Guides to Fine Arts Like Painting, Designing, Architecture, Sculpture, Photography and More

 Egyptian painting is principally found on the walls of temples and tombs, upon columns and cornices, and on small articles found in burial places. There is no doubt that it was used as a decoration; but it was also intended to be useful, and was so employed as to tell the history of the country;—its wars, with their conquests and triumphs, and the lives of the kings, and many other stories, are just as distinctly told by pictures as by the hieroglyphics or Egyptian writings. We can scarcely say that Egyptian painting is beautiful; but it certainly is very interesting.

King Ramesses II. and his Sons Storming a Fortress From Abousimbel
Fig. 2.—King Ramesses II. and his Sons Storming a Fortress.
From Abousimbel.

The Egyptians had three kinds of painting: one on flat surfaces, a second on bas-reliefs, or designs a little raised and then colored, and a third on designs in intaglio, or hollowed out from the flat surface and the colors applied to the figures thus cut out. They had no knowledge of what we call perspective, that is, the art of representing a variety of objects on one flat surface, and making them appear to be at different distances from us—and you will see from the illustrations given here that their drawing and their manner of expressing the meaning of what they painted were very crude. As far as the pictorial effect is concerned, there is very little difference between the three modes of Egyptian painting; their general appearance is very nearly the same.

The Egyptian artist sacrificed everything to the one consideration of telling his story clearly; the way in which he did this was sometimes very amusing, such as the making one man twice as tall as another in order to signify that he was of high position, such as a king or an officer of high rank. When figures are represented as following each other, those that are behind are frequently taller than those in front, and sometimes those that are farthest back are ranged in rows, with the feet of one row entirely above the heads of the others. This illustration of the storming of a fort by a king and his sons will show you what I mean. The sons are intended to be represented as following the father, and are in a row, one above the other (Fig. 2).

For the representation of water, a strip of blue filled in with perpendicular zigzag black lines was used. From these few facts you can understand how unformed and awkward Egyptian pictures seem if we compare them with the existing idea of what is beautiful. There appear to have been certain fixed rules for the use of colors, and certain objects were always painted in the colors prescribed for them. The background of a picture was always of a single, solid color; Egyptian men were painted in a reddish brown, and horses were of the same shade; women were generally yellow, sometimes a lighter brown than the men; negroes were black, the Asiatic races yellow, and but one instance is known of a white skin, blue eyes, and yellow hair. The draperies about the figures were painted in pleasing colors, and were sometimes transparent, so that the figures could be seen through them.

The execution of Egyptian paintings was very mechanical. One set of workmen prepared the plaster on the wall for the reception of the colors; another set drew all the outlines in red; then, if chiselling was to be done, another class performed this labor; and, finally, still others put on the colors. Of course nothing could be more matter-of-fact than such painting as this, and under such rules an artist of the most lofty genius and imagination would find it impossible to express his conceptions in his work. We know all this because some of these pictures exist in an unfinished condition, and are left in the various stages of execution; then, too, there are other pictures of the painters at their work, and all these different processes are shown in them. The outline drawing is the best part of Egyptian painting, and this is frequently very cleverly done.

As I have intimated, the greatest value of Egyptian painting is that it gives us a clear record of the habits and customs of a very ancient people—of a civilization which has long since passed away, and of which we should have a comparatively vague and unsatisfactory notion but for this picture-history of it. The religion, the political history, and the domestic life of the ancient Egyptians are all placed before us in these paintings. Through a study of them we know just how they hunted and fished, gathered their fruits, tilled the soil, and cooked the food, played games, danced, and practised gymnastics, conducted their scenes of festivity and mourning—in short, how they lived under all circumstances. Thus you see that Egyptian painting is a very important example of the way in which pictures can teach us; you will also notice that it is not even necessary that they should be pretty in order that we may learn from them.

Another use made of Egyptian painting was the illustration of the papyrus rolls upon which historical and other documents were written. These rolls, found in the tombs, are now placed in museums and collections of curious things; the paintings upon them may be called the oldest book illustrations in the world. Sometimes a single color is used, such as red or black; but others are in a variety of colors which have been put on with a brush. Indeed, some rolls exist which have pictures only, and are entirely without hieroglyphics or writing characters; one such is more than twenty yards long, and contains nothing but pictures of funeral ceremonies.

The ancient Egyptians were so serious a people that it is a pleasant surprise to find that some of these pictures are intended for jokes and satires, somewhat like those of the comic papers of to-day; for example, there is one in the British Museum, London, representing cats and rats fighting, which is intended to ridicule the soldiers and heroes of the Egyptian army.

One cannot study Egyptian painting without feeling sorry for the painters; for in all the enormous amount of work done by them no one man was recognized—no one is now remembered. We know some of the names of great Egyptian architects which are written in the historical rolls; but no painter’s name has been thus preserved. The fact that no greater progress was made is a proof of the discouraging influences that must have been around these artists, for it is not possible that none of them had imagination or originality: there must have been some whose souls were filled with poetic visions, for some of the Egyptian writings show that poetry existed in ancient Egypt. But of what use could imagination be to artists who were governed by the laws of a narrow priesthood, and hedged about by a superstitious religion which even laid down rules for art?

For these reasons we know something of Egyptian art and nothing of Egyptian artists, and from all these influences it follows that Egyptian painting is little more than an illuminated alphabet or a child’s picture-history. In the hieroglyphics, or writing characters of Egypt, it often occurs that small pictures of certain animals or other objects stand for whole words, and it appears that this idea was carried into Egyptian painting, which by this means became simply a picture chronicle, and never reached a point where it could be called truly artistic or a high art.

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