The art of the New Kingdom (1570–1342 B.C.) can be viewed as the final development of the classic Egyptian style of the Middle Kingdom, a combination of the monumental forms of the Old Kingdom and the drive and inspiration of the Middle Kingdom. The paintings of this period are noted for boldness of design and controlled vitality. In sculpture the emphasis is on bulk, solidity, and impersonality.
During the Amarna period (1372–1350 B.C.) a free and delicate style developed with many naturalistic tendencies and a new sense of life and movement. In sculpture the new style was carried to the point of caricature, e.g., in the colossal statue of Ikhnaton (Cairo). The outstanding masterpiece of this period is the painted limestone bust of Queen Nefertiti (Berlin Mus.). The delicacy, sophistication, and extreme richness of this style in its late period is best exemplified by the furnishings from the tomb of Tutankhamen.
The Ramesside period (1314–1085 B.C.) saw an attempt to return to the classic formalism of the earlier New Kingdom, but the vitality that characterized that period could not be recovered. The sculpture, both in relief and in the round, became monotonous and even overbearing except in the numerous battle scenes. The period of decline (1085–730 B.C.) is characterized by mechanical repetition of earlier forms in the major arts and by the introduction of satirical and often cynical drawings in the papyri. In the Saïte period (730–663 B.C.) there was an attempt to return to the austerity of the Old Kingdom style, but for the simplicity of the earlier forms a coarse brutality was substituted.
After the conquest of Egypt by the Assyrians in 663 B.C. all the arts declined with the exception of metalworking, in which a high standard of skill was maintained. Neither the Assyrian nor the subsequent Persian invasions left a mark on Egyptian art, and even under the Ptolemaic dynasty (332–30 B.C.) Egypt proved extraordinarily resistant to Hellenic conceptions of art. The ancient architectural tradition retained its vitality, as in the temples of Horus at Idfu and Isis at Philae, but painting and sculpture continued to decline. Native naturalism may have influenced the painted Fayum panels and orant (praying) portraits on mummy shrouds, but neither their subjects nor their style is essentially Egyptian. The minor arts, however, continued to flourish; alabaster vases, faience pottery and figurines, glassware, ivories, and metalwork were produced with the ancient skill and in the traditional Egyptian style.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.