To appreciate the sculpture of Ancient Egypt it is essential to have some knowledge of its cultural setting, for very little sculpture was ever made in Egypt which did not have a specific function quite independent of art. In fact, it is probably true to say that the artistic element we distinguish today in so much work by Egyptian sculptors is something which would hardly have been understood by the ancient craftsmen who produced the work. The anonymous artists who spent their lives making statues for tombs, or votive statues for temples, regarded themselves as craftsmen; they made pieces of tomb or temple equipment that were considered essential for the welfare of the individual in death as in life. Very fewr of the statues which are now regarded as the finest achievements of Egyptian art were ever intended to be seen by mortal man, and it says much for the integrity of the ancient craftsman that he was yet prepared to lavish so much skill and true artistry on work which would, for all he knewr, be hidden from sight for ever.
In this short essay only a few broad generalizations on Egyptian sculpture can be discussed, and some limitation must also be put on the scope of the subject-matter. In some ways the most characteristic type of Egyptian sculpture is the colossal statue, and for many people the colossal is Egyptian sculpture. The colossal statue, however, is a very special product of Ancient Egypt, and represents only certain characteristics of the artistic medium as a whole. Most colossal statues are of royal persons, and in general they were made to fit into architectural settings w-here their grandiose proportions would both enhance and receive visual support from the architecture. They are therefore mostly very formal in conception, and strictly formal in execution. They .of course obey the canons of form and proportion which governed all Egyptian art, but they lack the variety in treatment and attitude of smaller and less public statuary.
Here, therefore, we shall concentrate on smaller works of art. Some private sculpture is indeed rather larger than life-size, and from time to time it will be necessary to touch on pieces of this kind, but for the most part we shall consider statues which are smaller than life-size, and even some more intimate carvings, particularly in wood, which express most immediately the skill and artistry of the ancient sculptor. It is through sculpture of this kind that it is easiest to study the achievement of Egyptian sculptors, and to appreciate the success with which they worked within the limitations of tradition, in many cases transcending the ordinary to produce serenely beautiful works of art. It is probably true to say that the existence of strict conventions governing the proportions and attitudes of sculptures was the principal reason for the high standard reached by most works, especially during those periods when the political stability of the country was greatest. At such times there was a consistency of achievement throughout the land, which stemmed from the standards established by the sculptors working in the principal centres such as Memphis and Thebes. During less settled periods the political dissolution of Egypt developed rapidly, and the products of provincial centres show a remarkable divergence from the official metropolitan tradition. At these times the tradition wTas certainly maintained in the old political centres, but to a very much reduced degree, because there was then far less of a demand for the types of artistic product required during periods of prosperity and political stability. The re-establishment of strong central government was always quickly followed by a resurgence of the artistic tradition, often somewhat modified by the passage of time, but still firmly rooted in the long-established canons which had been fully tried and richly justified.
Before we can consider the fundamentals of this tradition, we must examine briefly the w’orks produced, the reasons for their production, and the intellectual background from which they sprang.
In the first place, distinctions can be made between royal, divine and private sculpture. The first two categories arc more purely formal than the last, and consist in the main of pieces which were erected in temples, whether funerary or cult. Statues from royal funerary temples are mostly of the king whose funerary services were conducted there. Some of them perform the important function of representing the king in the acccp- tance of the daily funerary offerings, a function which would assume especial importance if the actual body of the king were destroyed by robbers or other desecrators in the tomb itself. Some royal sculpture in funerary temples, and most of that in other temples, performed a more architectural role, and into this group falls the majority of the colossal statues. They were erected for the embellishment of the temples, and, more importantly, for the glorification of the kings whose names they bore. In these, as in most Egyptian sculpture, in the long run the name was more important than the visual representation, for the name anchored the piece to a particular person, while the likeness wras an abstract feature which could equally well be assigned to more than one person, especially after the original owners were dead and their appearance forgotten. Hence, a sure way of destroying the memory, and in a sense the existence, of a disliked predecessor was by erasing his name from his statues and substituting that of the reigning king. Similarly, royal statues unfinished, or uninscribed, on the death of one king might economically be used by his successor. Hence the task of determining the precise iconography of Egyptian kings is full of difficulty, because it is not always clear to what extent the inscriptions can be believed.
Statues of gods, apart from those small pieces, mostly made of bronze, which were dedicatory offerings made by private individuals during the later part of the Pharaonic
Period and during the Graeco-Roman Period, came from temples. A few are cult statues which were placed in the innermost sanctuaries; but the majority consists of divine representations set up by kings for the glorification of the deities concerned and for their own personal advantage. The portrayal of gods followed contemporary style closely and it was common for the features to be modelled after the standard portraits of the ruling king. In this way the close association of the king with the god, together with all that this implies, was further emphasized. But statues of gods, being of necessity rather stereotyped and stylized, do not provide the scope for the study of the varied accomplishment of Egyptian sculptors.
Private sculpture offers the richest field for the examination of this accomplishment. It is probably true to say that the very finest achievements of Egyptian sculpture are to be found within the category of royal statuary; that is to say, if we consider the finest achievement to be represented by the finest materials, worked by the most skilful craftsmen, according to the most finished style of any period. But the very formality and finish of much royal statuary detract from its impact as art; its very perfection softens its dramatic appeal, and the effect produced on the viewer, after due credit has been allowed for the conception and the workmanship, is one of cloying, overwhelming suavity. This unfortunate characteristic of so much royal statuary is rarely evident in private sculpture. This is hardly surprising, for rarely would even a high official be able to command the services of the best craftsmen, who would constantly be employed on work for the king. Occasionally the king would honour someone by having a statue made for him in the royal workshops, but for the most part sculpture for high officials, and for lesser people who could afford to commission work, would have been made by sculptors working outside the immediate control of the royal craftsmen, although no doubt within the ambit of the royal workshops. The organization of craftsmen in Ancient Egypt is something about which little is known, and even less is known about the conditions under which they worked. But judging from the general centralization of control in administration in large and small matters, it is hard to believe that craftsman who worked on products intimately connected with the king, the temples and the funerary cult, had very much independence in the prosecution of their crafts. Sculptors were certainly limited in the work they could do, and the outlets for their products were similarly restricted. It is therefore most unlikely that there were such places as independent sculptor’s studios to which a possible client could go to order a statue and even to sit for the artist. Workshops were undoubtedly set up under royal commission, and may well have been established in the neighborhood of, or possibly within the boundaries of, the great temples throughout the land. The production of sculpture would thus be ultimately under the control of the king or of his high officials, and some check would be available on those who might be allowed to have statues made for themselves. The hierarchic nature of society in Egypt required that important decisions rested, at least in theory, with the king, and it is probable that royal permission had to be granted whenever anyone wished to have a piece of sculpture made for himself. This was almost certainly so during the Old Kingdom, for many inscriptions from the tombs of high officials express their pride at being granted special favors by the king in connection with their tombs. It is unthinkable that anyone could have had a tomb made for himself in the neighborhood of the royal sepulcher without express permission, and with this permission would go that for the necessary equipment for the tomb, including statuary. At later periods the possibilities of having work done without express royal permission may have been greater, but it is doubtful whether it was ever within a man’s power to go, as it were, to a shop to purchase or commission a piece of sculpture suitably inscribed for himself. Away from the capital and the great imperial cities like Memphis, control of local production would rest in the hands of the administrative chief of each district, such as the monarchs during the Middle Kingdom; but provincial work was often a pale shadow of that done under the direct influence of the royal tradition.
During the Old Kingdom private sculpture was almost entirely funerary. The basic idea wrhich prompted most of the funerary practices of the Egyptians was that of the continuation of life after death. The elaborate tomb served as the home of the dead man; the varied scenes carved or painted on the walls of the tomb chapel provided by magical means the setting for the life after death. Food and drink offerings were made to nourish the dead, and witch the actual offerings were discontinued, the representations of food and drink on the walls acted as substitutes for the real thing. All this was to be enjoyed by the dead man who occupied his tomb, in fact, in the form of his mummy—his body so treated as to have infinite existence after death, provided that it was left undisturbed.
But the Egyptian realized only too that this hope of perpetual survival for his corpse was largely vain. The fate of the tombs of his predecessors was no doubt constantly in his mind. Tomb-robbery had gone on from the earliest times, and the constant search for new ways to protect burials served only as a continual challenge to the tomb-robbers. There was only a faint hope, therefore, that his tomb would survive inviolate, and if it were entered, the fate of the body was sealed; for the actual burial would always be rifled for treasure, real or imaginary, and the chance of survival through the body extinguished. Other arrangements had to be made, and in these sculpture played an important part. A substitute had to be provided which would represent the dead man for the reception of offerings and for the enjoyment of life after death, if the mummy were destroyed. In many early tombs in the Giza necropolis only heads were provided, and these so-called “ reserve ” heads represent some of the finest achievements of sculpture in the Old Kingdom. Within the limitations of a strict form they exhibit a high degree of realism. They are made of limestone—as was most sculpture in the Old Kingdom- and are unpainted. In them the original owners of the tombs live on in a dramatic and vivid manner.
More commonly, however, in the Old Kingdom tombs were provided with statues placed in a special chamber which is now called the serdab (an Arabic word meaning “ cellar ”). Usually the serdab was situated in the body of the masonry of the superstructure of a tomb, close to the room which contained the false door; this chapel, as it is usually called, was the place of offering in the tomb, and through the false door the spirit of the dead man could come to receive the offerings. A slit (or more than one) in one wall of the chapel opened into the serdab, which was otherwise inaccessible, and opposite this slit was placed the statue of the deceased. This statue, often quite wrongly called the ka-statue, could share in the enjoyment of the offerings and, in particular, receive the sweet smoke of incense burned in the chapel; at times of disaster it would replacc the corpse in the burial chamber.
Such statues were made in a variety of attitudes, the most common being the simple representation of the subject seated on a block seat with his hands resting or clenched on his knees. His features are not set in a mask, but quietly moulded in an attitude of peaceful expectancy. His limbs are relaxed, yet such is the strength of the carving that his power is ever present, ready to be exercised at the moment of need. The realistic and careful moulding of limbs and features is further enhanced by a subtle, and rarely garish, use of colour. Exposed areas of flesh are normally painted brownish-red in the case of men and yellow in the case of women. Garments are vivid white, hair black, armlets, necklaces and other adornments being painted in bright reds, greens and blues, colours which represent the scmi-precious stones and glazed composition of the originals. Everything is designed to make the statue true to life so that it can indeed serve its purpose of acting as a substitute for the dead man’s body in the tomb. This aim is fully revealed in the statues of Rahotpe and of Nofrct his wife; he was a son of Sneferu, first king of the Fourth Dynasty, and his tomb was at Maidum at the southern end of the great necropolis area of the kings of the Old Kingdom.
The seated statue was, however, by no means the only type produced for use in tombs during the Old Kingdom. Standing figures were also common, usually with the left leg forward, and with one hand by the side and the other holding a long staff of office. Sometimes both hands are by the sides and clasp folded cloths or short baton-like objects whose purpose is unknown. Occasionally the owner had himself depicted with some indication of his craft or status. Statues of scribes are the most common. In some cases the scribe is seated with an open papyrus-roll on his lap bearing a text (often the names of the seven ritual oils used in the funerary liturgy) or an offering-list. In others he is shown in what must have been the usual scribal position squatting on the ground with or without one knee raised, his papyrus open on his kilt, which is drawn taut over his knees to act as a rest. The famous Louvre scribe exemplifies this type admirably: his lean, determined face, with eyes gazing fixedly ahead to an eternity of scribal activity, his hand ready to write what is required of him, his back erect and firm—everything typifying the devoted bureaucrat, wedded to his duty, incorruptible and unyielding.
Representations of men with the tools of other professions or skills are not so common, but of particular interest is the granite statue of Bedjmes, a ship-builder, in the British Museum. He is shown seated on a simple stool with his adze over his shoulder. This is one of the earliest pieces of private sculpture to have survived, and it is interesting to compare it with the more regular sculpture of the later Old Kingdom. It was probably made in the early part of the Third Dynasty, and it shows a certain primitive quality in its proportions and execution, as might be expected in a work standing early in a line of development which reached its height over a century later. There is a lumpiness in the arrangement of the limbs, and the whole conception is more block-like and solid than the better-proportioned statuary of the later period. Nevertheless it has great strength, which is much enhanced by the material of w’hich it is made. The red granite of Aswan presented a challenge to the ancient craftsman which he seemed ahvays eager to take up, and the results achieved with the most primitive and simple tools fall scarcely short of those obtained when work was done in the softer limestone.
The ancient Egyptian’s pride in family, and his desire to perpetuate his wrorldly good fortune in his after-life, prompted him often to have himself portrayed with other members of his family. Group statues of man and wife, or of man, wife and some children, arc very common, and are often touching in the conjugal and paternal affection which they exhibit. The wife is regularly shown with her arm around her husband’s shoulders or waist; the children are grouped close to the parents. By convention the wife is generally shown smaller than her husband, and the children as infants. For eternity they should so be represented: the man in his prime, masculine and virile, the wifc young, affectionate and maternal, the children small and dependent. A man might provide such a family group for his tomb in addition to the more regular seated or standing figure, and occasionally a tomb would contain many statues of the deceased owner, in various attitudes. Proliferation of representation would more surely sccurc the posthumous survival which was so much desired.
The types of private sculpture produced during the Old Kingdom (c. 2686-2181 B.C.) have been considered with some care because it was during this period that the basic conventions of Egyptian sculpture were established, and it was then that the raisond’etre of most sculpture was evolved. Now, perhaps, a little should be said about the precise conventions which governed the making of a statue, because it was the relatively strict observance of conventions which gave Egyptian sculpture a consistency of achievement and appearance from the early Old Kingdom until the Late Period. The basic convention was that of proportion. The relationships between the various parts of the body were carefully studied, at least as far as the “ standard ” human body was concerned, and a system was evolved which provided the artist, whether sculptor in the round or two-dimensional draughtsman, with a coherent framework for his work. The application of this system can best be observed in tomb representations where the work is unfinished and the preliminary stages can still be seen. An essential first stage in the transferring of a scene on to a wall was the drawing of a grid which served both as an aid for the conversion of the small original design into a larger scale, and also as the basic framework embodying the conventional proportions. During the classic periods of Egyptian art the standing figure occupied eighteen squares of the grid. The various parts of the body, from the sole of the foot to the line of the brow, were always placed at the same points in the vertical scale of the grid. Horizontal measurements were also standardized, and all the limbs and other features were regularly depicted in terms of the grid squares. This system, which can be studied in detail in many examples from unfinished tomb-scenes, was also used in the making of statues, but very few examples have been found where the work is so little advanced that remains of the grid can still be seen on unworked surfaces. The grid was of course of use only in the earliest stage of carving a statue, when the virgin block of stone was marked out to give the sculptor some guide as to where he should place each part of the body. Once carving had advanced to any extent, the original surface of the block was removed, and with it the grid. Thereafter the sculptor had to rely on his knowledge of physical proportions. In sculpture, therefore, to a far greater extent than in painting or reliel-work, the craftsman beyond a certain point was obliged to rely heavily on his knowledge of the basic canon, which no doubt was among the earliest things he had learned when he began to study his craft. The exact determination of this canon early in the Old Kingdom was a major achievement which established the course of Egyptian sculpture for two thousand years; its strict observation by Egyptian craftsmen throughout the centuries proved its reliability. Like all strict artistic forms, it was not a straight jacket but a support. Within its apparently rigid limits the artist had very considerable freedom of expression and, while he did not often choose to exercise this freedom (or perhaps more strictly had not the ability to be original), when he did so he could produce work of striking beauty.
In the settled and prosperous period of the Middle Kingdom (c. 2050- 1750 B.C.) important developments took place in sculptural forms. The religious and the political changes which had taken place since the time of the Old Kingdom produced effects w’hich modified the nature of private sculpture in particular. A greater freedom of individual action, at least among the highest echelons of society, is rellected in the purposes for which statues might be made. The greater participation of non-royal persons in official religion, for example, gave more people some entree to the sacred enclosures of the great sanctuaries, and enabled them on occasion to erect votive statues of themselves in the courts of the temples. This practice, which was to become much more common in later periods, provided wider scope for the art of the sculptor, and as a result new’ forms were developed. A type of statue first found during the Middle Kingdom, which ultimately became very popular, was the block statue. The subject is shown seated on the ground with his knees drawn up close to his body, a long robe being pulled tightly around his knees and legs. The effect roughly is thus of a rectangular block, representing the body and legs, out of which emerges the head. The degree to which the limbs are moulded and indicated beneath the robe, and the feet and hands separately represented, varies considerably. At first such statues seem to have been made for tomb use, and were either uninscribcd or simply inscribed with brief texts containing the names and titles of the subjects. But the scope offered by the relatively flat surfaces of the block for inscriptions could hardly be resisted; and this form became increasingly used for the kind of statue placed in a temple and inscribed with a long text seeking benefits for the owner from the god of the temple. A fine example is the basalt statue of Sennefer, which is of New Kingdom date. Its surfaces are well exploited, though not as fully as in some later examples, and yet the sculptor has succeeded in suggesting the moulding of the body and limbs so well that an essentially artificial form becomes a triumphantly successful work of art.
The use of the robe to conceal most of the body is found in much other Middle Kingdom sculpture. Standing and seated figures of officials are commonly represented in long body-enveloping robes, sometimes with fringed edges. The effect from a sculptural point of view is to simplify the body by eliminating the limbs, and statues so treated produce a fine effect of dignity and even of mystery. This effect seems to have been well appreciated by the Egyptian sculptor, for it was exploited more fully than its merits as a form of representation for funerary purposes might warrant. At the same time the characteristic method of representing the features of the face was modified under the effect of the strikingly realistic portrait sculpture of the kings of the period. The highboned cheeks which seem to have been the outstanding facial feature of the royal house of the Twelfth Dynasty stimulated the sculptors who carved their statues to produce wonderfully lively work, full of character—less strong, perhaps, than that of the Old Kingdom, but expressing an unsentimental spirituality lacking in the earlier work. The remarkable black granite life-size statues of Sesostris III found at Deircl-Bahri are outstanding examples of this genre. The impression of diversity in sculpture during the Middle Kingdom is enhanced by the variety of stones used. Reddish-brown quartzite and different kinds of granite and diorite were very popular, and as such stones were more difficult to work than limestone, funerary and votive sculpture tended to be on a smaller scale than that of the Old Kingdom. Further variety was provided by the existence of several provincial schools of sculpture where work was produced for the noble houses, who enjoyed a degree of independence unknown to their predecessors of the Old Kingdom. The vigorous sculpture found in the shrine of Hekaib on Elephantine Island at Aswan exemplifies this work admirably. It may lack the polish of sculpture made under the influence of the royal residence, but it exhibits great strength and individuality. The heads in particular are splendidly modelled.
During the great imperial period of the New Kingdom (c. 1567 – 1085 B.C.), the colossal statue dominates Egyptian sculpture. So dominating in fact are the colossi that many people are surprised to discover that most Egyptian statues are on a modest and comprehensible scalc. In point of fact, colossi are just large statues made in precisely the same manner as small statues, their proportions ordered by the same conventions, and their detail carried out with the same precision. It says much for the craftsmen who made these monstrous pieces that the conception and execution of their work was so controlled that in photographic reproduction on a small scale it is rarely possible to distinguish whether a piece is colossal or small. The interest of New Kingdom sculpture, however, does not lie here, but rather in observing the further diversification of types, first the refining, and later the deterioration, of style and workmanship, the extraordinary effect of the Amarna revolution in art, and finally the sculptural work, mostly in wood, applied to non-ritual objects—small-scale carvings in the round, of animals and young girls in particular, used to embellish toilet objects.
The high standard of sculpture during the Middle Kingdom suffered a complete cclipse in the period of political disintegration known as the Second Intermediate Period. The earliest sculptures of the New Kingdom have a naive quality, in some cases amounting to gaucheness, which indicates the temporary loss of the thread of tradition. The statuette of Queen Tetisheri illustrates admirably both this unsophisticated quality and also a freshness of conception which undoubtedly resulted from the lack of dependence on a well-established conventional style. The limbs are exceptionally slender, and the head with its vulture headdress is carved with a delicacy rarely found in Egyptian sculpture. As a portrait figure of feminine fragility and sweetness (qualities which do not emerge from the historical records of Tetisheri’s activities), it is unsurpassed.
The rapid development of political power during the Eighteenth Dynasty soon produced conditions of settled culture and prosperity which were fully reflected in contemporary sculpture. The representation of the monarch, as was usual in Egyptian art, established the norm and set the tone of most private sculpture. In this respect the central reigns of the Eighteenth Dynasty mark the high point of achievement. The uniformity of representation of the Tuthmoside pharaohs, including Queen Hatshepsut, makes precise identification of individuals extremely difficult, depending largely on minute changes in detail, such as the shape of the eyebrows and cosmetic lines, and of the form of the uracus. These royal statues personify the grandeur of imperial Egypt; the conventions of bodily representation, here carried out with consummate craftsmanship and regularity, are combined with a portraiture which shows an idealized sovereign, full-faced, haughty of expression, with full but not sensual lips, high-browed and arrogant. The well-known schist head which may be of Hatshepsut or Tuthmosis III has all these characteristics, and in addition illustrates the fantastic degree of finish common in statues of this period. This perfection of representation reached its height under Amenophis III, but already during his reign certain royal sculptures depart from the norm in ways which suggest influences moving away from the conventional, foreshadowing the drastic changes to come in the reign of Akhcnaten. The special character of the Amarna revolution in art will be mentioned shortly. Its effect on sculptural representation in the long run was slight, for every effort was made to eradicate its influence.
In the field of royal portraiture the Nineteenth Dynasty rarely achieves the cold perfection of the mid-Eighteenth. Greater formality and adherence to convention produced a stiffer sculpture, and statues of the quality of the early Ramesses II in Turin are rare. The basic training in conventional sculpture which craftsmen must have enjoyed guaranteed a steady standard of efficient traditional work; but fewer and fewer pieces were produced which exhibit that extra quality of inspiration and spirit which transforms the conventional into the work of art. The great effort put into the production of colossal statues was also transferred back into sculpture on a smaller scale, so that a coarseness of detail became more and more common.
Very large quantities of private sculpture of the New Kingdom have survived, and they show great variations of form and very considerable degrees of competence and beauty. The best private sculpture, as ever, possesses all the qualities of contemporary royal sculpture, and it often has an added intimate softness which would have been inappropriate for royalty, but which renders it more immediately attractive. The strain put upon the available craftsmen for the production of official sculpture was far greater at this time than ever before or after, and it is not surprising that much indifferent work was turned out for people unable to command the services of the best artists. It also appears as if a greater social range of people was able to commission sculpture. Both funerary and votive pieces proliferated and most of them are no more than ordinary. Variations in form, involving specific gestures of the hands, gave sculptors a chance to depart from the wholly conventional; such pieces, often maladroit in detail, possess considerable liveliness which derives no doubt from the sculptors’ stimulation in tackling something unusual. A popular new form was the kneeling figure holding a cult-object, such as a ram’s head or a small shrine or a stela carrying a text.
It is rarely possible to evaluate pieces of Egyptian sculpture without considering the texts they carry. Statues were made for specific purposes, and their forms were regularly determined by these purposes, and by the texts which had to be accommodated. The provision of areas on a figure suitable for inscription became increasingly important, and many pieces in the New Kingdom were treated far more as vehicles for texts than as works of art. The field that needs seriously to be considered, therefore, is limited. The best pieces belong to the Eighteenth Dynasty, when purity of form, precision of execution, and mastery of technique were most commonly combined with a true artistry stimulated no doubt by the political excitement of the time. The block statue of Sennefer already mentioned exhibits the best characteristics of work conceived in a conventional way yet executed with an imaginative skill that demands evaluation for its artistic qualities rather than for its form as a text-carrying block of stone carved to represent a squatting man. The moulding of the limbs is exquisitely done and the head is nobly finished.
During the New Kingdom, however, nothing more exciting happened in the plastic arts than the new modes of expression accompanying the Amarna revolution in religion. This is not the place to examine the ideas which lay behind the “ new ” religion fostered by King Akhenaten towards the end of the Eighteenth Dynasty; but one manifestation of the movement was an emphasis on “ truth ” or “ order ” which found artistic expression in a greater realism and liveliness, and in a studied move away from past conventions. Naturalism and freedom were dominant. In sculpture this change revealed itself particularly in the way in which the human body was represented.
Apparently Akhenaten suffered from certain undetermined physical peculiarities which made his body in part grotesque. He is shown with heavy breasts, large hips, broad thighs, and facially with a long jawr, bulging head, thick lips and hollow cheeks. Early statues emphasize these characteristics and in so doing establish a portrait-type which in some cases becomes as conventional as that which it superseded. The long skull and heavy hips are particularly characteristic of the period. But apart from this new stylization, Amarna has further qualities which from an artistic point of view are much more important. The general inspiration of the movement stimulated artists to new heights in the naturalistic rendering of the human body, and after initial failures and gaucheries, which were only to be expected when so much was changed, marvellously sensitive sculptures were produced. The well-known Berlin head of Nefertiti is the outstanding example, but hardly less great is the unfinished sandstone head of the queen in the Cairo Museum. The confident assurance of the artist is wholly evident in the execution of this portrait, and the very unfinished state of the picec preserves the viewer from the too quick admiration normally accorded to the painted Berlin head. Realization of the beauty of the former is slower in mounting, but perhaps more lasting in its effect.
The work of craftsmen who produced non-ritual objects is often overlooked in the study of Egyptian sculpture, but the special virtues of Egyptian art can often be observed more easily in the wooden toilet spoons, mirror handles and other small carved pieces, than in the larger sculptures on which inscriptions play such an important role. Carvings in this category are delightful; they display the skills of the craftsman liberated from the strait- jackct of convention to a very large extent. Unexpected flexibility of posture appears, and with it a lack of restraint that amazes the viewer who believes that Egyptian art in stiff, hieratic and unemotional. No ancient artists, and few artists of more modern times, were able to represent more voluptuously (and yet without a tracc of pruriency) the sensual attractions of the female form.
In fact, one of the outstanding achievements of Egyptian art in the New Kingdom was the exploitation of the naked female figure for the adornment of functional objects. The Louvre swimming girl, holding before her an ointment receptacle, and the little negrcss in London, stooping under the weight of a cosmetic box, arc carved with great freedom and feeling for the movement of the human body; and they exhibit none of the adherence to convention necessarily found in formal sculpture. Their postures are natural and free, the carving is confident and sensitive.
The last centuries of Pharaonic Egypt, together with the Ptolemaic Period and the early Roman Period, are usually treated together from the artistic point of view as the Late Period. Until recently it has been customary to pass over the work produced at this time with a few words about its decadence and poor quality. Happily, modern studies have to a great extent rehabilitated the art of the Late Period, and its sculpture in particular. It is true that much ordinary work was turned out and that, inasmuch as most of the pieces were made for votive purposes, many statues became vehicles for texts to such an extent that all available surfaces were covcrcd with inscriptions. Nevertheless, at no time in Egyptian history was the sculptor’s skill in working hard stones used to such effect; materials like schist, basalt and granite were manipulated as if they were clay; even bronze was used occasionally for large-scale pieces. Technically the standard was high and the proportion of poor work far less than during the New Kingdom. Body forms were treated more fully than in the past, and the effect was one of greater voluptuousness. The most interesting development of the period was, however, the changed attitude towards the representation of the individual human head. Notable attempts at vivid portraiture were made, possibly influenced in later times by contemporary classical sculpture; but the historical development of portraiture in Egypt, which can be traced fairly closely from the seventh century B.C. onwards, suggests that the change in approach was more a natural internal movement than one owing much to influences from abroad. Facial features were rendered idiosyncratically, not conventionally; natural hair was carefully shown; the lines, wrinkles and folds of skin were reproduced faithfully. We look at real Egyptian faces, reproduced in a way which convinces, and one that is found at no other time except, perhaps, occasionally in the Old Kingdom and in the sculptor’s studies during the Amama Period. It took three thousand years for the Egyptian sculptor to achieve this point, but his failure to do so earlier was not due to any lack of skill or artistic ability, but because this was not what was required of him. He was always a craftsman, turning out pieces for specific non-artistic ends. That he produced so much that can be classed as great art was indeed a notable achievement.