Painting is certainly the earliest art of Egypt; but, being more perishable than sculpture, many periods of it are hardly represented at present. A very early prehistoric vase, painted with white slip on the red ground, shows the crude figures of two men fighting (fig. 65). Other such vases have plants and other objects painted. From the middle of the prehistoric age, belonging to the second civilisation, are the light-brown vases painted in red, with figures of ships and people (fig. 66), plants, and imitations of stone and wicker patterns. The joints are fairly correct in the men and animals, though deficient in the woman with raised arms. But the whole air is very crude as compared with the roughest efforts of the dynastic race. Another painting rather later in the prehistoric age is the ship from a tomb fresco (fig. 67). The arms of the woman are more correctly drawn as straight, but the men are worse posed than in the earlier work. The idea of the figures seen above the ships, but entirely detached from them, may be that they are seen on the opposite bank of a narrow river, beyond the ships.
The advanced painting of the early pyramid times is shown by the geese (fig. 68), stalking along in a meadow amid tufts of herbage. The air of grave self-sufficiency is admirably caught, and this small piece of a great wall-scene at Medum is deservedly admired. Of the Middle Kingdom there is no fine example remaining.
The great age of painting was the XVIIIth and XlXth dynasties. The sculpturing of tombs was then abandoned in favour of the cheaper paint; and the taste of the age for graceful and light treatment found its best scope in the use of the brush. Here we have a group of pelicans (fig. 69) with an old herdsman and baskets of eggs. Next (fig. 70) is a harvest scene. Two men are carrying a load of the ears of corn in a net. Behind are the stalks of straw after the ears have been cut. Two girls who were gleaning have stopped to quarrel over the corn; one has seized a wrist of the other, and the two free hands have each taken a grip of the other one's hair. To the right, under a sycomore fig-tree, one boy is asleep, while another plays on a long reed pipe, with a water-skin hung over his head. In the lower line a girl with a thorn in her foot is stretching it out to be examined by another girl. Further, a lad is stripping the heads of millet by dragging them through a fixed fork. The whole scene is full of incident, and the drawing of the figures in unusual action is excellent. The curious dress of the men is a linen waist-cloth, with a net of slit leather-work to take the wear, and a solid piece of leather left in the middle of it for sitting on, as in fig. 140. Such slit leather-work is dealt with in the last chapter.
65. First age of prehistoric painting 67. Ship on wall-painting.
66. Second age.
68. Geese of Medum.
69. Pelicans and keeper.
70, 71. Harvest scenes.
A third scene (fig. 71) is in the harvest field; the ears have been put into a net, and to press them down a stick is passed through a hole on one edge, while a man has hooked his arm over the stick, and jumped up so as to bring his weight with a jerk to press the stick down; with his other hand he holds the end of a cord tied to the net, so as to be ready to secure the stick when pressed down and prevent it springing up again. The spirit shown in this action is very good, and it is perhaps the only figure given in the act of jumping. On the left is a young woman, one of the daughters, behind the owner of the tomb; on the right is a gleaning girl, stopping in the tall corn to drink, with her basket set on the ground.
On the next plate a portion of a ceiling pattern (fig. 72) shows how such designs were drawn. The rhombic lines were done first, then the dark groundwork, leaving white discs, and lastly these were filled up with the spirals. The whole was copied from appliqué leather-work, with lines of stitching.
A boating scene (fig. 73) shows the beautifully bold, clean lines of the drawing, for which in this case there does not seem to have been any preliminary sketch of position. The crouching girl picking a lotus bud from the water is very unusual. The drawing of wavy water-lines, with lotus flowers, is the general convention, and the figures of fish and birds are often seen.
A scene at a party (fig. 74) shows the guests seated on the ground holding lotus flowers, while a serving-girl stretches forward to arrange the earrings of one of the guests.
Painting received a great stimulus under Akhen-aten: the new movement suited the brush much better than the chisel. The two figures of the princesses (fig. 76) show possibilities which were not then fully carried out. The conventional attitudes are dropped, and the actual positions of two little girls are carefully copied. The elder is seated on a cushion, with the knees drawn up, and resting one arm on the knee, while with the other hand she pushes up her little sister's chin. The younger has none of this self-possession, but is propping herself up with one arm, while she clings to her elder's shoulder with the other. The drawing is free and true, within the usual conventions of perspective. Further, the colouring has shade on the backs of the figures, and a high light on the thigh of the younger daughter. Such shade does not appear in Greek art till a thousand years later. The pattern in front is the border of the carpet on which the queen was seated, her foot and drapery appearing above.
73. Boating scene.
74. A party.
A surprising drawing which belongs to the same school of observation is the tumbler (fig. 75). Here an acrobatic position is so skilfully drawn as to suggest its truth and to avoid any impossibility. The form of each part is admirable; and if we trace it piece by piece into an upright position, the resulting figure is correctly proportioned, except in the length of the arms. In reality such an attitude requires the hands to rest on the finger-tips where the wrist now is drawn. As a drawing of a violent attitude this is a marvellous work, not only for the directness and perfection of the line, but also for the complete lightness and swing of the whole figure.
Another good piece of action is the man (fig. 77) who is standing on a boat's cabin hauling in a rope. The dead-weight of the body is well thrown back; and as the base is small, one leg is kept in reserve behind so as to recover any slip. The dead pull, with both feet planted together and the whole body rigidly leaning back, is often drawn in the early fishing scenes; but such an attitude would be unsafe when standing on the top of a narrow cabin.
We now turn to outline drawing, in which the Egyptians always had a grand facility. There is no instance, even in degraded times, of an outline made as in modern work by little tentative touches feeling the way. If they made a mistake, they at least "sinned splendidly." The long free strokes, always taking the whole length of a bone at once, and often going down a whole figure without raising the hand - even, true, without a quiver or hesitation - shame most modern outlines. The group of heads (fig. 78) shows well the amount of character given by a simple outline. The furthest is a negro, the next a Syrian, the third an Abyssinian, the last a Libyan. The type of each is shown with zest and energy, and the line-work could not be improved.
In fig. 79 is a very rough sketch for a little tablet of adoration. It shows the faint outlines in red which were laid in first to space out the figure.
75. Girl somersaulting.
76. The young princesses.
77. The boatman hauling.
79. Sketched tablet.
78. The four races.
80. Tomb decoration.