography. Greek art was more idealistic, but Roman art was generally commemorative, narrative, and based on history rather than myth (Adams p.124.).

In Greek religion, gods were in human form and had human personalities. The Greeks believed that they participated in human events, such as the Trojan War and influenced the outcome. The Greeks also believed in an elaborate preservation of the physical body after death, erecting grave-markers, which were memorials to the dead. In contrast to the continuity of Egyptian art, Greek art evolved rapidly from stylization toward naturalism. In Greek art, measurements were in relation to human scale and organic form. Greeks artists were the first to sign their work, thereby, giving their artists a new status (Adams, p. 83-84).

The pottery of the late Geometric Period (1000-700 B.C.) is characterized by two-dimensional stylized patterns, effectively designed but bearing little relation to nature. Between 700 and 600 B.C. this geometric style gave way to new interest in representation and Asian influence encouraged the use of floral and arabesque designs and the adoption of Asian monster and animal themes. With influences from the Near East and Egypt, shapes in Greek art became larger and more curvilinear in the Orientalizing period (700-640 B.C.) than those of the Geometric style (Adams, p. 85).

Because there were important differences between the Greek and Roman approaches to history, differences in their views of art are evident. Greek art was a model throughout the Mediterranean and provided the Classical model for art thereafter. Art had its own style in Rome, yet it continued to be influenced by Greek sculpture, painting, and architecture. Sculpture was used to decorate public and private buildings and much of Roman art was made as official propaganda to glorify the ruler, proclaim victories, or to make pious references to the state and its governance. (

The purpose of Roman portraiture was genealogical, preserving family lineage. The typical Roman family was grouped into a clan or genes, by which individuals traced their descent. Portraits (sculptures or paintings) had a twofold function, to preserve the person’s image and to contribute to the history of the family. Roman art usually depicted historical events, commemorating the actions of particular individuals rather than myths (Adams, p. 124).

The Romans inherited a lot from the Etruscans, but they also borrowed many ideas from the Greeks. Sculpture was used to decorate public and private buildings and much of Roman art was made as official propaganda to glorify the ruler, proclaim victories, or to make pious references to the state and its governance. Such statues could portray important personalities in armor to proclaim a military victory, as an orator in reference to learned activities, or even as deity to suggest an association with the gods (

Architecture was a major art form in ancient Rome. Public, Private, and Religious, and Commemorative Architecture reflect its significance. The Colosseum (begun in A.D.72 under Vespasian) was for public spectacles. (131). Aqueducts, an example of Roman practicality and engineering ability was the development of the bridge with the most impressive example being the Pont du Gard, located in Nimes in the south of France. Religious temples were derived from Greek and Etruscan precedents. The Temple of Portunus shows a lot of Greek influence due to the many Greek architects who worked in Rome following the Roman conquest of Greece in 146 B.C. The Ara Pacis was one of the most symbolic marble monuments during the reign of Augustus (Adams, p. 132-137).

Funeral sculptures of art included sarcophagus, that had been used by the Etruscans. Bacchus and the Four Seasons reflect the symbolic use of Greek iconography in Roman art. Portrait types most characteristic of Rome were busts, whereby the head is portrayed detached from the body. Busts were usually carved in marble, usually from a wax death mask so that all features and details were preserved. One of the most important subjects of Roman sculpture was the emperor, Augustus of Prima Porta. He is portrayed as both orator and general (Adams, p. 143-144). Roman murals are among the most significant legacies of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in A.D. 79. Because of the durable technique of adding wax to increase the surface shine, many murals have survived catastrophic events (Adams, p. 146).

During the course of the Roman Empire, a new religion was born. This new religion, Christianity, was legally sanctioned by Constantine the Great in A.D. 313. Christianity dominated Western art and culture, and new conventions of style were developed, expressing the new Christian message (Adams, p 149).


The Detroit Institute of Arts, Ancient Art, Rome, 2001.


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