Ancient Egypt: History and culture
Ancient Egyptian portraiture: The artists, the purpose, pictorial conventions
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Ancient Egyptian portraiture

The artists

Sculptors;  Source: Olam hatanakh: Shmot - published by Divrei Hayamim, Tel Aviv     The role of the painter and the sculptor (sanx) was to help in the continued existence of the dead, sanx meaning to make come alive. In the beginning seemingly only serving the pharaohs, these artisans began portraying nobles, officials and their families as early as the Old Kingdom. Sometimes a King's servant received a funerary statue from his master, but many of the richer elite could afford to pay by themselves.
    Craftsmanship varied widely throughout the country and history. The provinces had generally less gifted artists than the capital, where the king resided and power and wealth were concentrated. While artists were seemingly not viewed as special geniuses above normal mankind in the romantic fashion of the 19th century, excellence was recognized and rewarded.
    The identity of the artists is generally unknown. They appear to have worked in workshops, quite possibly dividing the labour among themselves according to their abilities. The ancient Egyptian sculptor most famous today is Thutmose, who had an atelier at Akhetaten and created many works in the innovative Amarna style, and we know of Maya, a late 18th dynasty scribe and painter living at Deir el Medine, because he also decorated his own tomb.
    Thutmose was part of an ancient tradition of humanizing statues. An unknown 4th dynasty sculptor created Prince Ankh-haf's likeness, another Ka-aper's a few generations later, or a third Amenemhet III's during the 12th dynasty. While many statues are idealized, it seems that quite a few of the ancient Egyptian artists attempted to render their subjects as faithfully as they could.

The purpose

    The portraits that have survived to this day, had religious, funerary purposes. They served to immortalize the dead, just as the mummification of the body was supposed to and the inscriptions bearing his name.
    Statues of pharaohs represented more than just the man. They embodied the idea of divine kingship. They were generally carved from harder material than statues of ordinary mortals, carved for eternity. Seemingly, the artists tried to express how the pharaoh wanted to be seen and remembered - or at least that is how we interpret it:     The Opening of the Mouth ceremony was performed on statues just as it was on the mummy itself, animating them and enabling them to use their senses.

Characteristics and conventions

Applicable to statuary, reliefs and paintings

  • The image was frequently identified by inscription. Resemblance with the depicted was not necessary, though seemingly often attempted in statuary and to a lesser extent in reliefs. How important resemblance was can be estimated Statues of figures with almost identical features like the ones of Katep and Hetep-heres or Memi and Sabu may point to the unimportance of resemblance, to a lack of ability on the part of the artist, or to family ties between the partners in a society where marriages between close clan members was not frowned upon.
  • Infirmities and old age are rarely shown. Most images are glowing examples of prosperity, youth, and good health.
  • Relative sizes of persons in group depictions:
    • according to importance - servants are depicted smaller than their masters
    • natural differences - husbands are taller than wives, children much smaller, often to an unnatural degree
  • Colour: Men are painted red, women yellow


  • The classical posture, above all during the Old Kingdom, is rigid, facing straight ahead, arms held close to the body, standing or pacing, sitting, more rarely kneeling or squatting. This may be an expression of the solemnity of the occasion, i.e. being confronted with the afterworld, its gods and demons, or perhaps mostly the result of the stone working techniques of the day. Wooden statues, where limbs could be added and the basic block form was not adhered to, were more animated.
  • The faces are, on the better statues at least, even if often idealized, individual and recognisable.
  • Representations are realistic: relative sizes and positions of body parts are natural, though rarely very individualized. Heads are sometimes too small or too big relative to the body, cf. the Gizeh sphinx or one of the Menkaure statues, feet too big and necks too short.
  • The arms are generally kept close to the body, resting on the thighs in sitting sculptures, hanging down by the side in upright representations. Women when part of a couple, often touch or hug the man, sometimes the embrace is mutual.
  • The body proportions of children, their relative head and limb sizes, are often unnaturally similar to those of adults. Dwarfs seem to have been rendered more faithfully.
  • Sculpted figures are rarely depicted in the nude, though the dresses of women are often unnaturally clinging, revealing as much of the body as they are hiding.
  • In block statues the body of a squatting person is turned into a block of stone, the vertical sides of which are often inscribed. Only the head receives realistic treatment. There are varying degrees of abstraction: Roy's feet are well defined while his arms have merged; the body and limbs of Inebny are completely fused together. Compare these block statues with the statue of Ramses II as a squatting, finger sucking child.
  • The materials statues were made of included clay, wood, copper, bronze, ivory, many kinds of stone, plaster of Paris and paint. Gesso was often used to hide defects in wooden and stone statues.
  • Anthropoid sarcophagi (from the Middle Kingdom onwards) were at first made of wood, later increasingly of stone. They show little individualisation.
  • Funerary masks were generally made of painted carton and in the case of pharaohs, of gold.

Paintings and reliefs

  • In order to be able to show all essential features the human body was depicted as a collection of body parts seen from varying view points.
  • Heads are generally turned right or left, in tombs often facing a divinity, and therefore seen in profile, the eye is always shown in full frontal view, not as disconcerting to us who grew up with cubist pictures as it was to the first Europeans to see this,
  • the shoulders in frontal view, which causes at times awkward depictions of arms when both arms are stretched forward,
  • breasts are shown in profile (cf. Hapi) or in frontal view [1].
  • The lower body is again represented in profile and often shown striding.
  • Limbs, hands and feet had until the Amarna Period the same handedness or perhaps rather no handedness at all. But even under Akhenaten limbs were often represented traditionally.


  • Stereotyped, cartoon-like drawing of contours
  • Characterisation and personalization through inscription rather than likeness.
  • Roman style drawings after the demise of pharaonic Egypt. More lifelike, but still often formulaic and repetitive [2].

Old Kingdom portraiture

3rd Dynasty portraits
4th Dynasty portraits
5th Dynasty portraits
6th Dynasty portraits

Middle Kingdom portraiture

12th Dynasty portraits

New Kingdom portraiture

18th Dynasty portraits, from the beginning of the dynasty until the reign of Akhenaten
18th Dynasty portraits, from the reign of Akhenaten until the end of the dynasty
19th Dynasty portraits

Late Period

25th and 26th dynasty portraits

Graeco-Roman portraits

Roman Period portraits


Picture sources:
[  ] Sculptors Olam hatanakh: Shmot  published by Divrei Hayamim, Tel Aviv
[1] Amarna princesses: MFA (Museum of Fine Arts Boston)

- The stela of the Middle Kingdom artist Irtisen
- Index of Topics
- Main Index and Search Page
Offsie Links (Opening in a new window)
These are just suggestions for further reading. I do not assume any responsibility for the availability or content of these websites
- [2] Proportion and Personality in the Fayum Portraits by A.J.N.W. Prag
- British Museum
- The Louvre
- Artchive
- The George Ortiz collection
- Metropolitan Museum of Art
- MfA Boston
- Cleveland Museum of Art
- North Carolina Museum of Art
- Akhenaten and family
- The Outer Gallery
- Faces of ancient Egypt - Ancient Egyptian Art from the Oriental Institute Museum
- Immortality through art
- Histoire de l'art et archéologie de l'Egypte
- Portrait-Painting in Ancient Egypt from Pharaohs Fellahs and Explorers by Amelia Edwards
- The Origin of Portrait Sculpture, and the History of the "Ka." from Pharaohs Fellahs and Explorers by Amelia Edwards

Feedback: Please report broken links, mistakes - factual or otherwise, etc. to me.Thanks.


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