Faces of Ancient Egypt

Ancient Egyptian Art From The Oriental Institute Museum

Presented at:
The David and Alfred Smart Museum of Art
The University of Chicago
September 10, 1996 - March 9, 1997


There are tens of thousands of examples of figurative art from ancient Egypt. What do these master works of art tell us about the appearance of these ancient people, and what do they tell us about the function of art in Egypt more than 3000 years ago?

In contrast to figurative art of the western world, which is valued for the skill and imagination of the artist, representations of people in ancient Egypt played a role in the funerary cult. The ancient Egyptians believed that their ultimate goal-eternal life after death-was dependent upon the soul of the deceased having a permanent abode outside the darkness of the subterranean burial chamber. This resting place for the life energy was in the form of a statue or a two dimensional representational. Hence, each statue from ancient Egypt was far more than a physical record of an individual---it was that person's link to immortality.

This link between image and spiritual immortality might suggest that the ancient artist would have attempted to produce a lifelike image of his subject. On the contrary, one of the hallmarks of Egyptian figurative art is its non-realistic, abstracted quality. With very few exceptions, there was little attempt to capture the idiosyncratic facial features of the subject. Instead, these highly idealized statues, commissioned at great expense, could represent almost any one; indeed, most ancient Egyptian figurative representations represent the idea of a man or a woman, not a specific individual.

The sense of idealizing was reinforced by other factors. The function of art as an eternal anchor for the soul meant that Egyptian art was timeless. Representations do not present a specific moment in time, but an enduring, ageless image for eternity. Individuals were shown healthy, fit and unblemished, in the prime of their lives. The lack of distinctive physical features on many statues was also due to the organization of ancient Egyptian craftsmen. Artists worked in teams of draftsmen, carvers, finishers, detailers and painters. This cooperative effort presented less opportunity for an individual artist to follow a single-minded intent to produce a naturalistic likeness. So too, many statues were made in workshops "on spec," without a particular buyer in mind.

If a portrait in ancient Egypt did not have to resemble the subject, how was the essential equation between the subject and image achieved? The association was established primarily by the addition of hieroglyphic inscriptions. A name inscribed upon a statue animated that image, and equated it with the individual, regardless of whether the statue resembled the named person or not. This ability to define the identity of a statue through the mere addition of a name is evidenced by statues whose identity was changed by altering the inscription without recarving any of the facial features. In contrast to western art which is signed by the artist, the name found upon ancient Egyptian art is the name of the person whom the statue portrays.

Unlike western portraiture that stresses the individuality of the subject, ancient Egyptian representations emphasized what the individual did in society. This could be indicted by specific gestures or ornaments; a scribe is shown seated cross-legged; the priest may be shown kneeling with hands flat on his thighs. Heavy wigs and elaborate clothes were symbols of elevated social status. Royal regalia differentiated a king from his subjects.

The figurative art of ancient Egypt presents us with a curious situation. Enormous skill and resources were lavished upon the construction of statues, most of which were never intended to be an exact likeness of the subject, although the representation was, through identification with the subject, his or her guarantee of immortality. The key to understanding this seeming contradiction---a portrait that is not a realistic likeness---lies in the goal of the artist, which was to represent not the exact image of the person, but how they functioned in the overall society.


Aldred, Cyril. Egyptian Art . Oxford Univ. Press, 1980.
Bothmer, Bernard. "On realism in Egyptian Sculpture of the Old Kingdom." Expedition 24 (1982) pp. 27-39.
Doxiadis, Euphrosyne. The Mysterious Fayum Portraits from Ancient Egypt . Abrams, 1995.
Fazzini, Richard. Images for Eternity: Egyptian Art from Berkeley and Brooklyn . The Brooklyn Museum, 1975.
Robins, Gay. Egyptian Painting and Relief . Shire Books, 1986.
Spanel, Donald. Through Ancient Eyes: Egyptian Portraiture . The Birmingham Museum of Art, 1988.

Exhibit Presented at:

The David and Alfred Smart Museum of Art
5550 South Greenwood Avenue
Chicago IL 60637
(773) 702-0200