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Egyptian Art Influences

Still, the expression of a nation's soul does not entirely vanish, and if Egyptian artists were ultimately influenced by the conquering Romans, the Italian[Pg 321] craftsmen came no less surely under the sway of the great Egyptian schools, and, as noted at the outset of this chapter, the Romans inspired much of the work of the Italian masters of the Renaissance, whose output was long regarded as the flower of European art. We find Egyptian influences strong in Spain, for the art of the Nile had cast its potent spell over the Arabs, who at a later date became almost the fathers of the domestic arts in the Iberian peninsula; and so it is with no surprise that, when looking at old Spanish ornaments, we frequently find them bearing a close resemblance to analogous articles made for the belles of Memphis and of Thebes. Nor was France without some more direct Egyptian influence than that which reached her indirectly through Italy. The characteristic art of the French Empire was directly descended from Egyptian art. Under Louis XIV French painting and craftsmanship were ornate and pompous in the extreme, but in the following reign luxury in all departments of life was at a discount. A new simplicity was demanded, and while craftsmen were casting about for patterns suited to this taste, the Comte de Caylus published his monumental work on the antiquities of Greece, Rome, and Egypt, its pages embellished throughout with illustrations from the author's own hand.[2] It speedily kindled inspiration in the minds of numerous artists, and we may place to its credit some of the most tasteful and beautiful furniture ever designed. The Egyptian expedition of Napoleon, too, led to the importation of Egyptian articles, and thenceforth until the eve of Waterloo scarcely a table, chair, or mirror of French manufacture with any claims to artistry but disclosed the influence of the Egyptian schools. Not only were actual shapes[Pg 322] borrowed, but it was quite common to decorate furniture with pseudo-Egyptian statuettes and reliefs, or with brass plaques chased in imitation of parts of Egyptian pictures.

The pseudo-Egyptian craftsmanship of the Empire—so apt an expression of the temper of French thought at that time—may be studied well at Fontainebleau or at Marlborough House in London, while of course it is in evidence in the backgrounds of many Empire pictures, in particular those of Louis David. Indeed, that master himself, the most influential French painter of his day, owed something to the Egyptian school, while a similar debt is suggested by sundry works of the sculptors Chinard and Houdon; and a study of Empire buildings reveals that the architects of the period, mainly devoted though they were to ancient Greece and Rome, were not uninfluenced by the art of the land of the Pharaohs. Nor was this true only of the French architects, for that great Scottish artist in stone, Robert Adam, who died the year the French Republic was established, would seem to have shared the attraction. He often introduced Egyptian objects into his decorative schemes, while the large, imposing simplicity he frequently attained is rich in suggestion of notable Egyptian edifices. The same massive 'Egyptian' simplicity is to be seen in the statuary of the mighty Serb, Ivan Mestrovic, as also in that of the Swede, David Edström. Indeed, it would be wearisome to enumerate all the artists of different nationalities who have clearly been indebted to the genius of Egypt, but we must not conclude without some reference to the influence of the school on the Post-Impressionist painters.


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