Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

Egyptian Revival

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  • The Egyptian Revival, like the Gothic and Classical Revival styles, was popular in American decorative arts throughout the nineteenth century, continuing into the 1920s. The major motifs of Egyptian art, such as obelisks, hieroglyphs, the sphinx, and pyramids, were used in various artistic media, including architecture, furniture (68.207a,b), ceramics, and silver. Egyptian motifs provided an exotic alternative to the more traditional styles of the day. Over the course of the nineteenth century, American tastes evolved from a highly ornamented aesthetic to a simpler, sparer sense of decoration; the vocabulary of ancient Egyptian art would be interpreted and adapted in different ways depending on the standards and motivations of the time.


    The vocabulary of ancient Egyptian art would be interpreted and adapted in different ways depending on the standards and motivations of the time.

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    After Napoleon's Egyptian campaign of 1798–9, teams of artists and scientists were employed to catalogue the sights and new discoveries. The first volumes of Le Description de l'Egypte (The Description of Egypt), published in 1809, had large folio prints of various Egyptian scenes, including the pyramids and other antiquities (531D451Q). The second edition of this archaeological text, issued in 1830, and the translation of the Rosetta Stone in 1822 sparked further interest in Egyptian art and culture in both Europe and America. Monumental Egyptian-inspired sculpture had been erected throughout Paris in the ten years after Napoleon's invasion. The first wave of Egyptian Revival in the United States was primarily architectural, including buildings such as Benjamin Henry Latrobe's original Library of Congress (1808) and the Washington Monument (begun in 1848), in addition to many examples of Egyptian-inspired cemetery and funerary architecture. Many of these more literally inspired Egyptian Revival objects share the stiff formality common to Egyptian antiquities. Decorative objects from this first wave are relatively rare; architecture kept interest in ancient Egyptian culture alive as the iconography catalogued by artists and scientists began to filter down to the decorative arts closer to the end of the nineteenth century (24.66.438).


    The second wave of the Egyptian Revival style in America began around 1870. After the Civil War, Americans became interested in other cultures and, among other countries, most notably Japan, looked to the Middle East and North Africa for inspiration. The taste for Orientalism and exoticism was manifested in various decorative arts, perhaps most obviously in furniture. Much Egyptian Revival furniture is marked by the combination of Egyptian motifs and symbols with more traditional Western forms, particularly the classical. In this pseudo-Egyptian style, common core structures are embellished with details such as gilt bronze fittings shaped like sphinxes, Egyptian scenes woven into textiles, and geometric renderings of plants such as palm fronds. There is no known complete large parlor set of Egyptian Revival furniture, meaning pieces produced by companies like Pottier & Stymus were likely intended as accents in rooms of traditional furnishings (1970.35.1-.2).


    In addition to adorning architecture and furniture, Egyptian motifs were also used in the smaller decorative arts. As a result of continued academic publications from archaeological expeditions, the sphinx, the pyramid, and hieroglyphics became commonly known iconographical forms, all of which can be seen on Tiffany & Co.'s intricately ornamented mantel clock, which was once owned by Charles, father of Louis Comfort Tiffany (68.97.4-.6). Continued archaeological investigation led to constant new discoveries of antiquities in Egypt—events like the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 and the excavation of Tell El-Amarna in 1887 kept Egypt in the press, while artistic accomplishments such as Giuseppe Verdi's opera Aida, first performed in 1871, captured the public's imagination. While orientalist themes and subjects were common in painting and sculpture, Egyptian iconography was generally translated into the decorative arts, as the highly stylized aesthetic meshed well with everyday objects like ceramics and silver (2005.10), as well as jewelry.


    In addition to the more overtly Egyptian-influenced forms, there were also geometric patterns and references to organic and plant forms (1978.10.1). As more literal translations of ancient Egyptian art passed out of style, designers began adopting these more artistic motifs. In 1905, when Louis Comfort Tiffany built his home Laurelton Hall, in Oyster Bay, New York, much of the decoration was indebted to the orientalist and Egyptian Revival movements. Lotus blossoms and reeds are juxtaposed with geometric mosaics in the capitals from the house's loggia. These columns display the appropriation of Egyptian forms by modern decorative movements. This looser adaptation of the vocabulary of Egyptian antiquities represents a taste for eclecticism at the turn of the century. Heterogeneous monuments, such as Laurelton Hall, unified the language of multiple revival styles into a single artistic form. Although the motifs are not purely Egyptian, the overall aesthetic is reminiscent of Egyptian styles.


    At the turn of the century, various styles in the decorative arts became popular, such as the Aesthetic, Arts and Crafts, and Art Nouveau movements. However, Egyptian motifs still appeared occasionally in the decorative arts, such as the geometric embellishment and palm leaves in Marie Zimmermann's unique jewelry and decorative work (2005.464). There would not be another major period of Egyptomania, as scholars now refer to these periods of obsession with Egyptian antiquities, until the discovery of King Tutankhamun's tomb in 1922, after which Egyptian influences pervaded modern culture. Egyptian motifs would become an integral part of the language of Art Deco, a style that would dominate the decorative arts until the mid-1930s.

    Sara Ickow
    Institute of Fine Arts, New York University