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Egyptian Influence in Neoclassical Architecture

Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

Obelisks, sphinxes and lotus flowers: how did Egyptian design elements find their way into early nineteenth-century buildings? In this lesson, explore Egyptian influence in Neoclassical architecture.

What Is Neoclassical Architecture?

Have you ever seen a large, stately building with tall, fluted columns? You might have been looking at an example of Neoclassical architecture. And if you've visited the Washington Monument in Washington, D.C., you've also seen Neoclassical architecture influenced by Egyptian art.

Before we get to Egypt, let's first define a term. Neoclassical architecture was a style that echoed elements of ancient classical Greek and Roman buildings. It developed in the 18th century in Rome, after archaeological excavations at Herculaneum and Pompeii (both destroyed by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D.) rekindled interest in Classical Greek culture. At this time in the 18th century, people knew about ancient Rome, but the ancient Greek artifacts and structures were a revelation. They captured the attention of scholars, artists and architects.

Neoclassical architecture, restrained in decoration, was also a reaction against the decorative styles that preceded it, namely curving Baroque and fussy Rococo. Neoclassical architecture spread from Rome to France, then to the rest of Europe. By the early 19th century, it reached the United States, where it remained popular through around 1850.

Neoclassical structures were large and symmetrical. They were rectilinear, or focused on straight lines. They had surfaces not cluttered with lots of decoration. Many also had columns with capitals, or column tops that echoed specific classical Greek style.

But in the very early 1800s, Neoclassical buildings began to appear with design elements that came not from Greece but from Egypt: things like sphinxes, half-lion and half-human mythical creatures, and designs with palm trees and lotus flowers. What sparked this change?

How Did Egyptian Art and Architecture Influence It?

Napoleon Goes To Egypt

Just like the interest in classical Greece, the newfound focus on Egyptian decoration was spurred by archaeology. Napoleon had gone on a campaign in Egypt beginning in 1798, and in addition to military personnel, archaeologists accompanied him.

When the campaign was over, it brought back artifacts and information about the ancient Egyptian world. In 1802, an archaeologist who had traveled with Napoleon published a book with drawings and engravings of Egyptian design elements and Egyptian structures like temples and royal tombs.

Egyptian building fragment with winged sun disk and cavetto cornice
Egyptian artifact

A Mania For All Things Egyptian

The result, a craze that started in France, was sometimes referred to as l'Egyptomanie or Egyptomania, a passion for all things Egyptian. Egyptian elements appeared on furniture, decorative arts and architecture. Neoclassical structures also began to have elements like lotus flower capitals, shaped like partially closed flowers, on smooth-surfaced columns.

Image of Egypt Hall, a structure in London built in 1812
Egyptian influenced building

Buildings added elements like the sphinxes, images of a winged sun disk, and cavetto cornices, sometimes also called gouge-and-roll cornices, with vertical rows of leaf-like shapes and outward flaring upper edges. Egyptian elements were found on public buildings, religious structures, and also on mausoleums, or above-ground burial structures.

The Egyptian Building, built at a medical college in Virginia in 1845. Notice the lotus flower capitals
Egyptian Building

Another Egyptian form that became popular was the obelisk, a tall, rectangular pillar with a tapered, pyramid-like top that ended in a point. In Egypt, they were often found in pairs near the vicinity of temples. Obelisks became part of Neoclassical architecture, especially for funerary and memorial structures.

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