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Artistic Style of Ancient Egypt

Artistic Style of Ancient Egypt

The art of ancient Egypt was both uniquely stylized and symbolic. In the same way that hieroglyphs were a visual language, the art of ancient Egypt followed specific rules in order to be read and understood. Artists were not so concerned with re-presenting reality rather they followed a system called the Canon of Proportions to represent an ideal and harmonious version of reality. In this lesson, students will analyze images of ancient Egyptian artwork to create a definition of the style. Students can continue to explore this notion of the "ideal" by examining contemporary media images.

  • Examine images of two-dimensional ancient Egyptian art containing figures with students using Explore Art with Your Students:

  • Analyze the images with students, focusing on specific stylistic characteristics. The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston offers a clear explanation of the differences in perspective in ancient Egyptian art.

    • What part of the face is visible? Describe the perspective.
    • How would you describe the proportions and perspective of the torso compared to the legs?
    • How do the perspectives of the face, torso and legs differ?
  • Introduce students to the Canon of Proportions, a system used in ancient Egypt to depict an idealized version of reality, by placing a grid with 19 units on an acetate sheet over one of the initial images. The canon is applicable to only the figures within an artwork and not the artwork as a whole. The key features are:

    • One unit is measured from the sole of the foot to the ankle.
    • The figure is divided into 18 equal units starting at the soles of the feet to the hairline. The 19th unit contains the area above the hairline, which is often obscured by a headdress.
    • The navel rests at the 11th unit.
    • The face and the legs are depicted in profile (side view) while the torso is depicted from the front view.
  • Divide students into small groups and provide each group with images of two-dimensional ancient Egyptian art containing figures to test for the Canon of Proportions. Distribute one or two examples of ancient Egyptian art work for each group to examine. Challenge students to find other unique qualities of ancient Egyptian art, focusing on common symbols they notice and trying to decipher the story depicted. This may include the papyrus, the sun, a scarab beetle, Anubis, symbol for truth (feather), etc.
  • Use the following guiding questions to analyze some additional interesting artistic choices to consider:

    • Who is the focal point in this image? Why do you say that?
      (Whoever is larger in scale is considered more important)
    • If your image is in colour, how is colour used in this image? Does a specific colour seem to repeat? What is the pattern you notice?
      (Dark skin=male, light skin=female)
    • Are there any differences between how males and females are depicted?
      (Men have left foot forward while women have both feet together)
    • Are there any children in the image? What clues tell you this?
      (Children proportions do not change; they are just shown smaller in scale and have a finger in their mouth)
    • Are there any figures you do not recognize? How are they positioned? What do you think their role might be? Why?
      (A person with an open hand in front of their face is in mourning. A cross legged seated figure is a scribe.)
  • After students have thoroughly examined their images, have groups establish a definition for the style of ancient Egyptian art. Allow each group to share their ideas.
  • Discuss with students the purpose of these artefacts and images for ancient Egyptians. How is this similar/different from our contemporary notions about art, style and purpose?
  • Students can compare this notion of constructing "ideal" figures with images from current advertisements. Instruct students to choose two-three advertisements featuring a figure. Using the same process they followed above, students will uncover the symbols and stylistic characteristics used in contemporary society to portray an "ideal" constructed version of reality.

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