The Pyramid age (4700 - 4000 B.C.) brought in fresh ideals. The early kings had expanded a chieftainship into a kingdom, without realising all the new conditions of organization which were involved. The great work of the early pyramid kings, Seno-feru and Khufu, was the massive organizing of the civil service of the country, the establishment of a social organism which resisted all the invasions and disasters of the land, and survived in parts to our own times. These new ideals were naturally reflected in the art. In place of tombs such as any great chief might have ordered, the most gigantic pyramids were erected, buildings yet unsurpassed in bulk and in accuracy of workmanship. The new social order of the official world followed in the same lines, and dozens of tombs were sculptured in each reign, larger and more elaborate than most of the royal sepulchres of other lands and ages. The host of these tombs which remain constitute a larger treasury of artistic work than there is of any other period in the world's history.
A typical example of this new order is the figure of a servant of a noble named Ainofer (fig. 5). The high rounded relief, the sense of action, the delicacy of detail and expression, all mark this new time. The greater part of the really fine sculpture that we possess in Egypt comes from this time. The statuary (figs. 23 to 31), the reliefs (figs. 55 to 57), the painting (fig. 68), all show the noble spaciousness and grandeur of the age. Its style is severe and never trifles with superfluities. The smallest as well as the largest work seems complete and inevitable, without being constrained by any limitations of time, or labour, or thought. For the expression of royal energy, dignity, and equanimity the figures of Khufu and Khafra are unsurpassed. In the vivid expression of personal character no age has surpassed the statues of the officials and their wives. The style of other ages may be more scholastic, more amusing, or more graceful, but for all that constitutes great art no period can compare with that of the mighty pyramid kings.
All things pass away, and during the centuries of disruption which followed the Vlth dynasty the old style ran down to an incredible coarseness and clumsy copying. At the close of the Xlth dynasty a revival took place. Like all great developments of art it rose with extraordinary rapidity, and within a generation or two the new movement was fully grown. Its characteristic was the use of very low relief, with faint but perfectly clear outlines (see fig. 6). It was the style of a school, and not that of Nature. A regular course of artistic training is described by an artist; first was taught the positions of figures in slow action, then the differences of male and female figures, next mythological subjects, and lastly, the attitudes of rapid action. This mechanical training naturally went with elaboration of detail. The minute lining over large masses of hair, the carving of every bead of a necklace, were the outcome of scholastic training. The artificial reduction of figures in the round to a very delicate variation of planes in low relief was according to the same system. The whole works of the XI Ith dynasty are beautiful, reserved, and pleasing, with a clearness and finish which appeals to a sense of orderly perfection. They have neither the grandeur of what went before nor the grace of what followed them.
The XVIIIth and XlXth dynasties are the most popularly known age of the art. The profusion of remains, their accessibility at Thebes, and the more intimate style of the designs, have led to their general acceptance as typical. This position must not be allowed in a wider knowledge of the subject. The whole level of art of the XVIIIth dynasty is as much below that of the XIIth, as the style of the XIIth is below that of the IVth dynasty. The scholastic work of the XIIth is followed by a treatment which is almost always conventional in the XVIIIth; and the XlXth dynasty shows merely a degradation of what preceded it. At the close of the XVIIth dynasty there emerges from the turmoil of the Hyksos barbarism a rude but lively style of drawing, with sculpture of clumsy figures and badly-formed hieroglyphs. Stepping into the XVIIIth dynasty we meet with stiff and rather heavy statuettes, the female figures, however, showing the dawn of the seductive grace which followed. Little can be said to have changed in ideals since the XIIth dynasty, until the Asiatic conquests altered the civilisation of Egypt. Thothmes I and III brought back thousands of Syrian captives, many of whom were selected for their beauty and their artistic ability; their work and their influence transformed the art, and the ideal became that of a light, graceful, fascinating type which posed much and suggested more.
7. XVIIIth dynasty 9. Saite(XXVI)
8. XlXth dynasty 10. Ptolemaic.
The art of character had become secondary to the art of emotion. Vivacity and romance led the way, and the older studies of deeper life and fine anatomy were out of date. Fluttering ribbons and prancing horses and galloping calves were represented without the laborious sculpture, but merely painted with a flowing line on the tomb walls, which were plastered smooth over the roughest hewing in the rock. The cheapest road to effect was the favourite way, and the eternal solidity and dignified simplicity of the older ages had vanished. The figure of an official of Kha-em-hat (fig. 7) is typical of the best work of this age. The other examples are shown in figs. 36 - 42, 60 - 62, 69 - 78. This new order of things culminated under Akh-enaten, when naturalism, influenced largely from Greece, removed the older principles of Egyptian art; and all the passing incidents of life, the domestic affections of the king and the festivities of his court, became the subjects of even funerary sculptures and painting in the tombs. After that stage there was nothing left to do but to fall back on the old stock subjects and copy and re-copy them worse and worse during the succeeding dynasties. Egyptian art perishes with Akhenaten; all that came after was a bloodless imitation.