The art of predynastic Egypt (c.4000-3200 B.C.), known from funerary offerings, consisted largely of painted pottery and figurines, ivory carvings, slate cosmetic palettes, and finely worked flint weapons. In painting, a monumental treatment was given to designs like those drawn in red on buff-colored pottery from Hieraconpolis, a palace city of upper Egypt. Toward the end of the predynastic period, sculptors began to carve monolithic figures of the gods from limestone, such as the Min at Coptos. In the protodynastic and early dynastic periods (3200-2780 B.C.) some Mesopotamian motifs began to appear. The craftsmanship of the finely worked stone bowls and vases of these periods is particularly remarkable.
With the beginning of the Old Kingdom, centered at Memphis (2680-2258 B.C.), there was a rapid development of the stylistic conventions that characterized Egyptian art throughout its history. In relief sculpture and painting, the human figure was usually represented with the head in profile, the eye and shoulders in front view, and the pelvis, legs, and feet in profile (the law of frontality). There was little attempt at plastic or spatial illusionism. The reliefs were very low; relief and shallow intaglio are often found in the same piece. Color was applied in flat tones, and there was no attempt at linear perspective. A relief masterpiece from the I dynasty is the palette of Namer (Cairo). It represents animal and human forms in scenes of battle with the ground divided into registers and with emphasis on silhouette in the carving.
In statuary in the round various standing and seated types were developed, but there was strict adherence to the law of frontality and a tendency to emphasize symmetry and to minimize suggestion of movement. Outstanding Old Kingdom examples of sculpture in the round are the Great Chephren, in diorite, the Prince Ra-hetep and Princess Neferet, in painted limestone, the Sheik-el-Beled (mayor of the village), in painted wood (all: Cairo), and the Seated Scribe, in painted limestone (Louvre). Probably because of its relative impermanence, painting was little used as a medium of representation; it appears to have served principally as accessory to sculpture. A rare example is the painting of geese from a tomb at Medum (Cairo).
Religious beliefs of the period held that the happy posthumous existence of the dead depended on the continuation of all phases of their earthly life. The artist's task was therefore to produce a statement of reality in the most durable materials at his command. Tombs were decorated with domestic, military, hunting, and ceremonial scenes. Entombed with the deceased were statues of him and of his servants and attendants, often shown at characteristic occupations.
The Middle Kingdom, with its capital at Thebes (2000-1786 B.C.), was a new age of experiment and invention that grew out of the turbulence of the First Intermediate Period (2134-c.2000 B.C.). The forms of the Old Kingdom were retained, but the unity of style was broken. Increasing formalism was combined with a meticulous delicacy of craftsmanship. The paintings of the rock-cut tombs at Bani Hasan (e.g., Slaves Feeding Oryxes and Cat Stalking Prey, Tomb of Khnemu-hetep) are outstanding for freedom of draftsmanship. In sculpture the sensitive portraits of Sesostris III and Amenemhet III (both: Cairo) are exceptional in Egyptian art, which at all other times showed a reluctance to portray inner feeling.
The art of the New Kingdom (1570-1342 B.C.) can be viewed as the final development of the classic Egyptian style of the Middle Kingdom, a combination of the monumental forms of the Old Kingdom and the drive and inspiration of the Middle Kingdom. The paintings of this period are noted for boldness of design and controlled vitality. In sculpture the emphasis is on bulk, solidity, and impersonality.
During the Amarna period (1372-1350 B.C.) a free and delicate style developed with many naturalistic tendencies and a new sense of life and movement. In sculpture the new style was carried to the point of caricature, e.g., in the colossal statue of Ikhnaton (Cairo). The outstanding masterpiece of this period is the painted limestone bust of Queen Nefertiti (Berlin Mus.). The delicacy, sophistication, and extreme richness of this style in its late period is best exemplified by the furnishings from the tomb of Tutankhamen.
The Ramesside period (1314-1085 B.C.) saw an attempt to return to the classic formalism of the earlier New Kingdom, but the vitality that characterized that period could not be recovered. The sculpture, both in relief and in the round, became monotonous and even overbearing except in the numerous battle scenes. The period of decline (1085-730 B.C.) is characterized by mechanical repetition of earlier forms in the major arts and by the introduction of satirical and often cynical drawings in the papyri. In the Saïte period (730-663 B.C.) there was an attempt to return to the austerity of the Old Kingdom style, but for the simplicity of the earlier forms a coarse brutality was substituted.
After the conquest of Egypt by the Assyrians in 663 B.C. all the arts declined with the exception of metalworking, in which a high standard of skill was maintained. Neither the Assyrian nor the subsequent Persian invasions left a mark on Egyptian art, and even under the Ptolemaic dynasty (332-30 B.C.) Egypt proved extraordinarily resistant to Hellenic conceptions of art. The ancient architectural tradition retained its vitality, as in the temples of Horus at Idfu and Isis at Philae, but painting and sculpture continued to decline. Native naturalism may have influenced the painted Fayum panels and orant (praying) portraits on mummy shrouds, but neither their subjects nor their style is essentially Egyptian. The minor arts, however, continued to flourish; alabaster vases, faience pottery and figurines, glassware, ivories, and metalwork were produced with the ancient skill and in the traditional Egyptian style.
See W. S. Smith, Art and Architecture of Ancient Egypt (1958); W. C. Hayes, The Scepter of Egypt (2 vol., 1959-60); K. Lange and M. Hirmer, Egypt: Architecture, Sculpture, Painting in Three Thousand Years (4th ed., tr. 1968); J. S. Curl, The Egyptian Revival (1982); L. Karnouk, Modern Egyptian Art (1987).