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Egyptian art

The Old Kingdom

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 Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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