Ancient Egypt 2675-332 BCE: Visual Arts

Arts and Humanities Through the Eras. Editor: Edward I Bleiberg, et al. Volume 1. Detroit: Gale, 2005.

Interpreting Egyptian Art


Art represents the world. But in ancient Egypt, art reflected a very particular worldview. Egyptian art reflected an idealized world and ignored any part of the world that did not fit the ideal. Egyptian art also incorporated certain fictions in order to express a larger truth. For example, Egyptian temple art always showed the king presiding over rituals. Since in reality it was impossible for the king to simultaneously lead every temple ritual in every temple, every day, priests usually substituted for him. Yet such scenes express a larger truth that the king was the only true intermediary with the gods according to Egyptian thought. Though modern viewers cannot always take Egyptian art at face value, it is possible to discover Egyptian conceptions of the perfect world in their art.

Gender Differences

One approach to understanding Egyptian art might be to question its purpose. The main purpose of Egyptian art was to serve the needs of the elite, especially the king and his retainers, both in this life and the next. Thus it might be that many scenes can be interpreted both as what they depict, but also as a way of sending a message to those whose support the king required. The representation of males and females in New Kingdom Egyptian tombs is a clear case where the artist conveys a message other than visual reality. In the typical New Kingdom tomb painting, relief, or statue, males are dressed in kilts with perhaps a shirt, while women wear tight-fitting sheath dresses, probably made from a single piece of cloth wrapped around the body. Yet archaeological examples of ancient Egyptian clothing demonstrate that the most common garment was a bag tunic. This outfit was basically a linen bag with sleeves that fit very loosely. Both men and women wore it. In art, however, men wear an outfit that suggests freedom of movement while a woman’s garment suggests restricted movement. Even without archaeological evidence, the typical female garment depicted in art could never match reality. The dresses are so impossibly tight that a woman could not move, sit, or walk. The real intention behind this representation is to reveal the woman’s body. These dresses clearly reveal the overall female form and the pubic triangle. Since the difference between everyday Egyptian reality and the presentation of people in art differ so radically, there must have been a reason for the difference.

Role of Men

Men are generally active rather than passive in tomb representations. In Old Kingdom and Middle Kingdom tombs, the deceased reaches for offerings at the offering table or inspects agricultural laborers or workshops under his control. Artists also often depicted men hunting birds or fishing. They wear loose clothing and are quintessentially the active principal in life. These roles correspond to an Egyptian view of men actively winning a place for themselves in the afterlife.

Role of Women

The importance of women in Egyptian society is often conveyed in artwork found in temples and tombs. The role of the woman in Egypt was that of life-giver and supporter. Hence, the emphasis in art was on their role as mothers. Because of this, women were often depicted wearing little or no clothing. The artist’s intention was not to portray eroticism but rather to symbolize reproduction—all people come into the world without clothing, and hence the idea of nudity is connected to that of birth. Due to their connection with birth, women are most often found depicted on tombs, for the Egyptians considered the tomb a means to re-birth into the next world. Yet women represented in tombs could also hold other meanings. When labeled with their name in hieroglyphs, a figure of a woman could represent an individual wife, daughter, or cousin. Many women represented in one tomb could be a means for a man to emphasize his wealth. Both these roles would be important to the deceased in addition to the overall conception of women as the source of rebirth.

Daily Life

In conjunction with how women and men were portrayed individually, much can be learned from the different scenes that artists chose to portray. Daily life scenes of craftsmen and of peasants engaged in agricultural tasks had a deeper meaning than the tasks portrayed. These scenes functioned at a literal level, but also represent a way of structuring life. Artists chose some activities to represent status and wealth in tombs while other activities were left out of art altogether. This selection was purposeful. Craftsmen and peasants were always portrayed at their most productive for the benefit of the owner of the art. Though Egyptologists depend on these scenes for knowledge of all kinds about ancient Egypt, artists had no interest nor intention of providing an illustrated guide to Egyptian life when they decorated temples and tombs. Rather agricultural scenes of peasants working in the fields stress the owner’s status and distinction in the physical world. They also provide a permanent supply of provisions for the next world. In addition, they function symbolically to depict the passage of the seasons of the year and thus the continuation of life for the deceased spirit. The flax harvest painted in a tomb suggests an abundance of linen clothing for the deceased. Scenes of manufacturing jewelry guarantee that the tomb owner will have jewelry in the next world.

Fishing and Fowling

Scenes of fishing and fowling (bird hunting) in the marsh with the tomb owner and his family in attendance are one of the most common scene types in Egyptian tombs and households. Yet it seems unlikely that these scenes depict only a family outing. Scenes of a nobleman fishing or hunting birds are very ancient, beginning in the Old Kingdom. Both kings and officials included them in their tombs. Usually the male figure actively fishes with a harpoon or hunts birds with a boomerang-like throw-stick. His wife is at his side and usually a child accompanies the family. They are all dressed in their most elaborate linen clothing. Often they are in a small papyrus boat. Their clothing is clearly too elaborate for the activity that engages them. The clothing, thus, must reveal their status rather than a true picture of the way they would dress for a day of fishing or hunting. Additionally, the boat is both too small and too unstable to be the sort of boat used for a family outing. A child could easily capsize it. The boat, the most archaic type of woven papyrus boat, has symbolic meaning of transition and togetherness. The Egyptologist Gay Robins speculated that scenes of fishing and bird hunting represent the deceased as Osiris. In Coffin Text 62, Osiris claims he will have thousands of birds available in the next world. Whenever Osiris hunts with a throw-stick, a thousand birds will fall. Since each deceased Egyptian hoped to be assimilated to the god Osiris, king of the dead, such scenes in tombs suggest another means of expressing the same hope for obtaining thousands of birds to eat. Moreover, when a man dominates wildlife he also makes order from chaos in Egyptian thought. This is the role that both the king and Osiris play. Thus the deceased further identifies with Osiris by bringing order to the natural world. Fishing also represents a man dominating nature and thus bringing order to the world. But fishing for the tilapia fish also relates to rebirth. The tilapia fish accompanies the solar barque of Re in the underworld. The tilapia is a symbol of fertility and rebirth because the female carries its fertilized eggs in its mouth. When the eggs hatch, it appears that the offspring are born live from the mother’s mouth. In Book of the Dead Chapter 15, the deceased is assured that while in the god’s barque he will see the tilapia fish. This means that he will experience the re-birth each Egyptian desired into the next world. Thus scenes of family outings in the marshes represent much more than a picnic. These scenes convey ideas about rebirth into the next world by associating the deceased with the god Osiris.

Grid Systems in Visual Art

Evidence for Grids

Grids were used to control the proportions of two-dimensional relief sculpture and to line up the sides, back, and front of sculpture in the round. Grids are often preserved in unfinished relief sculpture or in paintings where a finished layer of paint has fallen off to reveal the underlying grid. These remains of grids have provided the data to study how Egyptian artists worked. In the earliest examples from the Old Kingdom, Egyptian artists used a system of eight horizontal guidelines and one vertical line bisecting the figure through the ear rather than a complete grid. Grids marked eighteen horizontal units for each figure and also fourteen vertical lines spaced at the same distance as the horizontals. Thus the grid formed a series of squares. Grids are first preserved from Dynasty 11 (2125-1991 B.C.E.) and continue for nearly 2,000 years into the Roman period.

Old Kingdom Guidelines

Old Kingdom (2675-2170 B.C.E.) guidelines allowed the artist to divide the figure in half and/or in thirds. A line at the lower border of the buttocks divided the figure in half. Lines at the elbow and the knee divided the figure into thirds. Artists drew additional lines at the top of the head, at the junction of the hairline and forehead, at the point where the neck and shoulders meet, at the armpit, and at the calf. The base line of the register marked the bottom of the figure’s foot. The proportions that were maintained made the distance from the bottom of the foot to the neck and shoulder line equal to eight-ninths of the figure’s height. The distance from the bottom of the foot to the armpit was four-fifths of the figure’s total height. This series of proportions gave figures their uniformity and most likely aided artists in drawing a figure on a large scale.

Grids in the Middle Kingdom

Grids of squares probably developed from guidelines. Grids were certainly in use by the Middle Kingdom (2008-1630 B.C.E.). Eighteen squares separated the hairline from the bottom of the foot in the Middle Kingdom grid. Various body parts also fell on regular grid lines. For example, the meeting point of the neck and shoulders was at horizontal sixteen, the elbow at horizontal nine six squares wide, similar in proportion to Old Kingdom figures. Females were more slender with shoulders between four and five squares wide.

Grids in the New Kingdom

The proportions of figures changed in the mid-Eighteenth Dynasty (1550-1295 B.C.E.), becoming more elongated. The small of the back rose from gridline eleven to gridline twelve, making the leg longer in proportion to the body. At the same time, the width of the shoulders was reduced from six squares to five squares. This reduction also made the figure more elongated and graceful in the New Kingdom (1538-1075 B.C.E.) than it was previously.

Late Period Grid

Egyptian artists of the first millennium B.C.E. used a grid with twenty-one horizontal lines rather than the eighteen lines used previously. Though the exact time when the transition from eighteen to twenty-one squares was made is unknown, artists of the Twenty-fifth Dynasty (730-661 B.C.E.) were surely using the twenty-one square grid to lay out relief sculpture. The new grid squares were thus five-sixths of the old grid squares. In the new system the following correspondences were made. Line twenty-one passed through the root of the nose and upper eyelid. Line twenty passed through the mouth. Line nineteen passed through the junction of the neck and shoulders. Line thirteen passed through the small of the back. Line eleven passed near the lower buttocks. Line seven passed through at the top of the knee. Line zero, the baseline, passed through the sole of the foot. The result of these changes was a slight change in the proportions of the figure. The knees, small of the back, and buttocks are all lower than in figures drawn on the Late Period grids than in the Middle and New Kingdom grids. Thus the torso and upper leg appear longer in proportion to the body as a whole in the Late Period than in the Middle and New Kingdom. This change is clear in figures until the end of ancient Egyptian history. However, the meaning of this change is not clear. The art historian Erik Iverson suggested that the grid changed to accommodate a new measuring system that used a shorter unit of measurement. The Egyptologist Gay Robins convincingly argued that the Late Period system used the same measuring system but regularized the grid to make calculations easier. In the early system the arm length was five grid squares. This distance was the hypothetical value of one cubit. A cubit was divided into six palms. A five-square arm thus equaled grid squares one and one-fifth palm wide and long. The new Late Period grid square used an arm length that was six squares long. Thus in the Late Period grid square each square was equal to the measurement one palm. All calculations would be simpler using grid squares equivalent to one palm rather than equivalent to one and one-fifth palm.

Ingenious Technique

The grid was an ingenious and simple way to maintain proper proportions for figures no matter how large or small they were reproduced. Artists could maintain the same proportions for a sculpture only twelve inches tall as in sixty-foot tall sculptures in front of temples. This technique is also one element in the tendency of one work of Egyptian art to resemble all others.

Earliest Egyptian Art

Stylistic Break

The earliest Egyptian art, created during the pre-dynastic period (4400-3100 B.C.E.), exhibits a coherent style that does not continue into historical, dynastic times (after 3100 B.C.E.). All of this art comes from graves that belonged to non-elite, nongovernmental people. The objects created for these tombs might be considered folk art. The earliest art is handcrafted pottery with a surface ripple that potters created by running a comb over the surface. This pottery was made during the Badarian period (4400-3800 B.C.E.), named after the village of Badari where archaeologists first found it. The English archaeologist W. M. F. Petrie discovered a nearly complete sequence of objects for the subsequent period at the village of Nagada in southern (upper) Egypt. Thus Egyptologists refer to the different chronological stages of this art as Nagada I (3800-3500 B.C.E.), Nagada II (3500-3300 B.C.E.), and Nagada III (3300-3100 B.C.E.). Nagada III overlaps with Dynasty 0 (3200-3100 B.C.E.), a newly identified period when Egyptian kingship first appears. One very common object of Nagada I is a ceramic jar or cup made from a red polished clay with a black rim. Egyptologists call it black-topped red ware. The black color often extends to the middle of the jar. Potters built these jars by hand with a coil of clay. The potter smoothed the coils once the pot was built. The potter then fired the pot upside-down, producing the black rim. These pots first appear in Nagada I and continue into Nagada II. The emphasis on abstract decoration, though often beautiful, is not typical of Egyptian art in the historical period after 3100 B.C.E. This distinction, however, cannot be used to argue convincingly that a different group of people inhabited Egypt after the historical artistic style emerged.

Animal Palettes

Artists made some of the most interesting early figures during Nagada II and III. Some figures were animal-shaped palettes resembling fish, turtles, and birds. These were often made from schist, a very commonly used stone in this period. Egyptians used these palettes to grind galena, a naturally occurring mineral, into eye-liner called kohl. Kohl both emphasized the eyes and possibly protected them from the glare of the sun. The Egyptians also believed it protected the eyes from disease. Some of the shapes of these palettes, such as the fish, represent symbols of fertility and rebirth. The tilapia-fish, for example, carries its fertilized eggs in its mouth. It thus appears that the offspring are born alive from the mouth rather than hatched from eggs. The Egyptians thus included the tilapia among their fertility symbols.

Human Figures

Sculptors in Nagada II and III also concerned themselves with human figures. Among the first human figures were the female figurines that the archaeologist Henri de Morgan discovered in the village of Ma’mariya in 1907. Found in graves, her face appears beak-like. She wears only a long white skirt that covers her legs completely. Her bare arms extend upward in a graceful curving motion. Though these figurines are among the most famous pre-historic sculptures from ancient Egypt, it is impossible to determine with certainty whether the figure represents a priestess, a mourner, or a dancer. Furthermore, it is completely unknowable whether she is a goddess or a human. The generally abstract style used in this sculpture, with each part of the body reduced to a simple organic outline, does not continue into the historical period. Yet very similar female figures occur painted on pottery contemporary with the figurines. The female figures painted on pots are prominent in river scenes that include a boat with two cabins, two male figures, and palm fronds on the shore. Some examples depict mountains beyond the riverbank abstracted to triangles. The female figure is the largest element in the composition, suggesting, as was true in historic times, that she was the most important figure. The figures, boat, palms, and mountains are in red paint on a light buff clay, typical of the Nagada II period. Though the abstract style is not typical of the later period, subject matter such as river scenes were popular throughout ancient Egyptian history. If this is indeed a religious scene, it would be an early example of a common Egyptian subject for art.

Animal Relief Carving

Animal relief carving on ivory began at the end of the pre-dynastic period. One fine example of a knife handle, carved from elephant ivory, includes 227 individual animals. Not only are most of the species identifiable, but also the sculptor arranged the animals so that they are facing in the same direction in ten horizontal rows. These rows suggest the first hint of the compositional device called a “register” in historic Egyptian art. A true register includes a ground line that gives the figures a place to stand. Here the sculptor only arranges the animals without providing a ground line. Yet the attention he pays to depicting the animals in a recognizable form along with the organized composition hints at the future of Egyptian art.

Narmer Palette


The Narmer Palette commemorated King Narmer’s victory over ten enemies of Egypt some time during Dynasty 0 (3200-3100 B.C.E.). Though scholars disagree on the precise details, the narrative would have been clear to viewers contemporary with Narmer. The Narmer Palette also represented a turning point in artists’ experiments with carving in relief on stone. It is the earliest known example of the mature Egyptian style. It exhibits all of the major characteristics of the Egyptian relief style that artists used for the remainder of ancient Egyptian history, over 3,000 years. It thus represents a break with a 1,400-year old tradition of art-making during the pre-dynastic period. Moreover, its subject matter—the triumphant king—remained an important theme throughout ancient Egyptian history.


The composition of the Narmer Palette, the manner that different figures and objects are arranged in the picture, utilized baselines and registers. Baselines are horizontal lines at set intervals across the entire area that is decorated. The baselines create a frame for the action in each register. They give each figure a place to stand. The sequence of actions in a narrative is also clear and logical because of the baselines and registers. The obverse (front) of the palette shows Narmer defeating his enemy in the central register. His sandal bearer accompanies him as he strikes the enemy on the head with a mace. The god Horus, depicted as a falcon, symbolically restrains the enemy as the god perches on the flowers that represented Lower (northern) Egypt. In the bottom register, defeated enemies either flee Narmer or lie prone. On the reverse, a bull representing Narmer attacks a city in the bottom register. In the center, two servants restrain an animal that is part leopard and part snake. A third register depicts Narmer inspecting the enemy dead who lie with their severed heads between their legs.

Figure Style

The figures of Narmer and the other individuals were carved in the typical Egyptian style, integrating more than one perspective into one representation of a figure. The viewer “sees” a figure from more than one angle at the same time. The head was carved in profile, as if the viewer sees it from the side. Yet the eye was carved frontally, as if the figure and viewer are face to face. The shoulders were also carved frontally, but the torso, legs and feet are shown in profile. It is physically impossible to see this combination of body parts in reality. However, the artist’s aim was not to present visual reality but rather an idea of what a person is. Thus Egyptian style is described as conceptual rather than visual because it meant to convey a concept or an idea rather than an image.

Canon of Proportions

The Narmer Palette also used a canon of proportions for the figures. The proportions of each figure were standardized in Egyptian art so that every figure could be plotted on an imaginary grid. Actual grids only survive from Dynasty 11 (2081-1938 B.C.E.) and later. Yet this figure has proportions similar to later representations. In a standing figure, such as Narmer found on the obverse, the grid would have contained eighteen equal units from the top of the head to the bottom of the foot. Particular body parts were then plotted on the grid in a regular way. Counting from the bottom of the representation, the knee fell on grid line six, the lower buttocks on line nine, the small of the back on line eleven, the elbow on line twelve, and the junction of the neck and shoulders on line sixteen. The hair-line was on line eighteen. The same ratio of body parts would have applied to Narmer’s standard bearer. The individual units would have been smaller in this case since the overall figure is about one-quarter the size of Narmer. This standardized ratio of body parts gave uniformity to Egyptian representations of people. Seated representations used a grid of 14 squares.

Hieratic Scale

Though individual bodies all had similar proportions, the scale of figures varied widely even within one register. On the reverse of the palette in the second register, Narmer was portrayed double the size of his sandal bearer and prime minister. The standard bearers are half the size of the sandal bearer and prime minister. The scale of any one person was based on his or her importance in society rather than actual size. This method of depicting figures is called “hieratic scale.”


The Narmer Palette uses standard iconography for the king for the first time that we know of in Egyptian history. On the obverse the king wears the cone-shaped White Crown of Upper Egypt. He also wears a bull’s tail and a false beard that were associated only with the king. On the reverse the king wears a similar costume, but this time with the Red Crown of Lower Egypt. Many commentators have associated the wearing of each crown on the palette with the unification of Egypt about 3,000 B.C.E.

Hieroglyphic Labels

Narmer’s name appears in hieroglyphic writing at the top of both sides of the palette. It is also written in front of his face on the reverse. Hieroglyphic labels also identify the sandal bearer and the prime minister. These labels personalize these images, which otherwise could represent any king, prime minister, or sandal bearer. Hieroglyphic labels were a standard feature of Egyptian art.

Early Dynastic Period Art

Formulated Long-Standing Strategies

During the Early Dynastic period (3100-2675 B.C.E.) and the Third Dynasty (2675-2625 B.C.E.), Egyptian artists formulated basic strategies for their works of art that their descendents continued to utilize for the next 3,000 years. Objects such as stelae with relief carving, seated statues of kings, standing deities, and seated private officials assumed a form in art that remained quite static. Yet Egyptologists notice significant differences in style and in the details that distinguish this period from later works of art. Continuity and change of this sort is a defining characteristic of Egyptian art.

Stela of Wadj

King Wadj, who ruled Egypt some time in mid-Dynasty One (3100-2800 B.C.E.), erected two stelae in front of his tomb in Abydos in middle Egypt. The stelae marked the place where worshippers made offerings after the king’s burial. The relief on the two stelae emphasizes the centrality of the king to Egyptian society and the king’s link with the gods. In the relief, a falcon, the hieroglyphic writing of the god Horus’s name, perches on a rectangle. Within the rectangle is an image of a cobra, the hieroglyphic writing of Wadj’s name. Below the snake and completing the rectangle are three tall towers with niches forming the gateway to Wadj’s palace, called a serekh.Conceptually this composition conveyed that when Wadj was in his palace, he was the earthly incarnation of the god Horus. This theme would be constant in Egyptian art, though later artists found other ways to portray this idea. Here the artist used the fact that hieroglyphs are pictures to portray this idea in a clear but also beautiful way.

Multiple Views

Wadj’s stela also illustrates the Egyptian method of portraying multiple views of both animals and buildings in two-dimensional art. Though the Horus falcon is in profile, his tail twists unnaturally into a top view to reveal the square tail that helps a viewer identify him. The artist also combined a frontal view of the palace façade, a profile of the cobra, and a top view of the rectangular plan of the palace into one continuous whole. Thus the artist can portray all of the important identifying criteria of an object with one relief.

Seated King

Two limestone statues representing King Khasekhemwy, the last king of the Second Dynasty (2800-2675 B.C.E.), are among the first statues of a seated king. This standard theme in Egyptian art varied only in the details for nearly 3,000 years. Khasekhemwy sits on a simple chair-like throne with a low back. He wears the tall, conical White Crown that proclaims the king’s power over Upper (southern) Egypt. He also wears a cloak that Egyptologists can associate with theheb-sed, the royal jubilee festival. The king looks straight ahead, establishing that the frontal view of the statue was the main view. The king’s left arm crosses his abdomen, while his hand holds the cloak closed. The right arm extends from his waist to his knee on the right thigh, the hand in a fist. Perhaps the hand originally held a scepter or some other indication of the Khasekhemwy’s royal status. This arrangement does not conform with later statues. In most later royal, seated statues, the king’s left hand reaches toward offerings. This detail indicates that this statue was carved before the conventions became rigid. The king’s feet rest on the base in front of the chair. Near his feet the artist carved Khasekhemwy’s name in hieroglyphs oriented toward the figure of the king, rather than to the viewer. This arrangement is found on other early statues, though later the hieroglyphs will be oriented to the viewer, making them more legible. On the front and sides of the base of the statue in sunk relief is a representation of defeated enemies. The enemies are naked and arranged in awkward, prone positions. The artist carved the number 47,209 near some prisoners wearing lotus flowers on their heads. The lotus is the traditional symbol of Lower Egypt. Clearly the statue refers to a war or series of battles in which the king defeated this large number of enemies, perhaps from Lower Egypt.


A seated statue of King Djoser of the Third Dynasty (2675-2625 B.C.E.) is one of the first known life-size images of a king. Archaeologists discovered it in a shrine at the base of his pyramid. Ancient artists positioned the statue so that it faced a blank wall with two holes carved through it at the statue’s eye level. Priests could thus view the statue through the wall, and the statue could see the offerings brought to it. Djoser wears a heavy wig that divides the hair into three parts. Since gods also wear this hairstyle, it identifies Djoser as fully assimilated to divinity and thus already deceased. Over the wig, Djoser wears an early form of the Nemes kerchief, the blue and gold striped cloth restricted to kings. By the Fourth Dynasty (2625-2500 B.C.E.), the period subsequent to Djoser’s time, the Nemes will fully cover the king’s hair. Here the lappets of the Nemes rest on the hair but do not cover it completely. Djoser also wears the same heb-sed cloak that his predecessor Khasekhemwy wore in his statue. Yet the position of Djoser’s hands reverses the hands in Khasekhemwy’s sculpture. Here the king’s right hand holds the cloak closed while his left arm is placed on his lap. The hand is flat and rests in this statue on his lap. Similar representations of kings in relief show that this gesture should be read as the king reaching for offerings with his left hand. The Egyptian sculptor did not leave negative space between the arm and the lap for fear of creating a weak point in the sculpture. In general, Egyptian sculptors in stone preferred to preserve the shape of the stone block overall and not to free the limbs from the block. Djoser’s throne closely resembles the low-backed chair that Khasekhemwy occupies in his sculpture. The inscription on the base gives Djoser’s throne name, Netjery-khet. The carving is oriented toward the viewer. Though Djoser’s statue shares characteristics with Khasekhemwy’s statue, the position of the hands and the inscription’s orientation point toward the commonly observed conventions of subsequent Egyptian history.


A Third-dynasty (2675-2625 B.C.E.) statue of a deity is among the earliest preserved freestanding statues of a god from ancient Egypt. The god wears a rounded, short wig. The facial characteristics found here resemble other Third-dynasty figures. The artist paid little attention to the eyes, but carved a prominent nose and full lips with rounded corners. The god wears a long divine beard. The shoulders are broad and the artist has modeled the chest and arms to suggest musculature. In his right hand, the god holds a broad, flat knife that associates him with the god Onuris. This god also can be associated with the penis sheath that he wears here. This statue thus is another early example of the way that artists could communicate the identity of a figure through attributes, a system that Egyptologists call iconography. Onuris stands with this left leg forward, a pose meant to suggest walking forward. Egyptian standing male figures conventionally depict the left leg forward. In spite of the facial features which connect this statue to the earlier periods, the pose, torso, and use of attributes such as the knife look forward to the broader conventions of Egyptian art.


The seated statue of the Ankhwa represents a shipwright whose name Egyptologists formerly read as “Bedjmes.” Bedjmes, a reading of the word for shipwright, was formerly thought to be his name. This statue represents a standard Egyptian type, the seated official. But it also exhibits features related both to the subsequent standardization of the type and other features which do not become part of the standard. Ankhwa sits on a stool without a back. On the sides of the statue, the sculptor carved in relief the curved braces that held the stool together. This feature of Ankhwa’s statue will disappear in subsequent periods and thus is indicative of the Third-dynasty date. The other feature of Ankhwa’s statue that is typical of earlier statues is the positioning of the hands. Ankhwa reaches for offerings with his right hand while his left hand holds the adze, a symbol of his profession. Later such statues of officials will depict the left hand reaching and the right hand holding an attribute that refers to the subject’s profession. These distinctions, though very small, are important for deducing the date of statues in Egypt. The style of the statue places it firmly in the Third Dynasty. The face displays eyes with only the upper lid carved. In contrast the mouth is portrayed in more detail with broad lips with rounded corners. The head is large and attached almost directly to the torso with short neck. The artist here was avoiding a possible weak point in the sculpture. Finally, the artist carved the inscription on Ankhwa’s lap rather than on the base as would become more typical in later periods.

Colossal Head of a King

A colossal head of a king without inscription to identify it is closely related to the art of the Third Dynasty. The head is larger than life-size, measuring over 21 inches in height and made of red granite. The king wears the white crown. The shape of the crown, especially the depiction of the tabs around the ears resembles the shape of the crown in the seated statue of Khasekhemwy. This king’s eyes are also carved in a manner that resembles the eyes on the standing statue of Onuris and Ankhwa. Only the upper lid is carved. The lips are broad and curved at the ends. These facial features also recall Onuris and Akhwa and suggest that the king’s head also dates to the Third Dynasty. Enough of the line of the cloak is preserved at the statue’s neck to suggest that the king wore the heb-sed cloak as seen in Khasekhemwy’s and Djoser’s statues. This statue is also a good example of the way Egyptian artists used monumentality, overwhelming size, to stress the king’s power to the viewer.

The Old Kingdom

High Point

Egyptian art of the Old Kingdom (2675-2170 B.C.E.) reached a high point of accomplishment which scholars often associate with a strong central government. Clearly the royal workshop had the means to command the best artists and supply them with the most costly materials. Though political weakness or strength does not necessarily determine the quality of the art of the times, the Old Kingdom was certainly a period when political strength and artistic accomplishment overlapped. The art created in this period portrays the king, the bureaucracy, and the workers according to a set of conventions developed in this period and followed throughout ancient Egyptian history.


The statue of King Khafre (2555-2532 B.C.E.) portrays the builder of the second pyramid at Giza and patron of the Great Sphinx. The statue illustrates the intersection of skilled craftsmanship and rare materials resulting in superior work. It also exemplifies Old Kingdom artists’ approach to portraying the king as an all-powerful, godlike ruler. The statue is one of several of this king from his mortuary temple, attached to his pyramid. The sculptor carved this statue from diorite, a very hard stone that takes a high polish. Though the gray-green color of the stone would have been disguised by the paint Egyptian artists added to statues, the stone’s quality allowed the sculptor to model details in a way that would not have been possible in a softer stone. Moreover, the Egyptians imported this diorite from Nubia, making it rare and expensive. This statue is also an early example of the standard interpretation of the seated king as a conventional subject. Khafre sits on a lion throne, a royal chair with legs carved to resemble lions. The side panels of the chair display the hieroglyphic sign that proclaims that Upper and Lower Egypt are united into a single political entity. Other seated statues of Khafre include the unification motif, but not on lion thrones. The king wears the Nemes kerchief—the blue and gold striped cloth restricted to kings—with a Uraeus—the figure of the sacred serpent, an emblem of sovereignty depicted on headdresses—also standard for seated, royal statues. The king wears a square beard, indicative that the statue represents him in life rather than associating him with Osiris through the beard that curves upward at the end. Perched on the king’s back is a Horus falcon, representing the god protecting the king with his wings. The falcon on the king’s back might be compared to relief sculptures of the king with a falcon hovering above him. This, indeed, might be the way that the artist intended for viewers to interpret the falcon, indicating that the king is the living Horus on earth. The artist has sensitively modeled the king’s face with wide open eyes, a broad nose, philtrum, and sensitive lips. The artist has also exploited the quality of the stone to carve the king’s broad shoulders, muscular arms, and modeled chest. The king reaches for offerings in the now standard way with his left hand and probably held some object associated with his office in his right hand. The hieroglyphs carved on the statue base are oriented to the viewer and identify the king by name following the standard convention. Overall, the statue conveys a sense of overwhelming power and majesty both through the skillful carving and forceful presentation of the king.

Pepi I

The calcite seated statue of Pepi I (2338-2298 B.C.E.) recalls the seated statue of Khafre but also demonstrates the kinds of changes which occurred in art between the earlier king’s reign and the Sixth Dynasty (2345-2181 B.C.E.). Few other statues from Egypt so clearly read like a hieroglyph as does this one. The king sits on a throne that is shaped exactly like the hieroglyph for the word throne. He wears the white crown that identifies him as the king of Upper Egypt. He also wears a cloak that scholars recognize as the same costume the king wears during the heb-sed (jubilee). The king’s arms cross his chest and he holds the crook and flail. These two objects identify the king with the god Osiris. An inscription on the base identifies the king and is oriented to the viewer. Perched on the back of the throne is the falcon that represents the god Horus. The bird’s pose recalls the profile view of the falcon in two dimensions found on the Stela of Wadj. Just as was true on Wadj’s stela, beneath the falcon the king’s name is written within a serekh. The back of the statue thus stresses the living king’s association with the god Horus on earth. The king’s facial features differ from Khafre’s face. His eyebrows are broad, arch over his eye, and extend back toward the ears. The cosmetic line, the representation of the kohl applied like eyeliner that encircles the king’s eye, also extends parallel to the eyebrow toward the ear. The king’s lips are thick, and the mouth is shaped in an oval without any pointed corners. The small scale of this sculpture allowed the artist to carve the negative space of the legs, freeing them from the block.

Pepi I Kneeling

A small schist statue of Pepi I kneeling is an example of another typical Egyptian royal statue type. It portrays the king kneeling and holding a jar in each hand. The king is making a liquid offering to a god. This statue is the oldest complete example of a royal kneeling statue, but there is a fragment of a similar statue from the reign of Khafre known to Egyptologists. The king wears a Nemes kerchief. A Uraeus, probably fashioned from precious materials, once filled the hole over the king’s forehead. The king also wears a shendjet kilt, a garment worn only by kings that thus helps to identify him. His facial features are typical of the Sixth Dynasty. The broad but gently arched eyebrow extends nearly to the ear. The eye, like many statues in ancient Egypt, is made from precious materials and inlaid. The pupil is obsidian, while the white is calcite. These materials are held in place by a copper armature that represents the cosmetic line around the eye. The cosmetic line then extends in stone toward the ear, running parallel to the eyebrow. The nose and cheeks are full. The philtrum is modeled. The king’s mouth has broad lips and is shaped like an oval, without corners. The king’s torso and arms are elongated, not as muscular as Khafre’s body. This body type represents a second style in Egyptian art, identified by the art historian Edna R. Russmann. It contrasts with the more muscular and robust body of Khafre, for example, portrayed earlier and later in Egyptian history. This second style seems more expressive, and Egyptologists believe its source was religious. In common with the seated statue of Pepi I, the negative space between the arms and the king’s torso is carved. Again this is probably due to the small scale of this work.

Ankh-Nes-Meryre II and Pepi II

The calcite statue of Queen Ankh-nes-meryre II and her son Pepi II (2288-2194 B.C.E.) reveals further Sixth-dynasty innovations in royal sculpture while still relying on ancient conventions. The statue portrays a small, adult-looking king sitting on the lap of a woman who is much larger. The fact that Pepi II ascended the Egyptian throne at the age of six explains the difference in size between the figures. Taken alone, the small statue of the king resembles most seated royal figures. The king wears a Nemes kerchief and Uraeus over his forehead. He also wears a shendjet kilt, another symbol of royalty. The king’s left hand reaches for offerings in a conventional way, while his right hand holds a piece of linen, an offering he has already accepted. The sculptor placed this conventional statue at a ninety degree angle to a seated statue of the queen. The queen sits on a low-backed throne. She wears the vulture-headdress that indicates her status as a royal woman. The vulture further identifies her as the royal mother since this bird is also the hieroglyph for the word “mother.” The hole above her forehead probably once held a vulture head in some precious material. She also wears the tri-partite hairstyle, a traditional style for both women and goddesses. She wears a tight fitting dress with straps that pass over her breasts. Both the king and queen bear similar, Sixth-dynasty facial characteristics including the broad eyebrow, long cosmetic line, and oval-shaped mouth with no corners. Though most Egyptian statues are frontal, meant to be viewed from only one direction, clearly this statue has two fronts. But the queen here must be the major figure because she is so much larger than the king. Usually in Egyptian art, the king appears to be the smaller figure only in the presence of a deity. Thus many Egyptologists understand this statue to represent the king and his mother in the guise of the goddess Isis caring for her child Horus, the divine manifestation of the living king. Here the mythological interpretation most probably overlaps with reality since the six-year-old Pepi must have relied on his mother to rule Egypt during his minority.

Standing Royal Sculpture

The standing sculpture of King Menkaure and Queen Kha-merer-nebu II is a masterpiece of Egyptian sculpture and illustrates the Egyptian conventions for representing a standing king and queen. The sculpture is just under life size, 54¾ inches tall. The sculptor used greywacke, a hard gray stone that the Egyptians prized. The archaeologist George Reisner discovered the statue in 1910 in the valley temple of this king’s pyramid at Giza. This sculpture clearly illustrates the main conventions of Egyptian standing royal sculpture. The sculptor placed Menkaure on the viewer’s left and the queen on the right. The ancient viewer would have recognized immediately that Menkaure was the more important figure of this pair. The viewer’s left is always the place of honor in Egyptian representations. The king and queen were also conventionally dressed to communicate their rank in Egyptian society. Menkaure wears the Nemes kerchief, worn only by the king. This headdress was made from cloth, folded to form triangular shapes framing the king’s face. Two lappets hang from the triangles over the king’s chest. The back of the cloth was twisted around a braid of hair. Though the headdress covered most of the king’s hair and head, his sideburns and ears are visible. In examples where the artist used color, the Nemes is striped blue and gold. The king also wears a rectangular false beard. The false beard was leather, attached by straps that would have tied under the Nemes. This beard, worn only by the king, contrasts with the longer beard that ended in an upward twist worn only by the gods. The king’s chest is bare. He wears a distinctive kilt called the shendjet, worn only by kings. The kilt features a belt and a flap that was placed centrally between his legs. The king holds a cylinder in each hand, usually identified as a document case. The case held the deed to Egypt, thought to be in the king’s possession. This statue also shows some conventions of representing the male figure used for both nobles and kings. The king strides forward on his left leg, a pose typical for all standing, male Egyptian statues. The traces of red paint on the king’s ears, face, and neck show that the skin was originally painted red-ochre. This was the conventional male skin color in statuary, probably associating the deceased king or nobleman with the sun god Re. The statue of Queen Kha-merer-nebu II also exhibits the conventions for presenting women in Egyptian sculpture. Unlike kings, queens did not have their own conventions separate from other noblewomen. The queen’s wig is divided into three hanks, two draped over her shoulders and one flowing down her back. There is a central part. The queen’s natural hair is visible on her forehead and at the sideburns, another common convention. The queen wears a long, form-fitting dress. The fabric appears to be stretched so tightly that it reveals her breasts, navel, the pubic triangle, and knees. Yet the length is quite modest with a hem visible just above the ankles. The queen’s arms are arranged conventionally with one arm passing across the back of the king and the hand appearing at his waist. The queen’s other hand passes across her own abdomen and rests on the king’s arm. This pose indicated the queen’s dependence on the king for her position in society. In pair statues that show men who were dependent upon their wives for their status, the men embrace the women.

Style and Motion

The conventions of Egyptian art make it easy to stress the similarity of Egyptian sculptures to each other in the Old Kingdom. Yet details of the style of sculptures such as the Menkaure statue often make it possible to identify specific royal figures such as the king. All of his sculptures show distinctive facial features. His face has full cheeks. His eyes bulge slightly. The chin is knobby while the nose is bulbous. His wife resembles him, probably because the king’s face in any reign became the ideal of beauty. In almost every period, everyone seems to resemble the reigning king. Another aspect of style that remained constant through much of Old Kingdom art was the purposeful avoidance of portraying motion. Unlike ancient Greek sculptors, Egyptian sculptors aimed for a timelessness that excluded the transience of motion. Thus even though Menkaure and Kha-merer-nebu II were portrayed walking, the sculptor did not attempt to depict the weight shift in the hips and the stretch of the muscles that would create the illusion that the statue could move. This attitude toward depicting motion is a fundamental difference between ancient Egyptian and Greek art.

Structural Supports and Inscriptions

Egyptian sculptors relied on back pillars and the avoidance of negative space to support their sculptures. The back pillar in standing sculptures, such as the Menkaure statue, forms a slab that reaches to the shoulders of the figures. In statues of individuals, enough of the block of the stone was removed so that the back pillar would cover only the spine of the figure. In some cases, the entire back of the figures disappears into the remaining block of the stone. The negative space, the area between the arms and torso or between the legs was not carved. Unlike most sculptures of the Old Kingdom, the statue of Menkaure lacks the inscription that is usually found on the base and on the back pillar. Instead the artist relies on the idea that Menkaure can be identified from his facial features and the find spot of the statue in a temple built by Menkaure. The absence of an inscription indicates that the statue was not finished. Finished sculpture almost always included a hieroglyphic inscription that identified the subject.

Rahotep and Nofret

Rahotep was a king’s son who lived early in the Fourth Dynasty (2615-2492 B.C.E.). He was probably a son of King Sneferu and the brother of Khufu, builder of the Great Pyramid. His wife, Nofret, held the title “One Whom the King Knows,” indicative of her high rank. Statues of this couple were discovered in their tomb in 1871 C.E. Because the paint on these statues is fully preserved, they reveal the pristine, original appearance of Egyptian sculpture. They are fully painted. The colors are almost surely symbolic. Rahotep’s skin is painted a dark red derived from ocher. This color associates the deceased Rahotep with the sun god. Nofret’s skin is painted yellow/gold, symbolically linking her skin with a goddess’s skin. An alternative, frequent suggestion for the difference in skin tones between men and women is that men spend more time in the sun than did women in ancient Egypt, and so they were portrayed as lighter in color. This explanation, however, assumes that Egyptian artists fixed on this one detail as important enough to include visually in a sculpture. Since Egyptian art is largely conceptual, conveying ideas rather than visual reality, it seems likely that the color is symbolic rather than a representation of visual reality. The eyes on both statues are inlaid rather than carved from the same stone as the rest of the statue. The sculptor carved the eyes from rock crystal with a flat back. On the back, the iris and white have been added in paint. A hole drilled in the center, also painted black, represents the pupil. The front was highly polished, resembling the cornea of a living eye. The crystal was surrounded with a metal frame and placed in the socket carved in the statue. The effect is amazingly life-like. These crystal eyes must have been quite valuable in ancient times. They are only rarely preserved in statues, usually the loot of ancient tomb robbers who often left a statue behind without the eyes. The seated statue was also a common pose for high officials. These statues are very early examples, thus they do not preserve the later conventional hand gestures. Rahotep and Nofret both place the right arm across the chest. He holds the right hand in a fist while she lays it flat against her body. Rahotep’s left arm stretches on his lap toward his knee. The left hand is positioned as if it held some insignia of his office. Her left arm and hand are hidden behind her cloak. Later in the Old Kingdom, both men and women will reach forward with the left arm for offerings in the conventional pose for three-dimensional sculpture.

Portrayals of Officials

In addition to royalty, another large class of Egyptian sculpture portrays the officials who ran both the secular and religious institutions. These men and women were often younger sons and daughters of the royal family in the Fourth Dynasty, but later in the Fifth and Sixth Dynasties included self-made commoners who somehow developed a relationship with the king and thus rose in society. Egyptian artists developed a set of conventions for portraying these officials during the Old Kingdom. The standing statue of Ity-sen is an excellent example of the conventions for a standing statue of an official. Originally it was part of a group of three figures. Ity-sen stands with both arms at his sides. His hands hold peg-like objects that might represent offerings of cloth. His left leg strides forward, indicating that Ity-sen is walking forward to receive his offerings. His upper body is youthful with careful modeling of the pectoral muscles and the clavicle. He wears a simple kilt with a pleated apron. The muscles around the knee are modeled as well as the bones of the knee. The overall effect is a youthful and vibrant man in the prime of life. This effect was the artist’s usual intention. Statues like this functioned as containers for the deceased’s soul and allowed the deceased to continue life after death eternally young.

Group Statue

A family group of statues which represents an official, possibly named Irukaptah, his wife, and son, illustrates Egyptian use of hieratic scale—size based on importance—in three-dimensional sculpture. Irukaptah is a conventional standing male official roughly three times larger in scale than his wife and son. This difference in scale points to the Egyptian convention that the main figure of a group can be presented on a completely different, larger scale than the less important figures. Irukaptah wears a heavy but short wig. His facial features suggest a date in the Fifth Dynasty. His eyebrows are straight, and his eyes are wide open. There is no cosmetic line. Though the nose is damaged, it is still possible to see that the sculptor carefully modeled the area where the nose met the cheeks. His mouth is set in a somber expression with carefully modeled lips that end in a point. He has a strong, rounded chin. The upper body is carefully modeled with a clavicle, pectoral muscles, and a groove that runs through the center of the abdomen to the navel. The muscles of the shoulders and arms are also carefully modeled. Irukaptah wears a simple wraparound kilt with a pleated apron. His legs display careful modeling of the knees and the muscles surrounding them. His wife kneels at his left. She wears a short wig that reveals some of her natural hair at the forehead. She wears a tight dress that reveals her youthful breasts and also the pubic triangle. She crosses her left arm over her abdomen and holds Irukaptah’s left calf with her left hand. Irukaptah’s son stands on his right. The portrayal of the son follows Egyptian conventions for representing a child. His hair is gathered in a side lock that curls at the end. He holds his right hand up with his index finger pointing to his mouth. He is also nude. These conventions would have conveyed to the viewer that the subject is a child, even though he is larger than his mother. Though the expected inscription was never carved on this statue, the conventions of scale, dress, and pose make it easy to interpret.

Second Style

Three wooden statues of Metjetji illustrate both the conceptual nature of Egyptian sculpture and the emergence of a second style in Egyptian art in the later Old Kingdom. Though all three statues bear inscriptions identifying the subject as Metjetji, a high official of the late Fifth or early Sixth Dynasty, the facial features are not at all similar. Egyptian artists individualized a statue by adding a person’s name in hieroglyphs to the base or on the statue itself. The facial characteristics normally resembled the king’s face, the living god on earth. With such a “portrait” an official could merge his personality with that of the god and enter into the afterlife. Thus the three statues, though different in appearance, represent only the concept of the man Metjetji.

The three statues also represent the emergence of a second style in addition to the idea of the youthful and idealized standing male figure. The three statues seem to portray Metjetji at different stages of his life. The statue of Metjetji holding a walking staff is most like other conventional images in style. It resembles, for example, the standing statue of Ity-sen in basic conception. The statue depicting Metjetji in the most conventional pose with both arms at his sides also begins to exhibit characteristics of the second style. The figure is much less robust looking. His arms, torso, and legs are elongated. His body is slimmer and less muscular. The facial features are more exaggerated and less idealized than in the more conventional style of Egyptian art. Finally, the statue with the open palm pose is very much more elongated and expressive in its facial features. Some scholars have considered it an individualized portrait. The face, arms, torso, and legs are even more attenuated and slender than in the previous example. From the Sixth Dynasty until the end of ancient Egyptian history, artists used the idealized, traditional style alongside the attenuated second style in certain period. Many scholars have suggested that the motivation behind the development of this second style was religious. Yet the details of how and why it developed have not been explained.

Reliefs of Officials

Old Kingdom artists carved reliefs of officials on their tombs’ walls. These representations were also conventionalized, using standard poses for standing and seated officials. Reliefs could be either raised or sunk, depending on placement in the tomb. In raised reliefs, the artist cuts away the background, leaving behind an image raised above the surface of the stone. Sunk reliefs cut the image below the surface of the stone. Raised relief in Egypt was most effective in dark interior spaces where it caught the diffused light. Sunk relief was more visible in bright, outdoor spaces where the intense light of the Egyptian sun was brightest. All relief was painted.

Standing Pose in Reliefs

A relief of the official Akhety-hotep is a conventional standing figure of an official. Akhety-hotep stands with a staff in his left hand and a scepter in his right hand. The staff is a simple, tall walking stick which only men of authority carried. The scepter is also a hieroglyph for the word “power.” The fact that Akhety-hotep holds this scepter conveys the basic message that he is a high official. The pose portrays Akhety-hotep’s face in profile with a frontal view of his eye. His shoulders seem to twist to a frontal view while his torso violently twists back to a profile. Only his nipple remains in the frontal view. From his waist to his feet, the view of Akhety-hotep is in profile. The artist, however, has given him two left feet, also a convention of Egyptian relief. Both feet display the arch and the big toe as closest to the viewer. This view should only be possible of the left foot. Finally, the hieroglyphs directly in front of his face spell his name, thereby individualizing this conventional image as one particular official. In fact the image of Akhety-hotep is properly a hieroglyph. In hieroglyphic writing, the final sign in a name is an image of a man or of an official if a man had achieved that status. Thus the image acts as the final hieroglyph in the writing of his name.

Seated Official in Relief

The relief of Setjau illustrates a typical offering scene with a seated official. Reliefs of seated officials before an offering table were placed above the false door in a mastaba tomb. Here the priests offered food, drink, cosmetics, ointments, ritual oils, and clothes to the deceased during the ritual. This relief depicts Setjau receiving these gifts that he needs in the afterlife while sitting on a stool carved with animal legs. Even through the damage, it is possible to see that his face is in profile, except for the eye that the artist has carved frontally. The shoulders twist to a frontal view while the torso, legs, and feet are in a profile view. Setjau holds a ritual object in his clasped left hand. His right arm reaches forward with an open hand touching the offerings on the table. This gesture suggests he has received the offerings that the priests made. This hand, as is commonly the case, appears to be a left hand too, though it is attached to the right arm, nearer to the viewer. The thumb is at the bottom rather than the top, the place the viewer would expect it if this relief were a version of visual reality. Setjau is surround by hieroglyphs. The top horizontal line contains his titles and name, individualizing this conventional image. The hieroglyphs around the offering table enumerate the offerings that Setjau can expect to receive for eternity.


Workers appear in scenes of farm life and manufacturing in Old Kingdom tombs. In the relief called Men Presenting Cattle it is clear that the same conventions governing portrayals of kings and officials did not apply for agricultural workers, or indeed any workers in Egyptian society. The three workers are all balding, not anything like the idealized kings and officials. Though the basic conventions can be found in Egyptian representations of workers, the man at the upper right side of this relief might represent a comic view of workers. This man is balding and nude. In general Egyptian artists only portrayed nudity for the children of the upper classes. Rather than having an idealized body, this man displays a pot-belly. Moreover, his right foot is forward as he walks rather than the conventional left foot. Though such a detail might seem minor, viewed against a background of hundreds of examples from Egyptian art, this is a major deviation from the conventions. Egyptian artists could exercise much more freedom in their depictions of workers than they could when portraying kings and officials. This freedom also stems, in part, from the fact that the scenes of daily life required more complicated poses in order to depict certain actions.

The Middle Kingdom

New Trends

The visual art of the Middle Kingdom (2008-1630 B.C.E.) displays both regional styles and development through time. The art created during the Eleventh Dynasty (2008-1938 B.C.E.) displays a distinct style that originated in Thebes, the home of Nebhepetre Mentuhotep, the king who reunified Egypt and founded the Middle Kingdom. In the Twelfth Dynasty (1938-1759 B.C.E.), Memphis was once more the Egyptian capital. Artists drew inspiration from Old Kingdom (2675-2170 B.C.E.) models found in this area. They reestablished this older art as the official style. Yet they also continued to develop within this older tradition. Representations of kings remained the most common and most important subject for Egyptian artists during the Middle Kingdom. Statues of kings conveniently illustrate the regional differences in Egyptian art during the Middle Kingdom as well as developments through time.

Nebhepetre Mentuhotep

King Nebhepetre Mentuhotep (2008-1957 B.C.E.) reunited Egypt after nearly 150 years when local princes ruled small provinces after the collapse of the Sixth Dynasty (c. 2170 B.C.E.). Mentuhotep’s family had been the local princes of Thebes, the area now occupied by Luxor in Upper (southern) Egypt. By conquering Lower Egypt, Mentuhotep established the Eleventh Dynasty and the Middle Kingdom. The artists working at Thebes had a distinctive style in both sculpture and relief. This style became the official style of the Eleventh-dynasty kings. Though it drew on traditional symbols and poses already developed in the Old Kingdom, the way these symbols and poses were carved was distinctive. The sandstone head of Mentuhotep is a good example of how these artists worked. This head comes from a statue discovered in the king’s mortuary temple at Deir el Bahri. The king wears the tall white crown, an ancient symbol that proclaimed that he ruled Upper Egypt. Other statues from the same site portray the king in the red crown, the symbol of ruling Lower Egypt. Thus by this series of statues, the king communicated the reestablishment of central rule of all Egypt by one king. Mentuhotep also wears the Uraeus snake. This is an early example in which the Uraeus was combined with the white crown. The snake protects the king by attacking his enemies. In the Old Kingdom, kings conventionally wore the Uraeus with the Nemes kerchief—the blue and gold striped cloth restricted to kings. Thus this is a new combination. This statue also preserves the red paint used for male skin in Egyptian art. Red associates the king with the sun god Re and probably also with the idea of the sacred. The ancient Egyptian words for sacred and for red contain the same consonants (dj-s-r) and thus red skin for a king was a visual pun for the word sacred. The facial features found in this statue are also typical of the Eleventh-dynasty style. The eyebrows extend in a flat line over the eye and then continue back toward the ear. The lower inner corner of the eye dips downward while the eye is wide open. The cosmetic line extends toward the ear parallel to the eyebrow. Though the nose of the statue has been damaged, the accentuation of the muscles at the base of the nose is clear. There is a sharp ridge around the mouth consisting of broad lips. The edges of the lips form a flat line meeting the cheek. All these characteristics are typical of Eleventh-dynasty sculpture and distinguish it from the more idealizing features of Old Kingdom kings.

Royal Reliefs

Royal reliefs in the Eleventh Dynasty also display a distinctive style and high quality. A good example of this type of carving comes from Nebhepetre Mentuhotep’s mortuary temple. In the section devoted to Queen Neferu, his wife, there is a scene of hairdressers preparing her coiffure. One fragment represents the hairdresser Inu curling the queen’s hair or wig. Inu’s representation is personalized through the inscription with her name just to the right of her face. Otherwise she bears the facial features found in typical Eleventh-dynasty relief in the Theban style. Her long, flat eyebrow and flaring, extended cosmetic line place her firmly in this tradition. She also displays the artist’s interest in the intersection of the nostrils and the cheeks, the broad lips with a ridge around the mouth, and the vertical line marking the corner of the mouth. Finally, the oblique placement of the ear and the emphasis on long, active fingers all are part of the Theban style. After Nebhepetre Mentuhotep’s reign and the unification of Egypt, artists combined the Theban and Memphis styles to create a new synthesis.

Mentuhotep III

A relief of Mentuhotep III and the goddess Iunyt, wife of the war god Montu, shows the gradual combination of the Theban and Memphis styles. In this reign, Theban artists would have traveled to Memphis and seen the art of the Old Kingdom in places like Giza and Saqqara. Two representations of the king are included. On the left he wears the red crown of Lower Egypt. On the right he wears the Nemes kerchief with a Uraeus. The goddess wears the vulture headdress that associates her with maternity. In style, the synthesis between Theban and Memphis traditions are clearest in the eye and the ear. The eyebrow and cosmetic line are still extended and ribbon-like. But the eyeball itself seems to swell behind the eyelid in a more life-like way than was found in earlier Theban work. This is a clear Memphis influence. The ear also is placed more naturally than in other Eleventh-dynasty relief. The lips remain broad but do not end as bluntly at the corners. This relief points toward the revival of the Memphis style during the Twelfth Dynasty.

Twelfth Dynasty

Kings of the Twelfth Dynasty (1938-1759 B.C.E.) restored the capital to the area around Memphis in Lower Egypt. Their artists also resided in the new capital. Artists now had direct access to the Old Kingdom cemeteries of Giza and Saqqara and others for inspiration. The results of this inspiration are clear in royal statues of this period. The seated king, in a style reminiscent of the Fourth-dynasty statue of Khafre from his mortuary temple, once again was a common subject. A black granite statue of Senwosret III follows this ancient pattern while also drawing on artists’ new interest in portraying the subject’s inner life. The king sits on a low-backed throne with his arms resting on his lap. The left hand is open and reaches for offerings. The right hand is curled in a fist and holds a piece of linen, a common offering. The king wears the Nemes kerchief with a Uraeus protecting him, the conventional headgear for a seated royal statue. The heart-shaped pendant that the king wears suspended from a chain around his neck is typical of Middle Kingdom jewelry. The king also wears the pleated shendjet kilt so often seen in seated royal statues. Finally the king wears an animal tail that is visible between his legs, carved in relief on the block of the throne. The king’s thick legs and feet rest on top of nine bows that represent the weapons of Egypt’s traditional enemies. With the king’s feet on top of them, the enemies are disarmed and rendered harmless. The king’s torso also recalls the idealized and muscular bodies of Old Kingdom kings. The artist has carefully rendered the pectoral muscles, the groove over the abdomen to the navel, and the muscles of the arms. Once again the king represents Egypt’s strong and idealized protector. Yet the king’s face, as is true of many sculptures of Senwosret III, suggests an attempt at conveying the king’s psychological state. Many commentators have suggested that the carefully carved bags under the king’s eyes, the drawn muscles of the cheeks, and the drooping corners of the king’s mouth suggest the heavy burden borne by kings who take proper care of their people. The large, protruding ears, though possibly a family characteristic, might also signify that the king hears his people’s prayers. This tradition is found in the literature of the period. The inscription carved on the front of the throne identifies the king and is oriented to the viewer as in classic Old Kingdom royal statues.


The artists of the Twelfth Dynasty also produced extremely high quality and innovative work. A head of a princess carved from chlorite exemplifies the highest standards of Egyptian art and a new convention, the female sphinx. Even in its damaged condition the head reveals the expressiveness that Egyptian artists could achieve while working within strict conventions. The planes of the face are modeled so delicately that the youthful freshness of the sitter becomes obvious. The princess wears a heavy wig that reveals some of her natural hair above the forehead in the conventional way. A small Uraeus over the forehead indicates that she is royalty. The eyebrows arch over the eye and extend back toward the ear. The eyes were once inset, undoubtedly made from precious materials. The nose is damaged but the expressive lips are carved with great subtlety. The chin, though repaired in antiquity, is also extremely delicate.

Block Statue

Block statues possibly began in the Old Kingdom but became very popular in the Middle Kingdom. They represent an individual squatting on the ground, usually wearing a cloak. The pose is common today among Egyptians. It is not unusual to see workers squatting on the back of their heels during a break. The artist preserves the shape of the original stone block with only the head emerging from the top and the feet revealed at the front. In the case of the block statue of Senwosret-Senbefny, the subject’s wife is presented on a small scale between his feet. Senwosret-Senbefny wears a wig tucked behind his large, protruding ears. His face resembles the king, Senwosret III for whom he was named, though he is only a “steward of the reckoning of the cattle.” The eyebrow ridge is carved without detailed carving of the eyebrows themselves. Perhaps originally the artist added them in paint. The eyes are placed squarely in the face. The nose is flat with carefully modeled muscles joining it to the cheeks. The mouth with its slight downturn at the ends greatly resembles Senwosret III. The chin with its short, square beard rests on his hands. The feet are much less carefully modeled, appearing thick and clumsy. The block shape of the statue creates additional space for inscriptions. The fact that the funerary god Ptah-Sokar is named in the inscription suggests that this statue came from Senwosret-Senbefy’s tomb.

Cloaked Figures

Late in the Twelfth Dynasty artists started to represent officials in full-length cloaks. They could be seated on chairs or on the ground. “Statuette of a Cloaked Official” is an example of a seated male figure in full-length cloak. The subject’s body is entirely draped. Only his hands, ankles, and feet emerge from the cloak. Scholars have speculated about the meaning of this popular new way of portraying officials. The contrast between the carefully modeled face and the stark cloak might have had visual appeal for artists. The cloak might also echo the mummy bandages that totally wrap the god Osiris and thus help to equate the deceased official with the god. The cloak is also the garment associated with the king’s jubilee (heb-sed). When artists portray a deceased official wearing such a cloak, it might imply rejuvenation for the deceased.

Female Figures

Female figures in the Middle Kingdom resemble Old Kingdom models yet illustrate the Egyptian artist’s tendency to give all people the king’s features. A female figure in the Brooklyn Museum depicts a woman in a tight, v-necked dress and a tri-partite hairstyle. Both of these features resemble Old Kingdom styles. Yet her face reflects the conventions for portraying the king’s face and head in the Twelfth Dynasty. She has the same very large ears as the kings of this period. Her eyebrows are relatively straight over wide-open eyes. Her nose is broad and her lips are rounded at the end.

The New Kingdom


Egyptian art of the New Kingdom (1538-1075 B.C.E.) displays a wide variety of styles within the established artistic tradition, by this point nearly 2,000 years old. The New Kingdom includes the classical images of the warrior pharaoh Thutmose III (1479-1425 B.C.E.) but also the androgynous king, Akhenaten (1352-1336 B.C.E.). It includes relief based on Old Kingdom (2675-2170 B.C.E.) models along with more fluid depictions of both people and places. The variation in size runs from the colossal to the minute. Impassive royal sculptures from the early Eighteenth Dynasty (1539-1425B.C.E.) contrast with Amarna period (1352-1332 B.C.E.) scenes that seem to represent a loving royal family. Art of the New Kingdom reflects a serious change in Egyptian perceptions of the world from the beginning to the end of the period.


The Hyksos, a Semitic-speaking ethnic group that ruled northern Egypt from approximately 1630 to 1523 B.C.E., caused a radical change in the way Egyptians thought about the world and Egypt’s place in it. The first kings of the Eighteenth Dynasty drove the Hyksos out of Egypt and chased them into the area now known as the Middle East as far as modern-day Iraq. Even after Egyptian victory, kings continued at first to feel vulnerable to the outside world’s designs on their country. The kings created a professional army for the first time in Egypt’s history. This army was a response to Egypt’s new view that broader organization and professionalism was now necessary in public life in order to combat the threat from outside. The civil service was also revived outside the old hereditary nobility, probably copying a Middle Kingdom reform. The military victories celebrated by Thutmose III (1479-1425 B.C.E.) brought to a close the first stage of New Kingdom history and its associated art.

Comfort and Luxury

Beginning with the reign of Thutmose IV (1400-1390 B.C.E.) Egyptian art reflects the comfort and luxury that came with Egyptian victory over its rivals both in both Asia and in Africa. Egyptian artists’ contact with the outside world yielded an interest in the vitality of other cultures rather than the pure rejection the Egyptians offered to the Hyksos. A new optimism about their own place in the world allowed Egyptians to appreciate their neighbors in a way that had not been available when the Hyksos were thought to be a threat.

Earliest New Kingdom

The earliest art of the Eighteenth Dynasty found inspiration in early models both of the Old and Middle Kingdoms. Clearly artists depended on models that they found around Thebes, the traditional home of the new royal family that had reunited Egypt and driven out the Hyksos. A head of King Ahmose in a private collection shows the first king of the Eighteenth Dynasty in a white crown with the Uraeussnake. This head is so similar to Eleventh-dynasty royal sculpture that only the inscription which identifies the king as Ahmose makes it absolutely clear that it was carved in the Eighteenth Dynasty. The carving of the eye depicts it as wide open but slanting toward the middle of the face. This same slant can be found in statues of Mentuhotep II and Senwosret I. Ahmose’s eye also bulges naturalistically. It looks three-dimensional because of the grooves around the eyeball that separate them from the lids. The iris and pupil were represented by concentric circles, a technique that began in the Eleventh Dynasty. The cosmetic line is horizontal and long, extending from the corner of the eye to the ear tabs of the crown. The face is broad with full, high, rounded cheeks. The sickle-shaped mouth might be an individual characteristic that truly represented Ahmose’s mouth. It is not a feature found in Middle Kingdom sculpture. In sum, this sculpture of Ahmose closely resembles statues of Mentuhotep II, nearly five hundred years older. Clearly, artists were turning to traditions that for them were already ancient to reestablish an artistic style for the Egyptian state now newly liberated from foreign domination.


Hatshepsut came to the throne of Egypt in 1478 B.C.E. Officially, she ruled jointly with Thutmose III who had ascended to the throne as a child one year earlier. Hatshepsut was the chief wife of Thutmose II, Thutmose III’s father. But Thutmose III was not her son. Thutmose III’s mother was Isis, a secondary queen of Thutmose II. Though the details of Hatshepsut’s rise to power remain unclear, she certainly presented herself as the ruler until her death in 1458 B.C.E.Only then did Thutmose III assume independent rule of the country. Statues of Hatshepsut in the guise of the ruling king created a challenge for Egyptian sculptors. The traditional image of the king was an athletic male figure that protected Egypt from its enemies. Artists had to develop ways of presenting Hatshepsut as a female king, but still convey the same message of strength that Egyptians expected in representations of their ruler. One solution was to present Hatshepsut in traditional royal poses, regardless of her gender. Thus one statue of Hatshepsut shows her as a seated king comparable to the seated statues of Khafre made in the Fourth Dynasty or of Senwosret III made in the Twelfth Dynasty. Hatshepsut’s torso is more slender than her royal predecessors, but she sits on a similar throne in a Nemes kerchief and wears the same shendjet kilt. A statue in Cairo shows Hatshepsut kneeling with two jars, the same pose that Pepi I took in one statuette. Again she wears the Nemes kerchief and the shendjet kilt. When she wore traditional clothing or posed in a traditional manner, she evoked for ancient viewers the timeless traditions of royalty. Hatshepsut’s artists also portrayed her as a sphinx. This tradition had been popular in the Twelfth Dynasty and helped artists avoid the difficulties of portraying her body since they needed only to show her face attached to a lion’s body. Hatshepsut’s face was characterized by arched eyebrows that gave her a slightly surprised facial expression. Her eye dipped slightly at the inner corner. A flat, long cosmetic line that she often wore resembles her Eleventh-dynasty predecessors. Her nose was aquiline, and she pursed her lips in most of her statues. These facial characteristics were repeated in statues of Thutmose III, her co-ruler and later the sole ruler after her death. Since it is clear that they were not related by blood, it is significant that artists presented both of them with a nearly identical face. Though one or another facial characteristic might have actually been recognizable on Hatshepsut’s face, this portrait represented an ideal king rather than an individual. Many of the individual characteristics portrayed in the face were similar to rulers of the distant past who also were not blood relations. Rather, by repeating certain characteristics the artist conveyed the clear message that this particular ruler was part of a line of legitimate rulers who protected Egypt from its enemies.


Senenmut was a powerful official during Hatshepsut’s reign. He served both as prime minister and a high official of the god Amun, the chief god of the Egyptian pantheon. Thus he was able to commission at least 25 statues of himself. They represent a great variety of poses, demonstrating that artists in this reign began to exercise their creativity in the statues they made of officials as well as coping with the artistic problems created by portraying a female queen. They showed Senenmut with Hatshepsut’s young daughter, Neferure, on his lap. This statue imitates the poses assumed by Queen Ankhnes-meryre II and Pepi II in one statuette. Artists also created a cube statue of Senenmut that included Neferure’s head emerging from the top of the cube. The Brooklyn Senenmut comes from a temple of the god Montu. Senenmut kneels, holding a divine symbol. The symbol includes a sun disk enclosed in cow horns, a cobra, and a pair of human arms ending in flat hands that face the viewer. This symbol probably is a hieroglyphic writing of Hatshepsut’s name. Thus Senenmut is offering her name to the god Montu. This is one of the earliest temple statues that portray a non-royal individual making such an important offering to a god. Previously only a king would be shown in such a pose. Senenmut’s face is nearly identical to Hatshepsut’s face, though again they were not relatives. His eyebrows are arched in the typical manner for this period. His eyes dip slightly at the inner corner. His nose curves slightly in an aquiline shape. His lips are pursed. Officials wanted to be represented with faces that resembled the royal portrait because they hoped to become divine, as the king was, in the next world. A statue’s face in the guise of the king helped an official achieve this goal.


Other officials commissioned traditional statues during the reigns of Hatshepsut and Thutmose III. Ahmose-Ruru, who lived in Thutmose III’s reign, commissioned a statue in a cloak, a style that had been popular in the Twelfth Dynasty. For example, the “Statuette of a Cloaked Official” from the earlier period shows a very similar pose. Here Ahmose-Ruru sits on a block-like throne. Only his hands and feet emerge from the garment. His left hand rests on the right side of his chest. His right hand is curved into a fist and rests on his lap. The hands seem too large for his body. An inscription down the center of his cloak identifies him as a high official. His face, however, resembles his ruler’s face or his fellow official Senenmut’s face. The arched eyebrows are a defining characteristic of the period. His eye also dips slightly at the inner corner. He wears a long cosmetic line that parallels the end of his eyebrows. His nose is aquiline and his lips are pursed. Ahmose-Ruru also wears the short, square, chin beard worn by high officials. This face places the statue squarely in the early Eighteenth Dynasty, but it is also clearly inspired by the traditions of the Middle Kingdom.

Relief Sculpture

Relief sculpture of the early Eighteenth Dynasty followed Middle Kingdom models yet changed certain proportions in a way that makes it possible to recognize them as products of the later period. The Funerary Stela of Senres, for example, depicts the deceased Senres with his wife Hormes, seated before an offering table. The pose dates to the Old Kingdom. Senres’ short hairstyle with rows of curls and his ear at an odd angle are based on Middle Kingdom models. Hormes wears a simple hairstyle that divides her hair into three sections arranged over the back and on either side in the front. This so-called tri-partite hairstyle is very ancient, dating at least to the Old Kingdom. He wears a simple wraparound kilt with an apron. She wears the sheath dress with a strap. Their faces also reflect Middle Kingdom models. The forms of their mouths, with squared ends, particularly are reminiscent of earlier periods. The proportions of their bodies, however, place the stela firmly in the Eighteenth Dynasty. Their torsos are long and slender as are their arms. These characteristics are typical of the later period.

New Subjects

Hatshepsut’s Mortuary Temple at Deir el Bahri contains relief with innovative subject matter created in the same style that recalls the Middle Kingdom. Hatshepsut ordered an expedition to Punt (modern Somalia) to bring back incense that the Egyptians used in religious rituals. In her temple, the various stages of the expedition were illustrated in a series of reliefs. They include scenes of sailing on the Red Sea, arrival in Punt, the people of Punt, the unusual housing elevated on stilts, cutting trees that produced incense, and potting them to return to Egypt. Artists must have accompanied the expedition where they recorded many details that found their way into the reliefs. This is the earliest preserved example of an historical subject in Egyptian art. Such historical reliefs were later included in temple decoration, though the subject matter in the later temples was war.

Early New Kingdom Painting

Painting revived in the early Eighteenth Dynasty along with the other visual arts. During the previous Hyksos period, there are no good examples of painting. Artists drew inspiration from the Middle Kingdom in painting just as they had in sculpture and relief. A fragment called Painting of a Woman represents the difficulties in distinguishing Middle Kingdom painting from early Eighteenth-dynasty examples. A woman kneels before a table holding a lotus flower. She wears her hair in the tri-partite style and wears a wraparound dress with one strap. Only the details of her face help in dating this fragment. Like many Middle Kingdom faces, she wears an extended cosmetic line that parallels her eyebrow. Her mouth, outlined in red, is square at the corner rather than round. Her ear tilts at an odd angle, also a Middle Kingdom characteristic. Yet her eye is quite elongated, as is her mouth. These characteristics make it more similar to early Eighteenth-dynasty paintings. Yet the dependence on the earlier models is clear.

Later Eighteenth Dynasty Painting

By the reign of Thutmose IV (1400-1390 B.C.E.) painting style had changed and new subjects were introduced. By this point Egyptian artists knew the work of Middle Eastern and Minoan Greek artists from increased trade contacts following the wars of Thutmose III. The drawing is now more fluid than the stiff and slightly archaic drawing found in the early New Kingdom. Artists began to expand the color palette to include more colors. The difference from the earlier Eighteenth Dynasty is clear in the depiction of female musicians. The musicians in the tomb of Rekhmire from the reign of Thutmose III are fully clothed. The artist made no attempt at depicting movement. In contrast the musicians in the tombs Nebamun play for two nude dancing girls. The dancers strike exotic poses reaching into the air and bending at the waist. Their feet hover in the air as they dance to the music. Artists also attempted to use more impressionistic brush strokes rather than flat areas of color as they had previously. The more lively drawing and additional colors applied in a rapid way create a noticeable change in painting style.

Amenhotep III

By the time that Amenhotep III ascended the throne in 1390 B.C.E., his immediate ancestors had extended Egypt’s borders into Iraq and south through Sudan. The country was richer than ever before because of the expanded tax base. The art created in Amenhotep III’s time reflects a much richer and more peaceful society than the art of the early Eighteenth Dynasty. More statues of Amenhotep III survive from ancient times than any other king of the Eighteenth Dynasty. They range in size from the Colossoi of Memnon, over sixty feet tall, to an exquisite wooden statuette only ten inches high. The large preserved production from this reign means that there are statues in many different stones. They include red and black granite, quartzite, limestone, and sandstone. The art historian Betsy Bryan differentiated a number of different styles of portraying Amenhotep III’s face that are related to the material. For example, quartzite is a very hard stone that takes a high polish. In a quartzite statue of Amenhotep III, the artist used different degrees of polish as a technique to differentiate different textures in the crown, the skin, and the hair. The eyebrows are fairly rough in comparison to the skin near the eye. This skin is very highly polished to indicate the smoothness of this skin. The cheeks, where the king would have had a beard, are rougher than the skin near the eye, but not so rough as the eyebrows. These contrasts indicate a sophistication about working the stone that did not exist in previous reigns. Artists also exploited differences in the degree of polish in granite statues that they could also polish to a high shine.

Body Types

Statues of Amenhotep III also display a variety of body types. Some statues portray the traditional athletic royal body that emphasizes the king’s role as Egypt’s protector. Other statues, such as statuettes made from wood, might represent an older king. His body is fleshy and slack. His pectoral muscles sag, almost resembling female breasts. His belly is rounded and puffy. This representation of a royal body might symbolize the king’s wealth. But some scholars understand this version of a royal body as feminized. The meaning of this feminized body would, however, not be negative as it might be in modern eyes. Instead the Egyptian artist could be stressing the king’s role in guaranteeing the country’s fertility. The king’s breast-like pectorals and nearly pregnant abdomen suggest common Egyptian symbols for rebirth and plenty. This version of the king’s body would also send an important positive message to ancient Egyptian viewers.

Private People

Increasing wealth throughout Egypt and the resulting opulence during Amenhotep III’s reign is clear in art that represents non-royal officials during this period. A pair statue representing the officials Nebsen and Nebet-ta and a tomb painting representing a lady named Tjepu both demonstrate that artists portrayed these members of the elite with increasing numbers of luxury goods. Nebsen was a scribe of the royal treasury. His wife, Nebet-ta, was a singer in the cult of the goddess Isis. In the statue that their son commissioned for them, they are portrayed sitting on a high-backed chair. Nebet-ta wears the elaborate enveloping wig that had become fashionable in this time period. It completely enfolds her shoulders and reaches the upper part of her breasts. She wears a broad collar and bracelets on her wrists. She appears to be wearing a tight dress that reveals her breasts and navel. The pubic triangle is hidden because she is seated with her knees together. Nebsen also wears an elaborate wig that reaches his shoulders. He wears a broad collar and armlets that encircle his biceps. He also wears a wraparound kilt. His chest is fleshy and corpulent, suggesting his wealth and high position in society. Inscriptions on both people elaborate their names and titles for the viewer. Though both of these individuals lived in the reign of Thutmose III, their son commissioned this statue in the current style during his own lifetime. When compared with the pair statue of Rahotep and Nofret made during the Fourth Dynasty, it is clear that the later New Kingdom artists strove to emphasize the sitter’s wealth. Rahotep and Nofret were a prince and princess, yet they do not wear wigs, clothing, or jewelry nearly as elaborate as these non-royal officials wore. Even though both statues share the same pose, the style of the later periods called for a different emphasis. The tendency is noticeable in the painting of Tjepu that comes from her son’s tomb. Tjepu stands making a gesture of adoration with her right hand and holding a menat, a piece of jewelry that could double as a musical instrument in her left hand. She wears on top of her wig a scented wax cone that Egyptians of this period wore as deodorant and perfume. Her wig is also adorned with a closed lotus flower and a colorful headband. The wig itself is long and envelops her near shoulder. Due to the conventions of Egyptian art in two dimensions, the far shoulder is uncovered, though in reality this hairstyle would have covered both shoulders. She wears an elaborate and colorful broad collar, armlets, and bracelets made from gold, turquoise, and jasper. She also wears a complex linen dress with a shawl. Her coiffure, jewelry, and clothing all convey a message of plenty that seems integral to Amenhotep III’s reign. A wooden statue of the Lady Tuty further illustrates the opulence found in Egyptian representations of private people of this period. The wood itself is ebony, a very high-priced material imported from Somalia. The cosmetic cone on her head and her disk earrings are fashioned from gold. She wears an elaborate complex wraparound dress with many pleats. All of these images reflect the wealth of the time period.

Non-Royal Faces

As in other periods of Egyptian history, non-royal officials were portrayed with the same facial characteristics as the monarch. The eyebrow arches more gently than in the early Eighteenth Dynasty. The eye is almond-shaped and tilts toward the center of the face. The nose is straight and slightly bulbous at the end, and the cheeks are full. The mouth has full lips with a slight overbite. The chin is round. Viewers can easily distinguish this face from the early Eighteenth Dynasty. But the principle that people could identify themselves in the afterlife with royalty and thus deities remained true in the later Eighteenth Dynasty.

Amarna Period

Amenhotep III’s son ascended the throne in 1352 B.C.E. as Amenhotep (“Amun is satisfied”) IV. But by 1347 B.C.E., five years later, he called himself Akhenaten (“Spirit of the sun disk”). His new name was only a small part of the religious and artistic revolution that he inaugurated. It was the most distinct eleven years in 3,000 years of Egyptian artistic history. As Akhenaten, he banned the worship of all gods except Aten, the physical disk of the sun. He closed Egypt’s traditional temples and built new temples first at Karnak, and later at a new city in central Egypt in a place now called Tell el Amarna. The modern name of this place gives its name to this period in Egyptian history. Since Akhenaten built so many new buildings, there remain many fragments of sculptural relief and sculpture that once decorated Akhenaten’s new construction. This art is distinctive in style and subject matter.

The King

Images of Akhenaten never match the traditional ideal of the athletic young man who protects Egypt from its enemies. Instead, representations of Akhenaten portray him with elongated and thin features. His face is extremely long and narrow with a pronounced chin. His arms are also elongated and skinny rather than muscular. Often his clavicle protrudes through his skin. His chest is flabby and the abdomen is puffy. Very often his hips are wide rather than the traditional slim-hipped figure presented by other kings. Indeed, Akhenaten’s form resembles a feminine rather than a masculine ideal. Perhaps this ideal originated in his father’s reign with images like the wooden statuette of Amenhotep III. Yet the elongation is much more pronounced in images of Akhenaten. The Wilbour Plaque shows the king in two dimensions where the exaggeration of his portrayals is even clearer. Here the king wears a traditional Uraeus snake over his forehead with a cloth headdress called the afnet. He has only an eyebrow ridge rather than a fully carved eyebrow. His eye is almond-shaped and deeply slanted toward the center. The extreme length of his face is clear in the very long, straight nose. His full lips slant downward at the corners. The chin is strongly pointed. Akhenaten’s ear is very naturalistic and includes the slit for earrings. He also has a long arched neck with two grooves. These grooves are characteristic of the period. The king’s face contrasts strongly with the normally round, full-cheeked Egyptian ideal in periods before and after the Amarna period.


Queen Nefertiti faces Akhenaten on the Wilbour Plaque. She also has an extremely long and narrow face, paralleling many of the characteristics of her husband’s face. Her face is distinguished from his by being slightly less long and with a slightly less pronounced chin. There is also a groove carved from the outside corner of her nose extending on the diagonal that distinguishes her face from his. Her long neck has one groove in contrast to his two grooves. Nefertiti wears a Uraeus and cap with a diadem. The Uraeus is one of a few normally masculine characteristics this queen bears. In a relief from Akhenaten’s palace, the queen wears the Nubian hairstyle, normally reserved for male soldiers. She also wears the Uraeus snake over her forehead. Her almond-shaped eyes dip toward her nose that is quite long. Her full lips turn downward at the end. Her neck is long and graceful with two grooves. Of course the most famous image of Nefertiti is the plaster bust now in the Egyptian Museum in Berlin. Its long and elegant lines are often compared to a modern fashion model. Yet its ideal of slim elegance could not be farther from the traditional Egyptian view of the ideal woman. Usually women are portrayed with round, full faces and few angles. The reversal of typical male and female roles during the Amarna Period remains one of its most intriguing characteristics.


Another unusual feature of Amarna Period art is its many representations of Akhenaten and Nefertiti’s six daughters. They are often included in scenes portraying rituals dedicated to the Aten. In a relief from a chapel in the palace, two princesses play the sistrum in their most elegant linen dresses. The facial characteristics in these reliefs are extremely exaggerated, a fact that places them at the beginning of the period. Another image of a princess depicts her pressing her lips to her mother’s lips. Though called a kiss, it is a very rare representation of such an act in Egyptian art. The princess is portrayed as a child with a shaved head and the typical side lock that children wear. She also wears a flat, disk shape-earring. Such scenes of intimacy and familial feeling are extremely rare in Egyptian art in general but are much more common during the Amarna Period.

Late Eighteenth-Dynasty Relief

Tomb relief in the late Eighteenth Dynasty included unusual subject matter sometimes related to the tomb owner’s profession. The exquisitely carved soldiers from the tomb of Horemheb illustrate men he commanded while he was a general in the army. The varied faces and body types of this row of men indicates a certain freedom in the representation of common people. A harbor scene from an unknown tomb of the late Eighteenth Dynasty shows a harbor scene with a bound prisoner descending the gang plank of a boat. Such scenes that depict the varied activities in a town perhaps were an outgrowth of the Amarna period’s willingness to explore new subject matter. This tendency ended with the Ramesside Period which followed.

End of Amarna

The Amarna Period ended nearly as suddenly as it began. The details remain murky, however. After Akhenaten’s death, he was followed briefly by King Smenkare and then King Tutankhaten. Tutankhaten changed his name to Tutankhamun and restored the traditional gods of Egypt. He also restored the traditional capital at Thebes and abandoned Amarna. Yet Tutankhamun is much better known as the owner of the only royal tomb of this period to be discovered nearly intact. Thousands of works of art found in his tomb reflect both the influence of the Amarna Period and movement back toward more traditional Egyptian art. Tutankhamun’s painted chest, for example, preserves a war scene with the king attacking Egypt’s enemies with a bow and arrow while he rides in his chariot. Battle scenes of this sort represent a return to the king’s traditional role as Egypt’s protector.

Ramesside Period

In 1292 B.C.E., General Ramesses ascended the throne and founded the Nineteenth Dynasty. The royal family of the Eighteenth Dynasty had died out with Tutankhamun. Until 1075 B.C.E. through the Twentieth Dynasty, kings reverted to the old ideal. Kings such as Ramesses II created vast amounts of art that both looked back to the early Eighteenth Dynasty for inspiration but also bore the influences of more recent Egyptian art. A relief depicting Ramesses II combines features of kings such as Thutmose III with Amarna details. The king wears a Nemes kerchief with a Uraeus snake over his forehead. His eyebrow arches similar to early Eighteenth-dynasty models. His eye is wide but still tilts slightly toward his nose, much as was true of Amenhotep III’s sculpture. Yet the cosmetic line is long and parallel to the extension of the eyebrow as found at the beginning of the Eighteenth Dynasty. His nose is slightly aquiline. His sensitively carved lips curve down slightly, reminding the viewer of the Amarna period. Yet the chin is round. Though his neck is muscular it still has the grooves carved in it that first appeared in the Amarna period. Thus through a combination of characteristics, Ramesses II’s artists created an image of the king that provided some continuity with the recent past but still recalled the glorious early Eighteenth Dynasty and its warrior kings. This message must have been reassuring to his contemporaries who had witnessed many violent changes in policy during their lives.

Tomb of Senedjem

The paintings found in tombs during the Ramesside period differ from Eighteenth Dynasty and earlier tombs because the subject matter is more clearly religious. Rather than scenes of fishing and fowling that must be interpreted to find their religious meaning, Ramesside artists portrayed the next world with its gods neatly arranged in rows. The god Osiris, king of the dead, is the first image the visitor to Senedjem’s tomb would see on entering it. To the left the visitor would see Senedjem and his wife Iyneferti worshipping thirteen gods of the underworld arranged in two rows. They include Osiris at the head of the top row and Ra at the head of the lower row. Above them are two images of the jackal god Anubis, guarding the entrance to the tomb. On the end wall to the visitor’s right is a scene of Senedjem and Iyneferti harvesting flax in the next world. Dressed in their best clothing, they plow and then harvest the flax that they can later use to make linen clothing. The text included in the scene comes from the Book of the Dead where the deceased are promised the ability to plow, reap, eat, drink, and copulate in the next world. The scene is another way of guaranteeing that Senedjem and Iyneferti will have a successful afterlife.

Late Period


The Late Period of Egyptian history from the end of the New Kingdom (1075 B.C.E.) to the beginning of Greek domination (332 B.C.E.) was heir to over 2,500 years of nearly continuous artistic production. This long native tradition also interacted with foreign influences during times of Egyptian political weakness. Kushites from the Sudan, Libyans, Persians, and Greeks all influenced artistic production in Egypt at this time. One of the most salient characteristics of Late Period visual art is archaism. In visual art, Egyptologists define archaism as a deliberate attempt to reproduce a style of sculpture, painting, or relief from an earlier historical period. Archaism requires a conscious and purposeful effort to imitate particular styles or scenes. It is a much more literal borrowing than adopting aspects of a style. Artists of the early Eighteenth Dynasty borrowed from the Middle Kingdom, but they did not copy whole scenes. Ramesside artists revived aspects of early Eighteenth-dynasty style, but art historians can distinguish a statue of Ramesses II from a statue of Thutmose III. In the Late Period, however, scholars face greater difficulties in distinguishing old and more recent works. Though there are isolated examples of archaism in the Old, Middle, and New Kingdoms, in the Late Period archaism is often a fundamental aspect of the visual arts.

Third Intermediate Period

The Third Intermediate Period (1075-656 B.C.E.) followed the New Kingdom and witnessed political instability. Kings looked to Eighteenth-dynasty (1537-1292 B.C.E.) models for inspiration for their artists, probably in an effort to link themselves to this glorious era. Some works from this period copy works of Thutmose III’s time (1479-1425 B.C.E.) so carefully that scholars have trouble distinguishing the two periods. A gold statuette of Amun that once belonged to the Carnarvon Collection fooled the Egyptologist Howard Carter into identifying it as the work of Thutmose III’s artists. The art historian Cyril Aldred showed, however, that it dates to the Twenty-second Dynasty (945-712 B.C.E.) over five hundred years later. Some other works from this period echo art from the Old and Middle Kingdom. Only the smallest details have allowed experts to recognize the differences between original works of the earlier period and copies from the Third Intermediate Period.

Kushite Art

The Kushite kings of the Twenty-fifth Dynasty (760-656 B.C.E.) originated in Sudan. They sought to identify themselves with kings of earlier periods through their art. They modeled many sculptures on work produced during the late Middle Kingdom (1938-1630 B.C.E.). In fact scholars still dispute which works rightly should be assigned to the Twenty-fifth Dynasty and which are products of the Middle Kingdom. The tomb of the high official Harwa, certainly built in this time period, demonstrates considerable copying from the Old Kingdom (2675-2170 B.C.E.). Much of the original Old Kingdom material was in the northern capital in Memphis, but Harwa’s artists reproduced it for his tomb in Thebes.

Saite Period

The Twenty-sixth Dynasty (664-525 B.C.E.), called the Saite Period because of its king’s origins in the town of Sais in the Delta, looked for inspiration in the New Kingdom once again. A remarkable tomb belonging to the governor of Upper Egypt, Montuemhet, spans both the end of the Kushite Period and the beginning of the Saite Period. This tomb contains elements from the Kushite Period imitating the Old Kingdom as well as Saite Period work imitating the New Kingdom. The Theban tomb of a man named Ibi that dates to this period was highly influenced by the Memphite tomb of a man with the same name who lived in the Old Kingdom. Later in the Twenty-sixth Dynasty, artists drew on New Kingdom models for inspiration.

Persian Period and Thirtieth Dynasty

The Persians conquered Egypt in 525 B.C.E. Artists blended Persian artistic traditions with traditional Egyptian art. A statue of the Treasurer of the god Ptah, Ptahhotep, blends typical Egyptian elements with Persian details. The frontality, back pillar, and stance that Ptahhotep assumes in the statue all date back thousands of years in Egyptian history. Yet Ptahhotep wears a Near Eastern costume consisting of a shawl and high-waisted kilt that would be more at home in Persia than Egypt. He also wears a Persian necklace ending in typically Persian mountain-goat shaped forms. Under the necklace, he wears a typical Egyptian chest ornament. In statues such as this, artists were able to accommodate foreign tastes but also rely on Egyptian models. The Thirtieth Dynasty (381-343 B.C.E.) was the last period of native Egyptian rule in antiquity. Artists of this period relied on New Kingdom models. The tomb of the official Zanofer incorporates a blind harpist and female offering bearers that would be at home in the Eighteenth Dynasty.


This brief survey of Late Period art only scratches the surface of the complications that remain to be studied. Scholars still dispute many of the details, sometimes unable to agree on whether key works belong to the earlier or later periods. In spite of considerable progress in the last forty years, much work remains to be done to provide an understanding of this period.