Art History through Innovators: Sculpture

Part 2 (Size matters)


As an example of our first major innovation in sculpture, we’ll be spending some time with the Pharaoh Hatshepsut. The sculpture is about 8 feet high, carved from granite. (Part 1 of this series is here; timeline here. The whole essay, reformatted for Kindle, is here.)

Hatshepsut, ca. 1479–1458 BC. Metropolitan Museum of Art, Rogers Fund, 1928. Photos: MetMuseum.org.)

To understand what’s innovative here, we need a bit of context. The earliest known sculptures date to 30,000 or 20,000 BC, and are small enough to hold easily in your hand. Since the Metropolitan Museum has no sculptures that early, here are a couple examples that live elsewhere.

Neolithic sculptures, each about 4 inches, each dating to 15,000–10,000 BC. Left: Venus of Willendorf. Vienna, Museum of Natural History. Photo: Don Hitchcock / Wikipedia. Right: Bison carved on reindeer horn. St-Germain-en-Laye, Museum of National Antiquities. Photo: Jochen Jahnke / Wikipedia.

Innovation #1: Life-size sculptures

In sculpture, size matters. A work that’s life-size has an in-your-face impact that a 4-inch sculpture does not. Around 3000 BC, Egyptian sculptors began to create life-size sculptures. At the Metropolitan Museum, this standing figure of Hatshepsut (from the 1400s BC) is the earliest life-size Egyptian sculpture that’s more or less complete.

If you’ve ever tried to carve or model a human figure, even on a small scale, you know it’s an arduous task. To carve a full-size human form from a block of stone — to get the basic proportions correct and make the anatomy believable — that’s a major accomplishment.

Unfortunately, Egyptian sculptors never got much beyond that. Distinctively Egyptian art was produced from 3000 to at least 300 BC. That’s 2700 years, more than the time from the birth of Christ to the present. During those 2700 years, Egyptian artists turned innovation into convention.

Egyptian sculptures at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2500s, 1400s, and 300s BC. Photos: Dianne L. Durante

The conventions

The three works above were created over the course of 1500 years, but even at a quick glance, the similarities among them are striking. They share a number of conventional features that recur in all Egyptian sculptures of standing figures. We’ll look at some of these conventions (briefly!) for contrast with the sculpture we’ll be focusing on in Part 3.

By the way, we won’t be talking about why such conventions were used. “Art History through Innovators: Sculpture” would be far longer than two hours if we did. If you’re curious, feel free to research the rule of the pharaohs, religion along the Nile, granite quarries, and so on.

Working from head to toe, these are the conventions of Egyptian sculpture.

  • The hair is stiff, like a wig.
Egyptian wigs of the 2500s, 2000s, and 1200s BC. Photos: Dianne L. Durante
  • Faces are almost interchangeable, with similar shapes and features. No indication is given of age or emotion.
Egyptian faces of the 2500s, 1900s, 1400s, and 1200s BC. Photos: Dianne L. Durante
  • The shapes of the figures are also almost interchangeable. In the four torsos below, which span 2200 years, look at the proportions and surface modelling. The shoulders are always broad, the pectorals are high and well defined, and the chest tapers to a narrow waist. They are rather attractive, but it’s as if all sculptors are copying a single model.
Egyptian torsos of the 2500s, 1900s, 600s, and 300s BC. All photos: Dianne L. Durante
  • There is little variation in dress. Men wear pleated kilts; women wear simple, tightly fitting sheaths.
Egyptian costumes of the 2500s, 1200s, 300s BC. Photos: Dianne L. Durante
  • The arms are attached to the sides of the figure, and the stone is left between the legs. The only exception is when figures are carved from wood, like the figure on the left above and second from left below.
Position of the arms and legs of Egyptian sculptures, 2500s, 1900s, 1400s, and 300s BC. Third from left (Hatshepsut): Metropolitan Museum of Art, Rogers Fund, 1928; Photo MetMuseum.org. Other photos: Dianne L. Durante
  • If the figure is standing, the left foot (always the left) is forward. The torso is aligned above the right foot — the one at the back.
  • In the first and third images above, you can see that the figure is attached to a backdrop — a wall — so it seems to be still part of the stone block. The figure on the right has the remains of a smaller backdrop, not visible in this photo. Like all figures carved of wood, the figure of the woman (second from left above) has no backdrop, but her weight nevertheless all rests on the right foot.
  • One minor feature perfectly illustrates how much Egyptian sculptors abided by conventions. Through more than 2 millennia, the toes on Egyptian sculptures are consistently long, thin, and without joints or knuckles. They look rather like breakfast sausages.
Egyptian toes, 2500s, 2400s, 1900s, 1300s BC. Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photos: Dianne L. Durante

Conventions about subject and style dominate the art of ancient Egypt to such a degree that you have to be a trained Egyptologist to distinguish between sculptures that were created 2000 years apart.

In “Art History through Innovators: Sculpture, Part 3,” we’ll see an innovation that builds on Egyptian sculptors’ full-size works, but brings a completely new idea to the party.

Takeaways

  • Egyptian sculptors were the first to create life-size or over-life-size sculpture — a major innovation because such works have an impact that small-scale sculptures do not.
  • In other respects, Egyptian artists were bound by a series of conventions that made art unchanging for more than 2000 years.

Comments and suggestions always welcome, in the form of notes here or tweets (@NYCsculpture).

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