The Late Period of Egyptian history from the end of the New Kingdom (1075 b.c.e.) to the beginning of Greek domination (332 b.c.e.) was heir to over 2,500 years of nearly continuous artistic production. This long native tradition also interacted with foreign influences during times of Egyptian political weakness. Kushites from the Sudan, Libyans, Persians, and Greeks all influenced artistic production in Egypt at this time. One of the most salient characteristics of Late Period visual art is archaism. In visual art, Egyptologists define archaism as a deliberate attempt to reproduce a style of sculpture, painting, or relief from an earlier historical period. Archaism requires a conscious and purposeful effort to imitate particular styles or scenes. It is a much more literal borrowing than adopting aspects of a style. Artists of the early Eighteenth Dynasty borrowed from the Middle Kingdom, but they did not copy whole scenes. Ramesside artists revived aspects of early Eighteenth-dynasty style, but art historians can distinguish a statue of Ramesses II from a statue of Thutmose III. In the Late Period, however, scholars face greater difficulties in distinguishing old and more recent works. Though there are isolated examples of archaism in the Old, Middle, and New Kingdoms, in the Late Period archaism is often a fundamental aspect of the visual arts.
Third Intermediate Period.
The Third Intermediate Period (1075–656 b.c.e.) followed the New Kingdom and witnessed political instability. Kings looked to Eighteenth-dynasty (1537–1292 b.c.e.) models for inspiration for their artists, probably in an effort to link themselves to this glorious era. Some works from this period copy works of Thutmose III's time (1479–1425 b.c.e.) so carefully that scholars have trouble distinguishing the two periods. A gold statuette of Amun that once belonged to the Carnarvon Collection fooled the Egyptologist Howard Carter into identifying it as the work of Thutmose III's artists. The art historian Cyril Aldred showed, however, that it dates to the Twenty-second Dynasty (945–712 b.c.e.) over five hundred years later. Some other works from this period echo art from the Old and Middle Kingdom. Only the smallest details have allowed experts to recognize the differences between original works of the earlier period and copies from the Third Intermediate Period.
The ancient Romans were among the first to collect Egyptian art. The emperor Hadrian (ruled 117–138 c.e.) brought art from Egypt to his country villa in Tivoli, Italy. He built a model of the Nile and arranged Egyptian statues around for his pleasure. In the eighteenth and nineteen centuries, many English and European aristocrats continued the tradition of collecting Egyptian art along with the art of Greece and Rome.
The late eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries witnessed the birth of public collections of Egyptian art in Europe and Britain. The great American public collections went on view in the twentieth century in New York, Brooklyn, and Boston. The British Museum in London, the Louvre in Paris, and the Egyptian Museum in Berlin were among the early and important public collections. The greatest of all public collections is the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. These collections inspired scholars to study Egyptian art and create the field of Egyptology.
In the early twenty-first century, both private and public collectors face pressure and even censure because of the political conditions prevailing when these collections were formed. Between 332 b.c.e. and 1952 c.e., foreigners ruled Egypt. Thus the period when Egyptian collections were formed corresponds to the period when Egypt was under foreign rule. The present government of Egypt has sought restoration of key monuments to Egypt that left the country while it was under foreign rule. Yet the legal and ethical issues involved are complex. There are no easy answers to questions raised by the long years of collecting and current Egyptian aspirations.
The Kushite kings of the Twenty-fifth Dynasty (760–656 b.c.e.) originated in Sudan. They sought to identify themselves with kings of earlier periods through their art. They modeled many sculptures on work produced during the late Middle Kingdom (1938–1630 b.c.e.). In fact scholars still dispute which works rightly should be assigned to the Twenty-fifth Dynasty and which are products of the Middle Kingdom. The tomb of the high official Harwa, certainly built in this time period, demonstrates considerable copying from the Old Kingdom (2675–2170 b.c.e.). Much of the original Old Kingdom material was in the northern capital in Memphis, but Harwa's artists reproduced it for his tomb in Thebes.
The Twenty-sixth Dynasty (664–525 b.c.e.), called the Saite Period because of its king's origins in the town of Sais in the Delta, looked for inspiration in the New Kingdom once again. A remarkable tomb belonging to the governor of Upper Egypt, Montuemhet, spans both the end of the Kushite Period and the beginning of the Saite Period. This tomb contains elements from the Kushite Period imitating the Old Kingdom as well as Saite Period work imitating the New Kingdom. The Theban tomb of a man named Ibi that dates to this period was highly influenced by the Memphite tomb of a man with the same name who lived in the Old Kingdom. Later in the Twenty-sixth Dynasty, artists drew on New Kingdom models for inspiration.
Persian Period and Thirtieth Dynasty.
The Persians conquered Egypt in 525 b.c.e. Artists blended Persian artistic traditions with traditional Egyptian art. A statue of the Treasurer of the god Ptah, Ptahhotep, blends typical Egyptian elements with Persian details. The frontality, back pillar, and stance that Ptahhotep assumes in the statue all date back thousands of years in Egyptian history. Yet Ptahhotep wears a Near Eastern costume consisting of a shawl and high-waisted kilt that would be more at home in Persia than Egypt. He also wears a Persian necklace ending in typically Persian mountain-goat shaped forms. Under the necklace, he wears a typical Egyptian chest ornament. In statues such as this, artists were able to accommodate foreign tastes but also rely on Egyptian models. The Thirtieth Dynasty (381–343 b.c.e.) was the last period of native Egyptian rule in antiquity. Artists of this period relied on New Kingdom models. The tomb of the official Zanofer incorporates a blind harpist and female offering bearers that would be at home in the Eighteenth Dynasty.
This brief survey of Late Period art only scratches the surface of the complications that remain to be studied. Scholars still dispute many of the details, sometimes unable to agree on whether key works belong to the earlier or later periods. In spite of considerable progress in the last forty years, much work remains to be done to provide an understanding of this period.
Cyril Aldred, "The Carnarvon Statuette of Amun," in Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 46 (1960): 3–7.
Bernard Bothmer, Egyptian Sculture of the Late Period: 700 b.c. to a.d. 100 (Brooklyn, N.Y.: Brooklyn Museum, 1960).
Richard Fazzini, Egypt Dynasty XXII–XXV (Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 1988).
J. A. Josephson, Egyptian Royal Sculpture of the Late Period, 400–246 B.C. (Mainz, Germany: Verlag Philipp von Zabern, 1997).