Egyptian Art History


Art has been in existence as long as humanity. For thousands of years, art has been used as a form of expression by many artists, in expression of their beliefs, emotions and form of symbolism in their cultures. Thus, in the same way that language tends to be different in various cultures, so is art perceived differently in various cultures, but with the common aim of communicating a certain message or theme. Art can exist in various forms such as in form of a painting, drawing or carving. The history of art traverses almost the entire history of mankind, from the prehistoric times to the current century. Thus, time has seen the evolution of art, from the ancient times, the renaissance period to the now modern era. The history of art is rich, as it gives information on the various forms of art that were adopted by individuals in different societies all over the world. This paper will focus on the ancient Egyptian art, before the renaissance period. Art in ancient Egypt is usually perceived in various periods which were divided as the Early Dynastic period, the Old Kingdom, the Middle Kingdom, the New Kingdom and Intermediate Period (Kleiner, Fred, and Helen 44).  

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The New Kingdom included the Amarna Period of King Amenhotep.  The Early Dynastic period consisted of the 1st and 2nd Dynasties while the Old Kingdom consisted of the 3rd to the 6th Dynasties. The first intermediate period consisted of the 7th to 11th Dynasties; the Middle Kingdom contained the 12th Dynasty while the second intermediate period consisted of the 13th to 17th Dynasties. After this came the Ptolemaic Era and the period of the Roman rule (Kleiner, Fred, and Helen 69). In the ancient period, art was very crucial in the Egyptian culture as it symbolized their culture, norms, beliefs, and everyday life. The art was created for religious and mythical purposes. Indeed, the objects that they created revealed their beliefs concerning the world and their attempts to understand it. The major themes that were represented in Egyptian art included the purpose of the gods, the cycles of life, living after one’s death, and the responsibility of the king. The Egyptians addressed special deities to symbolize religion and small figurines of these deities were stored in their houses or worn as ornaments. In art, these deities were represented as animals, humans or humans with animal heads. Additionally, illustrative headdresses were a form of identity that they would hold in their hands. In fact, they held different scepters and the ankh (Kleiner, Fred, and Helen 65). Ancient Egyptian art lay emphasis on three key elements: sculpture, engraving and painting.  Engravings were used as a depiction of the gods, the pharaoh’s life, and legends that existed about them. Paintings on the other hand were used to depict legends about the gods, and had hieroglyphic captions to explain them. Sculptures were another form of ancient Egyptian art that were used to honor the gods and pharaohs.

The King in Egyptian Art

In ancient Egypt, art played a key role in asserting the powers of the king and defining his responsibilities. As a result of the respect they had for the king, the relief sculptures in the temples depicted only the king in communication with the gods. Kings were represented as perfect human beings with perfect youthful features, although in some periods the king’s face could be represented as haggard or old, more so in the Middle Kingdom period. In many cases, the king’s face was often characterized in a way that his people could be able to identify him even if they could not read the name. In artistic works, the kings were usually depicted as royalty, and their regalia and specific inscriptions showed this. For instance, the depiction of the royal kilt could be through an ornamental bull’s tail that symbolized superhuman power or the drawing of a cobra at the forehead of the king’s face (Kleiner, Fred, and Helen 87).

Ancient Egyptian Painting

The use of color in ancient Egyptian paintings was not only for aesthetic appeal but also for symbolism. They used both cool and warm colors that offered depth and captivating interest to their art in addition to being signs to their gods. They had the belief that certain colors were not just symbolic but were imbued with certain powers that were connected to various gods. Additionally, the paintings were made with the intention of making the deceased’s afterlife pleasant. In many cases, the paintings were in such a way that they showed a profile view and side view of the deceased in uniform time. The six key colors that Egyptian artists used include red, green, black, white, yellow, and blue. Red in ancient Egypt was used to symbolize life and victory as well as fire and anger. Green was used to symbolize growth, fertility, and new life while yellow was symbolic of an eternal life. Blue was symbolic of rebirth and creation, while white symbolized sacred things as it was seen as the color of purity. Black on the other hand, symbolized death and was a representation of the night and the underworld (Cartocci 45). Paint was used throughout the Old Kingdom to decorate limestone reliefs; however, during the 6th Dynasty painted scenes began to replace relief in private tombs. During the Middle Kingdom, the nobles’ rectangular coffins were painted with meticulous care, and were turned into real houses for the dead spirits. The coffins’ interior surfaces were at times painted with offerings that were made to the dead to ensure that they would continue in the afterlife. To depict items of clothing, paintings of head cloths were at the head end while spare pairs of sandals were painted at the feet (Kleiner, Fred, and Helen 99).

Example of an Egyptian painting

Egyptian Sculpture

Sculptures were also common forms of art in ancient Egypt. In many cases, the artists used various arm and hand gestures to explain what the figure was doing. For example, to depict that the person was worshiping, both arms would be extended forward with the hands upraised while to represent mourning, the arms would be raised with the palms turning in the direction of the face. In making their sculptures, sunken relief was a common technique that was adopted by the artists (Schatz 55).

Tomb Reliefs

Unlike later tombs, the early tombs that were carved in the 4th, 5th and 6th dynasties showed greater skill of the sculptors than those of later periods. For the early tombs, the focus was usually on the slabs that were carved with a depiction of the deceased sitting in front of the table of offerings. In contrast, the latter carvings were usually located above the false door, through which the dead person’s spirit could continue to enter or leave the tomb (Schatz 44).

Hieroglyphs and Egyptian Art

Dating back to the genesis of Egyptian history, art and writing were perceived to be inseparable. Often, most Egyptian works of art were in sense larger forms of figures in hieroglyphs. In many cases, certain words such as “justice” and “power” could not be expressed using pictures. In order to write such words, the Egyptians usually used the rebus method, which entailed the use of pictures of things to stand for other words that sound the same. The Egyptians put a determinative at the end of most words in order to give meaning to what was being depicted. The determinative was usually an ideogram that explained the meaning of the word. For example, after hemet (wife), they put the figure of a seated woman. The Egyptians needed to have knowledge in over seven hundred hieroglyphs in order to write and draw them well. Often, the artists wrote the hieroglyphs on papyrus, in order from right to left (Kleiner, Fred, and Helen 54). A pot with hieroglyph Cartouche A cartouche in ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs was an oval with a horizontal line, which came into use during the 4th Dynasty under pharaoh sneferu. The horizontal line represented that the enclosed text was a royal name. Pharaohs were the only ones entitled to wear the cartouches, and the oval surrounding their names were meant  as a form of protection from evil spirits in life and even after their death (Cartocci 67).

A Cartouche

The character and style of ancient Egyptian art was based on keen observation, homeometric regularity and a precise representation of actual nature and life (Kleiner, Fred, and Helen 76). Additionally, there was strict conformity to rules pertaining to representation of three-dimensional forms in the art. Hence, the ancient Egyptians’ art was characterized by order, which was represented by a combination of simple lines and shapes that formed the drawings. Additionally, to maintain the right proportions in their work, the artists made use of horizontal and vertical reference lines.  To clearly depict and define a situation’s social hierarchy, the artists drew figures based on their relative importance. For example, the pharaoh was always drawn as the principal figure regardless of his location showing the high status that was given to him (Riggs 56).


In ancient Egyptian art, the artists were usually included among craftsmen. They worked in closely knit teams under an administrator’s supervision who in many cases was not himself a craftsman or an artist. The artists and craftsmen usually depended on an institution such as a temple or a dignitary’s household for the provision of raw materials, the directives on what works were to be created and also for the provision of a place of work. The workshops were usually structured hierarchically, with apprentices and assistants under the strict supervision of master craftsmen and foremen. There was also the division of labor in carrying out their artwork. For instance, the relief decoration of a tomb was started by a draftsman who determined the general layout and drew the figures’ outlines. Relief sculptors would then carve the figures and painters would finally color the reliefs (Kleiner, Fred, and Helen 88).

The Amarna Art Period

The Amarna Art was an ancient Egyptian art style that was present in the Amarna period. Movement and activity in the images characterized the art in this period, with the figures overlapping and crowding of the scenes. Flesh was depicted as being dark brown, while the hands and feet were shown with slender and long fingers. As was common in other previous arts, commoners were depicted with either two left feet or two right feet. Sculptures in this period were more relaxed, and showed people in their r true form, not just focusing on some of their features as was in earlier periods (Robbins 23). An Amarna art showing Two daughters of Akhenaten; Nofernoferuaton and Nofernoferure,

Ancient Egyptian Art of the Egyptian Book of the Dead

The above art depicts the “Book of the Dead’ which consisted of writings that contained magic spells which were believed to assist the deceased on their journey. The spells were usually instructional and adorned intuitive pictures that were meant to ward of any evil spirits and gain the strength of the gods (Riggs 66).


The art of ancient Egypt is of significance in today’s modern art as it lays the foundation on which current art emerges. The ancient Egyptian art often aimed at the preservation of stability and order, and on sustaining the relationships between the gods, kings and the people. In order to achieve this, the artists followed strict rules and styles that made their art works distinctive. Additionally, the art of ancient Egypt was greatly influenced by religion, more so the belief in life after an individual’s death. The paintings and sculptures in Egyptian temples and pyramids are nowadays great treasures of the art world and even in human civilization. Thus, the history of ancient Egyptian art plays a vital role in explaining the beliefs and symbolisms they held in various areas of their lives. The paintings and sculptures are still common in modern era and are a representation of the rich history of this country’s art. Thus, the various paintings and sculptures play a significant role in society as they detail the intensity of the artwork that these ancient people put in them. {t_essay_1}

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