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Egyptian Painting

( Originally Published 1955 )

Although this art was richly pictorial and endured for thirty centuries, it seems to have had little effect outside its own boundaries. Magnificent in its isolation, relatively unchanging in its taste, Egypt did not influence the ancient world as profoundly as did the shortlived Greek city-states. The Egyptian painters possessed a fine decorative sense, but the ultimate purpose of their art was utilitarian: to insure the survival of the deceased soul. Further, their method was one of extremely literal readability, so that the painted image vied in importance with hieroglyphic script. In spite of the gay colors and often light and lively mood, the compositional and technical strictures prescribing superimposed registers in rectangular friezes, resulted in a monotonous quality, which was perhaps intentional.

Egyptian painting was strongly linear. Although the line itself occasionally performed gentle pleasing arabesques and so contributed a spirit of liveliness, the artist's preference was usually for style conventions that would assure monumentality. His abstract ideographic thinking, so apparent in the structure of his hieroglyphic writing, assembled artistic forms out of a series of "most obvious" parts. The spectator was isolated from the world of the painting by an insistence on profile views. Thus the iconic quality of Pharaonic sculpture was avoided and it was made clear in the painting that the mythological, ritualistic, and biographical character of the subject matter was to be sensed as a narrative: a scroll of events. Actuality was expressed in the figures, however, by presenting the eye in full-face. Shoulders also were generally frontal, in order to be explicit about the limbs and to maintain that favorite "hour-glass" shape which emphasized the symmetry of the human form. Other twists included profile feet invariably flat to the ground line, with a resultant feeling of stability.

The serious purpose, regular pattern, and symmetrical forms were somewhat relieved by gay color. Backgrounds were pale, figures and details rendered in richer and sometimes strident contrasts of a few colors. Flat effect was maintained by stress on outline and avoidance of interior modeling. An exception to the latter occurred when painting was applied to bas-relief, but even here the firm silhouettes overpowered any inner modeling. The painters demonstrated such a fine decorative sense that we regret that we have only tomb paintings left and none of the painted murals of houses and public buildings. Their compositional taste can be felt in the contrast between large-scale figures and small-scale "background" elements as well as in the interrelationships between the painted field and the rows of hieroglyphs. Egyptian painting, then, delights us for its patternistic organization and for the intricacies of its narration, but never achieves a transcendental effect, despite its total preoccupation with religious meaning.

The painting was done in tempera on various grounds, most of them so fragile that much of the art has been lost since its exposure to fresh air. As the tomb paintings were rarely finished, for one reason or another, it is easy to determine the working methods of the artists. We also have left, from the New Kingdom, a quantity of vase-fragments on which painters made preparatory drawings. Egyptian painters also illustrated long papyrus rolls of the Book of the Dead, and they ornamented coffins for burial, but our main interest lies in the freer art of the tomb-walls.

Our earliest large example, the Geese of Medum (Old Kingdom, c.2700 B.C.), shows that Egyptian painting had already developed long enough to become academic. The same general formulas govern Middle Kingdom work at Beni Hasan (c.1900 B.C.). The Golden Age of Egyptian painting appears to have been the New Kingdom. So much has survived, especially in the private funerary chapels of Theban tombs, that its development can be traced clearly. The old conventional style competed with a new realism, perhaps influenced by foreign contacts. While genre was introduced at all times, e.g., in the tomb of Menna (second half of fifteenth century B.C., Thebes), the heyday of realistic painting occurred during the reign of the heretical Akhenaten (1375-58 B.C.) and especially at his new capital of Tell-el-Amarna. An academic reaction took place after his death, and the great period of Egyptian painting closed with two centuries of ostentatious Ramassid art. While it became more conventional in the iconography of its funeral art, Ramassid painting practiced much freedom of detail and flourish of technique. In all the stylistic changes during the long history previous to Greek conquest (333 B.C.), there was nothing to match the abrupt introduction of Graeco-Roman motifs in Ptolemaic times (see FAYUM PORTRAITS). The final phase of Coptic Christian art (see) saw a reversion to native decorative tendencies of squarish format.

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