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Use of Realism in Ancient Egyptian Relief Carvings & Paintings Video

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  • 0:08 Egyptian Art
  • 1:40 Realism in Egyptian Art
  • 3:17 Stylization in Egyptian Art
  • 5:08 Lesson Summary
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Instructor: Christopher Muscato

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

In this lesson, you will explore when and why ancient Egyptian artists chose to create reliefs and paintings that embraced or challenged realistic appearances. Then, test your understanding with a brief quiz.

Egyptian Art

Ancient Egypt, an African civilization that lasted almost 3000 years, from 3100 BCE to 332 BCE, was a land full of art. The Pharaohs, or rulers, built enormous palaces, temples and tombs and covered them in depictions of history, religion or daily life. While Egypt had many forms of art, ranging from jewelry to monumental sculpture, two forms were very prominent for decorating the walls of palaces and tombs: first were reliefs, images carved on a flat surface so that they seem to be elevated from the background; second were paintings. Sometimes, reliefs were painted to give color and additional depth. Other times, walls would be painted without being carved. The ancient Egyptians also painted on papyrus, their form of paper.

One of the important distinctions of Egyptian art is the use of realism. Realism is simply 'the presentation of objects as they appear in the natural world'. For skilled artists, like those working in ancient Egypt, the decision to either accept or reject realism was an important part of the symbolic nature of art. Egyptian art balanced realism and stylization to present images of harmony, balance and order. This style was clearly intentional and very important to the ancient Egyptians, leading to an amazing degree of consistency in their art. In fact, the Egyptian styles found in reliefs and paintings remained almost unchanged for nearly 3,000 years.

Realism in Egyptian Art

The Egyptians were focused on presenting information in a clear, consistent and accurate manner. A lot of this was a reflection of the purpose of their art. In palaces and temples, the pharaohs commissioned reliefs and paintings that were meant to preserve and present information. These included battle scenes of important military victories, major legislative or religious policies or the daily act of ruling. These images were meant to be understood by any who saw them as a clear way to communicate the power and authority of the king, even after his death. Free standing sculptures or monumental reliefs of the pharaohs, very common in their temples, were highly realistic for the same reason.

Death was actually the second purpose of art. In the Egyptian religion, the spirit could survive beyond death, provided it had a proper resting place. The spirit could also enjoy the afterlife, much like a person enjoys life, so Egyptian tombs were filled with goods that made afterlife more comfortable. They were also covered with reliefs and paintings. The images carved and painted on the inside of a tomb were meant to reassure or calm the spirit by representing things that that person had enjoyed during life. Thus, artists strove to present these things realistically. For example, the tomb of the royal scribe Nebamun contains images of Nebamun hunting, an activity he thoroughly enjoyed. Through the high use of realism, especially in regard to the many birds in this painting, Nebamun's spirit was meant to feel the joy of hunting.

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