Art History – Egyptian Painting

LAND AND PEOPLE: Egypt, as Herodotus has said, is “the gift of the Nile,” one of the latest of the earth’s geological formations, and yet one of the earliest countries to be settled and dominated by man. It consists now, as in the ancient days, of the valley of the Nile, bounded on the east by the Arabian mountains and on the west by the Libyan desert. Well-watered and fertile, it was doubtless at first a pastoral and agricultural country ; then, by its riverine traffic, a commercial country, and finally, by conquest, a land enriched with the spoils of warfare.

Its earliest records show a strongly established monarchy. Dynasties of kings called Pharaohs succeeded one another by birth or conquest. The king made the laws, judged the people, declared war, and was monarch supreme. Next to him in rank came the priests, who were not only in the service of religion but in that of the state, as counsellors, secretaries, and the like. The common people, with true Oriental lack of individuality, depending blindly on leaders, were little more than the servants of the upper classes.

The Egyptian religion existing in the earliest days was a worship of the personified elements of nature. Each element had its particular controlling god, worshipped as such. Later on in Egyptian history the number of gods was increased, and each city had its trinity of godlike protectors symbolized by the propylea of the temples. Future life was a certainty, provided that the Ka, or spirit, did not fall a prey to Typhon, the God of Evil, during the long wait in the tomb for the judgment-day. The belief that the spirit rested in the body until finally transported to the aaln fields (the Islands of the Blest, afterward adopted by the Greeks) was one reason for the careful preservation of the body by mummifying processes. Life itself was not more important than death. Hence the imposing ceremonies of the funeral and burial, the elaborate richness of the tomb and its wall paintings. Perhaps the first Egyptian art arose through religious observance, and certainly the first known to us was sepulchral.

ART MOTIVES: The centre of the Egyptian system was the monarch and his supposed relatives, the gods. They arrogated to themselves the chief thought of life, and the aim of the great bulk of the art was to glorify monarchy or deity. The massive buildings, still standing today in ruins, were built as the dwelling-places of kings or the sanctuaries of gods. The towers symbolized deity, the sculptures and paintings recited the functional duties of presiding spirits, or the Pharaoh’s looks and acts. Almost everything about the public buildings in painting and sculpture was symbolic illustration, picture-written history—written with a chisel and brush, written large that all might read. There was no other safe way of preserving record. There were no books ; the papyrus sheet, used extensively, was frail, and the Egyptians evidently wished their buildings, carvings, and paintings to last into eternity. So they wrought in and upon stone. The same hieroglyphic character of their papyrus writings appeared cut and colored on the palace walls, and above them and beside them the pictures ran as vignettes explanatory of the text. In a less ostentatious way the tombs perpetuated history in a similar manner, reciting the domestic scenes from the life of the individual, as the temples and palaces the religious and monarchical scenes.

In one form or another it was all record of Egyptian life, but this was not the only motive of their painting. The temples and palaces, designed to shut out light and heat, were long squares of heavy stone, gloomy as the cave from which their plan may have originated. Carving and color were used to brighten and enliven the interior. The battles, the judgment scenes, the Pharaoh playing at draughts with his wives, the religious rites and ceremonies, were all given with brilliant arbitrary color, surrounded oftentimes by bordering bands of green, yellow, and blue. Color showed everywhere from floor to ceiling. Even the explanatory hieroglyphic texts ran in colors, lining the walls and winding around the cylinders of stone. The lotus capitals, the frieze and architrave, all glowed with bright hues, and often the roof ceiling was painted in blue and studded with golden stars.

All this shows a decorative motive in Egyptian painting, and how constantly this was kept in view may be seen at times in the arrangement of the different scenes, the large ones being placed in the middle of the wall and the smaller ones going at the top and bottom, to act as a frieze and dado. There were, then, two leading motives for Egyptian painting; (1) History, monarchical, religious, or domestic; and (2) Decoration.

TECHNICAL METHODS: Man in the early stages of civilization comprehends objects more by line than by color or light. The figure is not studied in itself, but in its sun-shadow or silhouette. The Egyptian hieroglyph represented objects by outlines or arbitrary marks and conveyed a simple meaning without circumlocution. The Egyptian painting was substantially an enlargement of the hieroglyph. There was no attempt to place objects in the setting which they hold in nature. Perspective and light-and-shade were disregarded. Objects, of whatever nature, were shown in flat profile. In the human figure the shoulders were square, the hips slight, the legs and arms long, the feet and hands flat. The head, legs, and arms were shown in profile, while the chest and eye were twisted to show the flat front view. There are only one or two full-faced figures among the re-mains of Egyptian painting. After the outline was drawn the enclosed space was filled in with plain color. In the absence of high light, or composed groups, prominence was given to an important figure, like that of the king, by making it much larger than the other figures. This may be seen in any of the battle-pieces of Rameses II., in which the monarch in his chariot is a giant where his followers are mere pygmies. In the absence of perspective, receding figures of men or of horses were given by multiplied outlines of legs, or heads, placed before, or after, or raised above one another. Flat water was represented by zigzag lines, placed as it were upon a map, one tree symbolized a forest, and one fortification a town.

These outline drawings were not realistic in any exact sense. The face was generally expressionless, the figure, evidently done from memory or pattern, did not reveal anatomical structure, but was nevertheless graceful, and in the representation of animals the sense of motion was often given with much truth. The color was usually an attempt at nature, though at times arbitrary or symbolic, as in the case of certain gods rendered with blue, yellow, or green skins. The backgrounds were always of flat color, arbitrary in hue, and decorative only. The only composition was a balance by numbers, and the processional scenes rose tier upon tier above one another in long panels.

Such work would seem almost ludicrous did we not keep in mind its reason for existence. It was, first, symbolic story-telling art, and secondly, architectural decoration. As a story-teller it was effective because of its simplicity and directness. As decoration, the repeated expressionless face and figure, the arbitrary color, the absence of perspective were not inappropriate then nor are they now. Egyptian painting never was free from the decorative motive. Wall painting was little more than an adjunct of architecture, and probably grew out of sculpture. The early statues were colored, and on the wall the chisel, like the flint of Primitive Man, cut the outline of the figure. At first only this cut was filled with color, producing what has been called the koilanaglyphic. In the final stage the line was made by drawing with chalk or coal on prepared stucco, and the color, mixed with gum-water (a kind of distemper), was applied to the whole enclosed space. Substantially the same method of painting was used upon other materials, such as wood, mummy cartonnage, papyrus ; and in all its thousands of years of existence Egyptian painting never advanced upon or varied to any extent this one method of work.

HISTORIC PERIODS: Egyptian art may be traced back as far as the Third or Fourth Memphitic dynasty of kings. The date is uncertain, but it is somewhere near 3,500 B.C. The seat of empire, at that time, was located at Memphis in Lower Egypt, and it is among the remains of this Memphitic Period that the earliest and best painting is found. In fact, all Egyptian art, literature, language, civilization, seem at their highest point of perfection in the period farthest removed from us. In that earliest age the finest portrait busts were cut, and the painting, found chiefly in the tombs and on the mummy-cases, was the attempted realistic with not a little of spirited individuality. The figure was rather short and squat, the face a little squarer than the conventional type afterward adopted, the action better, and the positions, attitudes, and gestures more truthful to local characteristics. The domestic scenes—hunting, fishing, tilling, grazing—were all shown in the one flat, planeless, shadowless method of representation, but with better drawing and color and more variety than appeared later on. Still, more or less conventional types were used, even in this early time, and continued to be used all through Egyptian history.

The Memphitic Period comes down to the eleventh dynasty. In the fifteenth dynasty comes the invasion of the so-called Hyksos, or Shepherd Kings. Little is known of the Hyksos, and, in painting, the next stage is the Theban Period, which culminated in Thebes, in Upper Egypt, with Rameses II., of the nineteenth dynasty. Painting had then changed somewhat both in subject and character. The time was one of great temple- and palace-building, and, though the painting of genre subjects in tombs and sepulchres continued, the general body of art became more monumental and subservient to architecture. Painting was put to work on temple-and palace-walls, depicting processional scenes, either religious or monarchical, and vast in extent. The figure, too, changed slightly. It became longer, slighter, with a pronounced nose, thick lips, and long eye. From constant repetition, rather than any set rule or canon, this figure grew conventional, and was reproduced as a type in a mechanical and unvarying manner for hundreds of years. It was, in fact, only a variation from the original Egyptian type seen in the tombs of the earliest dynasties. There was a great quantity of art produced during the Theban Period, and of a graceful, decorative character, but it was rather monotonous by repetition and filled with established mannerisms. The Egyptian really never was a free worker, never an artist expressing himself ; but, for his day, a skilled mechanic following time-honored example. In the Saitic Period the seat of empire was once more in Lower Egypt, and art had visibly declined with the waning power of the country. All spontaneity seemed to have passed out of it, it was repetition of repetition by poor workmen, and the simplicity and purity of the technic were corrupted by foreign influences. With the Alexandrian epoch Egyptian art came in contact with Greek methods, and grew imitative of the new art, to the detriment of its own native character. Eventually it was entirely lost in the art of the Greco-Roman world. It was never other than conventional, produced by a method almost as unvarying as that of the hieroglyphic writing, and in this very respect characteristic and reflective of the unchanging Orientals. Technically it had its shortcomings, but it conveyed the proper information to its beholders and was serviceable and graceful decoration for Egyptian days.

EXTANT PAINTINGS: The temples, palaces, and tombs of Egypt still reveal Egyptian painting in almost as perfect a state as when originally executed ; the Ghizeh Museum has many fine examples ; and there are numerous examples in the museums at Turin, Paris, Berlin, London, New York, and Boston. An interesting collection belongs to the New York Historical Society, and some of the latest ” finds” of the Egypt Exploration Fund are in the Boston Museum.