Artist profile: Ancient Egypt – breaking the standard

Every month, I profile an artist that inspires my own art, in several segments.

Aberrations. Experiments. Upheaval.

In over four thousand years of history, you bet there were some departures from the main style. But first, let’s establish just what the canon style of Ancient Egypt was.

Canon grid, image from
image from

The canon solidified in the Old Kingdom (2575 – 2134 BCE). Artists put a grid on the wall using string dipped in paint. Then they drew bodies and such according to the rules: people are 19 squares tall, men’s shoulders are six squares wide, bellybutton at the 11th square etc. Other conventions included the characteristic view of bodies (heads and lower bodies from the side, chests from the front), important people portrayed larger than less-significant people, trim and slim bodies, and women painted with a lighter color than men (who were given a reddish skin tone).


The most well-known departure from the canon was during the reign of Akhenaten, known as the Amarna Period (1353 – 1335 BCE). This style lasted a bit into his son Tutankamun’s reign as well, and asserted itself now and then afterward.

What a nutjob.

Akhenaten was kind of a nutjob. He axed the wide array of gods and goddesses that Egyptians had been worshiping for over a thousand years in favor of one god, Aten. And guess who Aten’s only prophet was? Bing bing bing! If you guessed Akhenaten himself, you are correct! (Egyptians wouldn’t have had a problem adding one more deity to their pantheon, but worshiping no one but Aten? That was a problem.)

What’s fascinating about this new religion is how Akhenaten and his artists decided to portray it visually. Statues of Akhenaten show him having an extremely long face, wide hips, and thick thighs. It’s possible he actually looked like this, but most scholars think his appearance is meant to be symbolic. Speculation abounds as to what he was trying to symbolize with such an odd appearance – fertility? androgyny? Was he trying to embody the sexless (or hermaphroditic) god Aten? Who knows.

It’s obvious that women – or their implied fertility – were important to Akhenaton. Although he did have one son (DNA proves he fathered Tutankamun with an as-yet-unidentified biological sister), he is never depicted with a male child. He is usually shown with his Great Royal Wife Nefertiti, his mother Tiye, and any number of his six daughters. Nefertiti and Tiye usually have rounded abdomens, sometimes with lines to indicate having been pregnant.

Akhenaton, Nefertiti, and two daughters
Akhenaton, Nefertiti, and two daughters

Several family scenes show Akhenaten with Nefertiti and their daughters, in which the two adults are portrayed similarly (sometimes only their crowns indicate which is which). These family scenes stand out from the canon in that they show children at play and familial affection.

I think this short span of breaking the standard is pretty cool – both how it looks and because Akhenaten had the (nutjobby) moxie to mess up such a well-established style.

Endnote 1: the curviness of the serving girl figurine that I saw at the Cleveland Museum of Art makes a bit more sense if we consider that she was carved during or after the Amarna Period.

Endnote 2: Between Akhenaten and Tutankamun, there were two pharaohs. The first was Smenkhkare, who was probably Akhenaten’s younger brother, and the second was Neferneferuaten, who was likely one of Akhenaten’s older daughters.

Other parts in the Ancient Egyptian artist profile series
Visit to the Cleveland Museum of Art



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