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: The Egyptian Collection


Minneapolis Institute of Arts



Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
The Egyptian Collection, described in this number of The Bulletin, has been installed in Gallery B7 on the main floor, and is now on public view. The collection was assembled for Anthony J. Drexel, Jr., some twenty years ago by Brugsch Pasha, who was at that time curator of the Cairo museum. The collection was presented by Mr. Drexel in 1895 to the Drexel Institute in Philadelphia. As the collection was unrelated to the rest of the material in the collections of the Drexel Institute, the Trustees were recently authorized by the donor to dispose of it, and our Society, very fortunately, was able to take advantage of this opportunity, making the purchase from the income of the Dunwoody Fund.The collection includes 701 objects, ranging from sculpture and painting to furniture and utensils of daily life. It forms an excellent nucleus for a department to which we hope it will be possible to add from time to time exceptional examples of Egyptian art. This programme, while optimistic, is still not impossible of execution, although the difficulty of securing important specimens of Egyptian art is increasing rapidly. In the meantime, the present collection affords an adequate illustration of the conditions under which art flourished in the ancient land of the Nile, and of the characteristic forms of art expression which were evolved to meet these conditions.It would be out of place in these pages to attempt anything like a comprehensive account of Egyptian history, religion, and customs. The art of Egypt, however, is so associated with the manners and belief of the ancient people that some account, although necessarily brief, appears desirable.Egypt: The LandThe fertile land of Egypt lies between two long, low chains of mountains, which separate it from the rocky deserts. This narrow valley is watered by the River Nile, which annually brings down from Central Africa and the Abyssinian hills a rich silt, and saturates the soil with moisture. The river served as an easy means of communication between the various settlements, fostering commerce and the wide dissemination of culture. From this resulted the homogenous character of Egyptian civilization. Physical conditions also influenced, as one might expect, the evolution of architectural forms. The rarity of certain classes of material, notably wood, led to the development of an extraordinary technical skill on the part of the craftsmen in the handling of such material more readily available as stone and metal.HistoryThe earliest dawn of Egyptian civilization occurred at so remote a period that it is impossible to establish dates with any certainty. About 4000 B.C., some six or seven hundred years before the beginning of the first historical dynasty, a race of primitive people occupied the Nile valley from the Delta through Upper Egypt into Nubia. They possessed many of the essential elements of civilization, and were skilled to some extent in the arts. In time these prehistoric settlers gradually became grouped into a number of town and village communities, each with its local chief, and, toward the close of the pre-dynastic period, had become merged into two kingdoms, one in the Delta, the other in the valley of Upper Egypt, the union of which, under Menes the first historical king of Egypt, marks the beginning of the dynastic period, about 3400 B.C.The first two dynasties, or royal houses, which succeeded the union of the country prepared the way for the first of the great historical epochs, the Old Kingdom (Dynasties II-VI), the age of the pyramid builders, with Memphis the capital. During Dynasties IV and V, the archaic civilization of Egypt reached its culmination. In art the canons of proportions became fixed, the conventions of representation established, and many technical methods fully developed. Old Kingdom art attainted an excellence seldom equalled and never surpassed in the later periods. At the close of the Old Kingdom, there followed a period of political disunion and economic depression.From this dark age, there emerged the next great period of Egyptian history, that of the Middle Kingdom (Dynasties XI and XII). The downfall of the Old Kingdom had been brought about by the ambition of powerful nobles in conflict with centralized authority. Feudalism was still powerful in the Middle Kingdom; but, by playing one great noble against another, the family of Thebes was able to hold the balance of power and to make Thebes the capital and metropolis. The Middle Kingdom (First Theban Period) was one of increased prosperity. The art of this period is marked by a revival of the archaic traditions of the Old Kingdom, and the crafts by a manifestation of great technical skill. Following the Middle Kingdom came another dark age, from Dynasty XIII to XVII, a period of invasion and subjection to the alien rule of the Hyksos, or shepherd kings, Semitic Bedouin of Palestine.With the expulsion of the Hyksos, there commenced the Second Theban Period, that of Egypt's greatest power and most abundant artistic production. This period (Dynasties XVIII-XXI) is known as the Empire. Instead of a government based on feudalism, as in the Middle Kingdom, we now find authority firmly centralized in the monarch. Foreign wars were carried on with great success, notably under Thothmes III, famous conqueror, organizer, and administrator. Foreign conquest brought with it intercourse and trade with other lands, resulting in a period of great economic prosperity and increased luxury. Art was at first traditional in the main, but architectural monuments were larger and more magnificent than in the preceding ages.At the height of the Empire, however, at a time when Egypt required a firm hand and despotic authority, there came to the throne a religious reformer, Akhenaten (Amenhophis IV). By establishing a new religious sect, Akhenaten attempted to destroy the growing power of the Amon priesthood, and, incidentally, to break with their ancient, heiratic traditions of art. He failed, and the domination of the priestly power over Egyptian society gradually became more and more firmly established. With the conquests of Rameses the Great, there followed a brilliant period of seeming prosperity, but the germs of decay were everywhere evident in the state, and with Dynasty XXI the power of the Amon priesthood had become so great that they placed upon the throne members of their own order. The Empire was at an end. The foreign possessions were lost, and Egypt fell prey to Libyan mercenaries and finally foreign conquerors.One again, however, there was to be a revival of national culture and political power. In Dynasty XXVI, we find for the last time native Egyptian monarchs upon the throne. This renaissance is known as the Saite Period, from the capital city of Sais. Art flourished in this period; but largely as a conscious and artificial revival of Old Kingdom traditions, lacking the vitality of the earlier manifestations. The close of Dynasty XXVI came with the conquest of Egypt, in 525 B.C., by the Persians under Cambyses. Hereafter Egypt was never again to gain her freedom, since whatever partial emancipation had been secured during the Persian occupation was ended by the foreign domination of Egypt under the Ptolmeys. In 30 B.C. Egypt became a Roman province. With the Byzantine and Moslem periods, we are not at present concerned. The ancient glory of Egypt had long departed.Chronological TablePre-Dynastic Period
About 4000-3400 B.C.Accession of Menes and Beginning of Egyptian History
3400 B.C.Early Dynastic Period, I and II Dynasties
3400-2980 B.C.Old Kingdom
III Dynasty 2980-2900 B.C.
IV Dynasty 2900-2750 B.C.
V Dynasty 2750-2625 B.C.
VI Dynasty 2625-2475 B.C.Transitional Period
VII-X Dynasties 2475-2160 B.C.Middle Kingdom
XI Dynasty 2160-2000 B.C.
XII Dynasty 2000-1788 B.C.Hyksos Period
XIII-XVII Dynasties 1788-1580 B.C.The Empire
XVIII Dynasty 1580-1315 B.C.
XIX Dynasty 1315-1200 B.C.
XX Dynasty 1200-1090 B.C.
XXI Dynasty 1090-945 B.C.Late Dynastic Period
XXII Dynasty 945-745 B.C.
XXIII Dynasty 745-718 B.C.
XXIV Dynasty 718-712 B.C.
XXV Dynasty 712-663 B.C.Saite Period
XXVI Dynasty 663-525 B.C.Persian Conquest of Egypt
525 B.C.Persian Period
XXVII and XXVIII Dynasties 525-338 B.C.
XXIX Dynasty 398-379 B.C.
XXX Dynasty 378-341 B.C.Ptolemaic Period
332-30 B.C.Roman Period
30 B.C.-364 A.D.Byzantine (Coptic) Period
364-640 A.D.Arab Conquest of Egypt
640 A.D.Referenced Works of Art
  1. The Lady Ta-Chat
  2. Mummy and coffin of the Lady Ta-Chat
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Source: "The Egyptian Collection," <i>The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Bulletin</i> 5, no. 7 (October, 1916): 49-52.
Rights: ©MIA
Added to Site: March 10, 2009