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Ancient Egypt's anonymous art

This ancient Egyptian painted limestone sculpture was bought by the Detroit Institute of Arts half a century ago, and no more is known about it today than was known about it then. It is impossible to know who the man - or the sculptor - was. Such dearth of knowledge is part and parcel with the nature of most old Egyptian art.

This is simply a "Seated Man" - a fairly common type found in tombs from the Old Kingdom (ca. 2700-2200 BC) - without an inscription to say who he was. William Peck, the curator of ancient art at the institute, says this piece was purchased through the art market, and the dealer provided no provenance. Mr. Peck describes the figure as "a middle-ranking official." Its function, according to Egyptian belief about 2400 years BC, was to be a replacement body for the departed.

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The art of the ancient Egyptians must be understood on its own terms. Peck points out they had no words for "art" or "artist."

In Western art since the Renaissance, the artist's individual vision has been highly valued. Michelangelo or Rubens, for example, were treated as geniuses by the popes and princes who patronized them. But if these artists had worked by the Nile in the time of the pharaohs, they would have been nameless paid workmen. They might have had recorded names if they had climbed the bureaucratic ladder and become administrators.

Egyptian sculptors were required to balance the real with the ideal. In fact, this seated man is more ideal than real. He is certainly not a portrait in our sense of the word. He is a static symbol, based on long-established conventions. He is what Egyptian art historian William Stevenson Smith called "a kind of diagram of a thing as man knew it to be, not as it appears to the eye under transitory circumstances."


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