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Art Through Time: A Global View

The Body Art: Amenhotep IV (Akhenaten) and Nefertiti

» Unknown artist, Tell el-Amarna, Egypt

Amenhotep IV (Akhenaten) and Nefertiti

Amenhotep IV (Akhenaten) and Nefertiti
Artist / Origin: Unknown artist, Tell el-Amarna, Egypt
Region: Africa
Date: New Kingdom, Amarna Period, 1345–1337 BCE
Period: 3000 BCE – 500 BCE
Material: Painted limestone
Medium: Sculpture
Dimensions: H: 8 3.4 in. (22.2 cm.), W: 4 3/4 in. (12.3 cm.), D: 3 7/8 in. (9.8 cm.)
Location: Musée du Louvre, Paris, France
Credit: Courtesy of Giraudon/ Bridgeman Art Library International

This statuette depicting the pharaoh Amenhotep IV (later called Akhenaten) and his queen, Nefertiti, exemplifies the unique developments that took place in Egyptian art of the Amarna Period.

Up to this point, Egyptian representations of the human body had, over the course of a millennium, changed very little. The ideal form of the king or pharaoh was an angular one that emphasized physical strength, as well as youth. The new style of art drained the body of its robust muscularity. The pharaoh’s body (and those who followed his model) was now soft and round, with sloped shoulders, a protruding belly, an ample breast, and heavy thighs. The bodies of Amenhotep and Nefertiti shown here are much closer to one another in form than are those of men and women from other periods. The Amarna Period also introduced new levels of intimacy and informality to artwork. Shows of familial affection, such as the joined hands of king and queen seen here, appeared in Egyptian art for the first time. Other works of the period are notable for the relaxed poses of the individuals depicted.

Many theories have been put forth to explain the rather sudden and short-lived shift in aesthetic preference in Amarna art. But whatever the reason or reasons, it is clear that this was but one of a number of cultural changes initiated by Amenhotep IV, whose reign lasted from circa 1353 to 1336 BCE. Perhaps the most radical reform advanced by the pharaoh was the introduction of monotheism to Egypt. Abandoning the traditional panoply of gods worshipped by those who came before him, Amenhotep devoted himself to just one god—Re. Unlike traditional representations of gods in Egypt, which were anthropomorphic, in Amarna Period representations of Re appears consistently as a solar disc, called the Aten. Amenhotep’s decision to change his name to Akhenaten, meaning “servant of the Aten,” reflects his commitment to Re; it also emphasized the special bond that pharaohs of Egypt were believed to have with the divine. Cartouches of the sun god, Akhenaten, and Nefertiti on the back of the statuette allude to this strong connection between gods and rulers. Small pieces such as this one have been discovered in excavations of houses of the period. Some scholars believe that these were intended for household shrines dedicated to the king and queen as representatives of the supreme sun deity.

Expert Perspective
Deborah Vischak, Lecturer of Art and Archaeology, Princeton University

“The reason that art in many periods looks quite carefully similar to what came before or the changes tend to be rather gradual or subtle is very intentional. It’s not the result of not knowing what else to do. They’re purposely trying to maintain consistency with everything that came before—stability, the glory of Egypt, the appeasing the gods. And so maintaining the image tradition is part of doing that. So you come to a ruler like Akhenaten who is less interested in tradition and more interested in change and is quite radical—establishes an entirely new capital city, tries to create this whole new religious structure. It would be, I think, quite unusual, or quite surprising if the art did not shift to show the changes in the society and the religion and the culture that were occurring there. The idea that he would maintain the image system in the exact form while changing everything else is sort of not understanding what the image system is there to do.The reason that art in many periods looks quite carefully similar to what came before or the changes tend to be rather gradual or subtle is very intentional. It’s not the result of not knowing what else to do. They’re purposely trying to maintain consistency with everything that came before—stability, the glory of Egypt, the appeasing the gods. And so maintaining the image tradition is part of doing that. So you come to a ruler like Akhenaten who is less interested in tradition and more interested in change and is quite radical—establishes an entirely new capital city, tries to create this whole new religious structure. It would be, I think, quite unusual, or quite surprising if the art did not shift to show the changes in the society and the religion and the culture that were occurring there. The idea that he would maintain the image system in the exact form while changing everything else is sort of not understanding what the image system is there to do.”

Additional Resources

“Egyptian Antiquities: The New Kingdom, ca. 1550 – 1069 BC.” Louvre Museum Web site. http://www.louvre.fr.

Malek, Jaromir. Egyptian Art (Art and Ideas). London: Phaidon, 1999.

Robins, Gay. Art of Ancient Egypt, revised edition. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008.

Robins, Gay. Proportion and Style in Ancient Egyptian Art. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1994.

Silverman, David, ed. Ancient Egypt. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.

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Produced by THIRTEEN in association with WNET.ORG. 2009.
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