|Egyptian art spans nearly three centuries, from the beginning of the 1st Dynasty in about 3000 B.C. until the 30th dynasty in 330 B.C. This civilization produced incredible amounts of art, from the small funerary statuettes called "answers" or "ushabtiu" to the huge pyramids. The Pharaohs' personalities and beliefs were reflected in the artworks done during their lifetimes, as were the fashions and religious beliefs and practices. Prior to the time of the Pharaohs, Egyptian art was very primitive; the tribes built huts out of wood, reed and mud, made tools from flint, ornaments out of ivory, bone and horn and beads of soapstone. Vases were fired from clay, on which the tribesman's world was painted in both abstract and figurative shapes. Beginning in about 4000 B.C., during the Pre dynastic Period, craftsmen took pains to give their art new meaning and elegance. The burial pits were lined with bricks, paved and covered with wood planks. Ramparts surrounded the fortresses and palaces. The Egyptian people developed a national conscience, and their art reflects that conscience.
During the lst and 2nd Dynasties (c.3000-2800 B.C.), the architecture of the burial sites became more elaborate, using stairways, vaulted ceilings and more bricks than before. Subterranean galleries were prolific during the 2nd Dynasty. Sculptures and reliefs of the king were beautifully done, while the citizens and servants were portrayed with less expertise according to their station in life. Hard-stone vases replaced pottery ones. Caskets, spoons, chess pieces and other ornaments were crafted skillfully and elegantly.
In the time of the 3rd through the 6th Dynasties, the first pyramid was constructed by Imhotep, the high priest of Heliopolis. Small stones were used to build this step pyramid, which was surrounded by a bastion wall. There was also a complex of temples inside the wall. Arts and crafts were revived under Sneferu during the 4th Dynasty. He sent expeditions to mine turquoise and he opened the alabaster quarries at Hat-nub. Three pyramids have been given his name: the first was a rhomboid monument, the second is the first true pyramid geometrically, and the third originally had terraces but was later cased to give it true pyramid form. The Sun God Ra and the cult of Osiris inspired these Pharaohs. Although the great temples of the cities no longer exist, the burial grounds at Medum, Dahshur, Saqqara, Giza and Abu Roash bear testimony to the arts of this period. The royal quarters in the Memphite necropolis show the society and history of architecture. Beautiful columns were built, based on papyrus and palm patterns. Although painting as an art in itself was not practiced, elegant and complex reliefs were painted, using bright colors and offering us pictures of Egyptian history and customs, such as encounters between kings and goods, ritual offerings and triumph over barbarians. During the 5th Dynasty, wild animals, people, furniture and tools were also portrayed in the reliefs. It was also during the 5th Dynasty that the sphinx was built at Giza in about 2500 B.C. It is one example of the huge statuary built during this period.
By the 6th Dynasty, sculpture had lost its importance but still showed skill, especially in the portrayal of the common Egyptian citizen of the period. Furnishings show exquisite craftsmanship in the joining of chairs, the inlaid hieroglyphs and the delicate canopies.
During the 7th to the early 11th Dynasties, the feudal system began to rise, and with it the grand architecture and colossal sculptures of the previous period declined. The reliefs of this period are not modeled with the grace and bright coloring of the prior Dynastic period.
The Middle Kingdom period of the 11th through 13th Dynasties restored the unity of the kingdom, and art once again began to flourish. Middle Kingdom art style is difficult to define because it combined several periods. The tomb paintings were naturalistic; the votive statuary was quite formal, the bronzes were formalized and abstractly modeled. Mentuhotep I revived the interest in grand architecture and the estates of the time featured elegant porticoes and pillared halls. It was during this period as well that secular architecture made its appearance. Because of the revival of architecture, the mural decorations also became more skillful and prolific. Stelae, stones that bore portraits and names of families, were allowed to be placed near the shrine of Osiris, although the people were not allowed to bury their dead there. Scenes from everyday life were pictured on the reliefs in excellent draftsmanship and masterful coloring, and painting began to take off on its own as an art form. The Old Kingdom (3rd-6th Dynasties) style of sculpture was incorporated, and the ancient models of the sphinx were revived Highly polished hard stones were used for many sculptures and statuettes of sheep, cats, baboons, dwarfs and other figures: these statuettes showed a degree of humor that had always been present beneath the formality.
Between the 13th and 17th Dynasties, several pyramids were unfinished south of Memphis and the Middle Kingdom period fell into decline. Art was more haphazardly executed and did not flourish again until the 17th Dynasty.
The New Kingdom of the 18th to 20th Dynasties saw Egypt becoming a major power again. It is from this period that the greatest numbers of works have been recovered. A new spirit of elegance prevailed, which, although somewhat cold at first, soon became more graceful and then moved to ostentatious proportions. The temple of the god Amon on the right bank of the Nile in the Theban region at Karnak is the best preserved example of Tuthmodsid architecture. The Deir el Bahari complex stands on the left bank and is a magnificent example in its conception and fittings. Huge effigies became prominent during the reign of Amenhotep III, as evidenced by the pair of Nubian sandstone giants dug out of the quarries in the Aswan mountains north of Cairo. Underground tunnels in the Valley of the Kings replaced the vast funerary temples as tombs for the Pharaohs. Paintings and reliefs in the chapels and vaults here are the primary interest of artists and historians. Paintings were done with more variation and animation, handling was freer, and colors were not defined as sharply. Scenes included those of harems, clouds, white pigeons, marshes and the countryside, swimmers, animals, musicians, foreign servant girls and huntresses. Statues were made of more different materials such as precious wood and metal. Life-size and larger than life statues were not uncommon. After Amenhotep III refused to accept the religious beliefs of his ancestors, he constructed a large temple at Karnak near the temple of Amon. His son-in-laws Tutankhaten replaced him as ruler, and the anatomy of the figures during this period changed dramatically, with people being portrayed as having protruding jaws, epicene breasts, slack stomachs, sloping shoulders and emaciated arms and legs. During the next reign of Ramesses amore elegant style was once again recreated. Temples of this period have survived basically intact and feature square pillars, monostyle columns, long walls with painted murals of battle scenes and large hieroglyphic bands. Raised relief was changed to hollow relief during the reign of Rammeses II. The war scenes are prolific, complex and show extensive detail.
The New Kingdom collapsed and the 21st Dynasty was ruled by the priest-kings of Thebes, followed by the rule of Libyans during the 22nd and 23rd Dynasties. Egypt was divided once more, and the art during these periods was insubstantial and of only average quality. Applied arts retained their quality, however, as shown in the gold masks, silver coffins, jewels and utensils uncovered in the Tanite burials.
The last period of Egyptian art is the years between 715 B.C. and 392 A.D. A renaissance occurred during the 25th Dynasty and was marked by a return to early Theban sculpture and Old Kingdom relief styles. New types of monuments and a new feeling of realism made its appearance. The first Persian domination occurred during the 27th Dynasty, and antique prototypes were discarded. Greco-Roman art was prefigured, but architecture retained its Egyptian inspiration. Unfortunately, the architecture of this period is almost completely destroyed. The Saite period described here used elongated outlines and angular hieroglyphics in its relief art. Sculpture lost the variety of the New Kingdom, but private statues show a great variety of poses, as well as a large range of attitudes and clothing styles. The bust statues of this period show that artists tried to keep the Pharonic art alive, and even though by this time Egypt was nothing more than a country being exploited by foreigners, the beauty, grace, versatility and remarkable skill of the Egyptian artists were never lost.