A Painted Wooden Egyptian Male Statuette
Period: Old Kingdom, 6th Dynasty (reign of Pepi II, ca. 2278-2184 B.C.)
Material: Stuccoed and painted wood
Dimensions: H: 16.5 cm
Ex-Baron Empain Collection (1852-1929), Belgium.
Complete statuette, with tenons still in place under the feet, but missing the pedestal; surface in excellent condition, traces of stucco. Cracks and minor breaks in the right upper part of the head and body. Remains of black paint (hair, face and edge of the feet).
Seldom seen in Egyptian wooden statuary, this figure was carved from a single block of wood, probably because of its small, almost miniature size. Given the absence of inscription, the name of the figure is unknown. The statuette represents a man, standing in a boldly frontal orientation, his left leg placed forward. He wears a smooth, typical knee-length loincloth, with a triangular apron, which perfectly hugs his buttocks and thighs. His arms hang down along his body, his left hand touching the side of his thigh, while his right hand slightly raises the edge of the apron; this way of positioning the hands is a distinctive feature of figures dated to the late Old Kingdom. A low-slung belt, with a thick knot at the navel, encircles the man’s waist. The man’s face has a smiling expression, largely widespread in contemporary Egyptian representations, with the corners of the mouth slightly raised. Although it is not a real somatic portrait, the features are clearly marked (prominent nose, high cheekbones, full lips, weak chin) and, as often seen in the private iconography of the time, they are differentiated from the images depicting other figures. The short hair covers the head like a smooth, simple skullcap; the locks are not indicated. The ears are large and uncovered. Traces of black paint confi rm that the outline of the eyes, the eyebrows, the pupils and the hair were all painted black. The anatomical details of the body are rendered with delicately modeled shapes and nuances, as seen in the muscles of the chest and of the back marked by the long depression of the spine. The arms are long and thin; the hands are slightly stiff , with lines indicating the fingers. The trace of paint on the feet proves that the pedestal of the statuette (which probably bore the name of the figure) was highlighted in black.
The type and position of this statuette – outstanding for its artistic quality and for its beauty – are a leitmotif of Egyptian sculpture, documented from the 4th Dynasty at least (cf. the famous statues of Menkaure). The proportions are characteristic of Old Kingdom sculpture: high-waisted, with a tall and slender silhouette, long and thin limbs, narrow hips. The closest parallels for this piece date to the reign of Pepi II, (late Old Kingdom). Such images would most often represent a high-level dignitary or a priest; but, even for the humblest classes of society, the funeral furniture could include wooden statuettes. These figures were placed in the serdab, the area specifically reserved for the statues of the deceased, and acted as substitute bodies for the spirit to inhabit; they would also receive the funerary offerings, especially foodstuffs. Wooden sculptures appeared very early in Egyptian art, from the early Historical period onwards; but they were produced in greater numbers as of the Old Kingdom above all. Although wood is a more perishable material than stone, it provided significant advantages; lighter and easier to work with, it would enable the composition of statues made from several elements (arms, legs, feet, loincloth, etc.) that could be assembled later, before the decoration was painted. The limbs thus have a more natural position, separated from the body, while the dorsal pillar (always present in stone works), is no longer necessary; the fi gures would thus become more lively and realistic than those carved in stone.
The rare scientific studies performed on an institutionalized basis (Louvre, Paris) indicate that acacia wood was most often used by Egyptian sculptors. Other woods, especially jujube and fig and sometimes Lebanon cedar and ebony, are also documented.
On some parallels, see:
JEQUIER G., Tombeaux de particuliers contemporains de Pepi II, Cairo, 1929, p. 9, pl. 1.
LAUER J.-P., Découverte du Serdab du Chancelier Icheti à Saqqarah, in Revue d’égyptologie, 7, 1950, pp. 17-18, pl. II.
On contemporary Egyptian sculpture, see:
EATON-KRAUSS M., The Representations of Statuary in Private Tombs of the Old Kingdom, Wiesbaden, 1984.
L’art égyptien au temps des pyramides, Paris, 1999, pp. 100 ff.
VANDIER J., Manuel d’archéologie égyptienne: Tome III, Les grandes époques: La statuaire, Paris, 1958, p. 91 (attitude).
ZIEGLER C., Les statues égyptiennes de l’Ancien Empire, Paris, 1997 (especially pp. 195-203, nos. 55-57).