Owing to the exceptional fertility of the Nile Valley, resulting in the wealth of ancient Egypt, and to the peculiar geographical situation, Egypt was unified and isolated and thus protected from constant invasion by divergent influences. Ancient Egypt occupied only a narrow cultivated strip on each side of the river: therefore the Nile was a remarkably efficient agency of communication and political unification. The canons of artistic tradition were established by the third millenium. No important advances were made down to the Christian period, except for the brief interval in the 18th Dynasty when art was temporarily freed from the bonds of religious convention.
Baldwin Smith refers to the role of tradition in the development of Egyptian art as sterilized preservation. Even in priods of foreign political control, as in the Ptolemaic era (Egypt was a part of the Greek empire from the third to the first century), the native Egyptian artistic features remained distinctly recognizable and dominant. It is possible that had Egyptian society been totally dislocated by a change of climate or calamity, the persistent traditionalism of art would have ultimately disappeared. However, successive conquests late in its history, even that by the Romans, merely continued the system of monarchical state socialism under which Egypt had prospered for several thousands of years.
Egyptian art had an independent character distinctly fixed from the earliest times as a result of special conditions in Egypt. Only in the earliest epoch before written records (the prehistoric or predynastic period) did Egypt borrow elements from the contemporary and more advanced civilization, the Mesopotamian. Two of the borrowed devices were the use of heraldic motifs and the portrayal of rampant animals facing each other. Only in the very latest period were foreign influences assimilated. In the Ptolemaic era may be noted a general softening of contour in figure compositions, the triumph of anthropomorphism in the representation of Egyptian deities, and the growth of a certain Hellennistic pictorialsm. In other respects, Egyptian art maintanedits distinctive character, with the observance of conventions found in all forms of primitive art, the world over, and with such qualities as interrelationship among the arts, monumental outlook, varied themes, and above all, the dependence upon forms used in the past.
Interrelationship of the Arts
The arts in Egypt were most unusually interrelated. Sculpture in the round was almost indistinguishable from the solidity of architecture, as in the giant proto-Doric columns at Beni Hasan, the Great Sphinx at Gizeh, and the figures of the pharaoh Rameses and the god Osiris at Abu Simbel. Relief sculpture was inextricably part of the architectural surfaces it covered. Painting was primarily an adjunct of sculpture, for most of the reliefs were painted. As a result, the mural paintings demonstrated the conventions of sculpture rather than pictorial qualities. The negation of space noticeable in Egyptian architecture is apparent also in both plastic and pictorial arts in use of seized space or views achieved by the simultaneous use of registers or panels shown one above another and giving both floor plans and elevations.
Largeness of Scale: Real or Imaginary
By contrast, the masive grandeur of Egyptian art dominates that of all other ancient civilizations. Each example gives the impression of monumental dignity no matter how miniature in actuality, revealing a largeness of concept unequaled in any other epoch. This charateristic reflects the impressive political prestige, financial power, and material wealth of Egypt. It also suggests that the final forms were preceded by long stylistic development through experimentation and manipulation of the materials. The impression of gigantic scale is as striking in small faience (blue green earth enware) ushebti (figurines in the tombs called answerers who were to do the bidding of the dead) as in the tremendous columns of the Hypostyle Hall in the temple of Amon Ra at Karnak.
Variety of Subject Matter
Iconographically Egyptian art was extremely varied. Because of the importance of the death cult and the sacred character of the pharaoh, religious themes were important, but secular motifs were by no means neglected. The tomb decorations were filled with representations of everyday activities on earth and, therefore, are not religious in appearance but merely by indirection, affording a surprisingly contemporary effect. Despite the abstraction of Egyptian art, the portraiture was unusually particularized. The formality of convention was strong, even in genre works. It was only during the rule of Ikhnaton for a short period in the 18th Dynasty that realism flourished in art: for example, the ruler and his wife were portrayed fondling and playing with their small daughters.