Updated: Sep 10, 2022
Type 'ancient Egyptian art' into Google and you'll get over 72 million hits, so knowing where to find the really useful information is a real challenge. I've compiled a reading list on a variety of topics which will help you start interpreting art for yourself. There are also some tips for getting started, so you can direct your interest and not get too overwhelmed!
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Tips for getting started
Understand how the grid system and proportions were employed to create art
Learn to recognise gods, goddesses, and religious symbols
Have a basic grasp of the meaning of hieroglyphics
Explore the work of the scholars and artists who have specialised in ancient Egyptian art
Explore the online collections in museums across the world and follow your curiosity
Gods, Goddesses and Religious Symbolism
Much of the ancient Egyptian art we find so fascinating comes from religious or funerary sites, so a working knowledge of the common gods, goddesses and symbols is invaluable. The internet is a minefield of misinformation, myth and modern retellings, so investing in a good encyclopaedia from a trustworthy source is really important.
In my opinion, The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt by Richard Wilkinson (2003) is the go-to book when it comes to getting the detailed information you need. This comprehensive dictionary features hundreds of gods and goddesses and covers all aspects of their evolution, worship, depiction, symbolism, and mythology. The reason it's so good is that it contains information on really obscure deities and myths which you won't come across in the usual top-10 lists or Wikipedia pages.
Hieroglyphs are symbolic pieces of art in themselves, so being able to recognise signs is a great way to interpret art because the same pictorial language is being used.
A brilliant little book to get started with is Reading Egyptian Art: A Hieroglyphic Guide to Ancient Egyptian Painting and Sculpture by Richard Wilkinson (1994). It takes the most commonly used hieroglyphic signs, explains their origin and use and gives examples of them being used on real objects and monuments. Without being able to translate hieroglyphics, you will be able to begin ‘reading’ pieces of art and understand its general meaning.
Learning an ancient language is a long process, but it is possible to get to a basic level quite quickly, and incredibly rewarding. If you want to take that first step, I'd recommend Egyptian Hieroglyphs for Complete Beginners: The Revolutionary New Approach to Reading the Monuments by Bill Manley (2012).
I'm not a natural linguist and struggled with other teach-
yourself texts, but found this book perfectly pitched and highly enjoyable to work through. It spends a few chapters giving you the basics of signs and sounds, using monuments and objects so you get the thrill of translating something real. It slowly builds up the lessons, with more complex inscriptions, but has easy-to-do exercises at each stage. It's aimed at those who want to be able to apply their knowledge practically by translating common phrases and texts seen in museums or online.
Another option is How to Read Egyptian Hieroglyphs: A step-by-step guide to teach yourself by Mark Collier and Bill Manley (2nd edition 2010). This is one of the most recommended books you'll see and with good reason, it's another great primer and provides a comprehensive course in reading and translating, with a reference section of sign lists and a short dictionary at the end.
Understanding the Grid System and Proportions
For those who really want to delve deep into the maths behind the squared grid systems used by the ancient artists to proportion standing, sitting and kneeling human figures, Proportion and style in ancient Egyptian art by Gay Robins (1993) is a must-have. Her exhaustive study of art provided the first chronological account of proportional variations in male and female figures from the Early Dynastic to the Ptolemaic period. It also demonstrated that far from being a static art form mimicked over millennia, innovation and stylistic variation always played a significant role in ancient Egyptian art.
Learn From the Specialists
Explore the work of the people who have specialised in the study of ancient Egyptian art:
Delve into the work of illustrators and travellers whose own reproductions have preserved many of the sites lost or damaged. Of the many hundreds of unsung heroes, there are a few stand-out artists whose work is worth exploring:
(Henri) Édouard Naville (1844-1926)
Amice Mary Calverley (1896-1959)
Howard Carter (1874-1939)
Sir John Gardner Wilkinson (1797-1875)
Nina de Garis Davies (1881-1965)
Nora Griffith (1870-1937)
Norman de Garis Davies (1865-1941)
Ancient Egyptian Art
Reading Egyptian Art: A Hieroglyphic Guide to Ancient Egyptian Painting and Sculpture by Richard H. Wilkinson (1994)
The Art of Ancient Egypt by Gay Robins (2008)
Proportion and style in ancient Egyptian art by Gay Robins (1993)
Art Styles by Period
Predynastic: Dawn of Egyptian Art by Diana Craig Patch (2012)
Old Kingdom: Egyptian Art In The Age Of The Pyramids by James Allen (1999)
The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt by Richard H. Wilkinson (2003)
How to Read Egyptian Hieroglyphs: A step-by-step guide to teach yourself by Mark Collier and Bill Manley (2nd edition 2010)