The Nefertiti Bust: History & Facts

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Egyptian art has a very distinct look, but as always, there are exceptions. In this lesson, we are going to check out one of the most unique works of Egyptian art and see what it tells us about this ancient culture.

Nefertiti's Bust

When we think of the immortalized faces of ancient Egypt, it's easy to picture the gilded funerary masks that covered the mummies of pharaohs like Tutankhamen. There is another face, however, that is just as beautiful but more realistic. The bust of Nefertiti is one of the most famous pieces of ancient Egyptian art, functioning as an icon of timeless beauty ever since it was uncovered by German archaeologists in 1912. It is a masterpiece unlike anything else.

The Bust of Nefertiti is one of the most famous works of Egyptian art
Bust of Nefertiti

Who was Nefertiti?

To understand the famous bust (a sculptural portrait of the shoulders, neck, and head), we must first understand its subject. Nefertiti was Queen of Egypt, wife of the pharaoh Akhenaten. Akhenaten is remembered as the pharaoh to abandon Egypt's traditions and establish their first monotheistic religion, dedicated to a single sun-disk deity known as Aten. He also moved his palace from the traditional capitals of the Egyptian kings and built himself a new royal city at Amarna.

We know relatively little about Nefertiti's life prior to her marriage to Akhenaten. Archeologists believe she was from a noble family in the royal capital of Thebes, and some even claim that she was the one to introduce her husband to the monotheistic cult of Aten. All we know for sure is that she rose to become a very powerful woman, ruling alongside her husband until his death.

The Bust and its Sculptor

Nefertiti's bust was likely created around 1340 BCE, near the height of Akhenaten's power. It is 44 pounds and life-sized, carved from a single block of limestone. The concept of a royal portrait was nothing unusual in ancient Egyptian society; the temples and palaces of Egypt are full of them. What makes this portrait unique is its depiction of the queen.

The Bust of Nefertiti
Nefertiti alt

While we're familiar with the blocky and solid monumental portraits of Egyptian rulers, Nefertiti's bust looks vastly different. Not only is the face carved with softly curved cheekbones, strong chin, and sharp nose, but the limestone core was covered in gypsum stucco, which was then painted. The result is an incredibly lifelike depiction of the queen. Nefertiti's bust is colored with golden-brown skin, red lips, colored jewelry and crown. The eyes are set with crystal, and one pupil is made with black wax. The other eye was never finished.

The Artist

So, who created this masterpiece? The best clue comes from the site where the bust was found. Nefertiti's likeness wasn't uncovered in a tomb or palace but in a workshop. Specifically, it was in the workshop of Thutmose, the official court sculptor and favorite artist of Akhenaten.

The fact that this bust was found in Thutmose's studio in Amarna tells us something: this bust was probably just a model. It seems likely that Thutmose created this as a reference so that he had the queen's likeness with him while designing other royal, and possibly monumental portraits.

Another model bust of Nefertiti in the workshop of Thutmose
Nefertiti model

Within Thutmose's workshop, archaeologists found a series of partially completed busts, masks, and faces. Many of these were extraordinarily realistic, showing wrinkles and folds and all the other characteristics of an individual face. When modern researchers scanned Nefertiti's bust, they found that the original portrait looked a little different. The cheekbones were less defined, there were wrinkles on the cheeks, and the nose had a characteristic bump to it.

It would appear that Thutmose first captured the queen exactly as he saw her, then reshaped the portrait a little to reflect his culture's ideas of beauty and royal authority. He was far from the last court portraitist in history to do this.

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