ANCIENT EGYPT IN AMERICA
BY MRS. SCHUYLER VAN RENSSELAER
The tremendous ploughshares of the French Revolution, rooting out and burying many time honoured things, upturned into the light of day others long forgotten, unregarded, or misprized. Thanks to the guiding hand of General Bonaparte, one of these recoveries was the art of ancient Egypt. The French occupation of the Nile country lasted less than three years, yet it bore immediate and splendid fruit in the encyclopaedic work called Description de I'Egypte. Other explorations, other great illustrated books, soon followed. England was awakened to interest by important collections taken from the French when they surrendered at Alexandria in 1801. Travelling savants and wealthy tourists began to bring home works of art. So did more or less commercially minded "antiquity hunters", exploring the sand shrouded temples, entering the Pyramids, discovering hidden tombs. The most successful of these was the Italian Belzoni, who worked partly on his own account, partly as agent for Henry Salt, the British consul-general at Cairo. Publishing the story of his adventures and exhibiting some of his finds in London in 189.0, Belzoni figured for a time as a popular hero. Many of Salt's acquisitions were bought for the British Museum in 1823, others by the King of France for the Louvre. In 1824 Champollion made known his great achievement, the reading of the hieroglyphs. In 1836 the obelisk of Ramses the Great was set up on the Place de la Concorde in Paris, and soon the collections and the writings of Lepsius, and Wilkinson's books of a more popular kind, were spreading in Germany and in England the new knowledge of a civilization in regard to which Herodotus had remained for twenty-three centuries the chief authority.
Nor was America untouched by this new knowledge. Many American travelers must have examined the collections rapidly growing in European cities, while the most indifferent could not escape acquaintance with some of the elements of Egyptian art as they had affected, especially in the designing of furniture, the development in France of the style of the First Empire. Not until near the middle of the century were the products of this style wholly submerged by successive waves of nondescript forms and patterns. So in old-fashioned American houses may still be seen beautiful pieces of Empire furniture brought home in the 'thirties and 'forties, and also a variety of articles de Paris modeled--at long distance! -upon Egyptian suggestions: little marble sphinxes, sarcophagi, and obelisks adorned with make-believe hieroglyphic inscriptions, which served as thermometers, inkstands, paper-weights, or "mantel ornaments". And every self-respecting American bookcase then contained at least one book on Egypt--Sir Gardiner Wilkinson's Manners and Customs of the Ancient Egyptians, first published in 1837.
But this was not all. More Americans than might be supposed visited Egypt; a number of them wrote books about it, two of which are still remembered,--Prime's Boat Life in Egypt and Nubia and Curtis's delightful Nile Notes of a Howadji,--and some of them brought home valuable antiquities for the benefit, as it" has proved, of the public of today. The earliest of these was a Colonel Cohen of Baltimore, who believed that in 1882 he had been the first to carry up the Nile the flag of the United States. His collection, which contained a part of Henry Salt's, was not exhibited until 1884, when it was given by his heirs to Johns Hopkins University. But even before his day mummies had been more than once shown to our public. Between 1842 and 1850 George Gliddon, an Englishman whose father had acted as the first consul of the United States in Cairo, lectured here on Egypt with the aid of objects of art and of paintings enlarged from one of the great illustrated books. A volume of his lectures, printed in New York in 1843, had by 1847 run through fifteen editions, each of several thousand copies.
Of course all this does not mean that any real knowledge of Egyptian art was spread abroad in our far-off country when it had as yet no help from museums of art or even from photography. Nevertheless there was interest enough, in America as in England, to show in the designing of many important buildings. Most of them, like Egyptian Hall in London, where Belzoni's collections were displayed, were grotesque, ridiculous travesties of Egyptian precedents. Much better were two of those in 'New York--the detention prison so commonly called the Tombs that it bequeathed the name to its successor on the same site, and the distributing reservoir on Fifth Avenue where the Public Library now stands. The architect of the one, finished in 1838, was John Haviland; the other, into which the water was turned in 1842, is thought to have been designed by the chief engineer of the Croton aqueduct, John Bloomfield Jervis, to whose credit High Bridge is also put. It is a pity, that the Tombs and the reservoir outlived their usefulness, for as the best results of a passing phase of popular taste they had a certain historic value, and they were not travesties but frank and simple adaptations which served their purpose well and did not displease the mind or the eye.
On the other hand, many of our eastern cities and towns contain, or used to contain, would-be Egyptian buildings which anyone might rejoice to see destroyed, or buildings, even churches, in which pseudo-Egyptian and pseudo-Greek features were very queerly combined. They seem all to have antedated the Civil War, but since then Egyptian motives have often been used in cemetery gateways and monuments, recommended by their solidity and gravity of air and by the close connection of Egyptian art with the memory of the dead.
It was just before the Civil War that for the first time an American institution acquired an Egyptian collection--a very valuable one of more than 9,000 objects, much the finest yet brought to this country and the first to be exhibited here. Formed by an Englishman, Dr. Henry Abbott, during a residence of twenty years in Egypt, it was shown in New York in 1853, and in 1860 was bought by a popular subscription in which many noted men of other cities joined, and given to the New York Historical Society. Unfortunately there was then no museum of art where it might have been more appropriately placed and better cared for. As many experts--Lepsius, Prisse d'Avennes, Wilkinson, and Poole among them--had given Dr. Abbott aid and advice, the existence and the value of -his collection were remembered in Europe. But in America, confusedly shown in over-crowded cases, uninstructively catalogued, and housed in a building which could not be visited without a permit, it lay for many years in a truly Egyptian darkness of oblivion. Even if a New Yorker remembered it, he could tell little more about it than that it contained certain mummied bulls reputed to be the only ones in existence. Yet from time to time other early collections came to keep it company. In 1908 the Society moved into a new building which it opened to the public, and in 1917 it put its Egyptian treasures in the hands of an expert for proper care, display, and explanation.
The long neglect of these treasures was one of the signs that the interest excited by the opening of the ancient land to Modern eyes had died down. More and more tourists were, indeed "going up the Nile, " but for the sake of health or the pleasures of travel rather than the study of antiquity. Even after the establishment of our museums of art interest revived but slowly. The first of them to give hospitality to ancient Egypt was the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, which in 1872 acquired by gift more than a thousand objects gathered early in the century by a Scotch collector--the nucleus of a collection which is now surpassed in this country only by the possessions of the Metropolitan Museum in New York. Close to the Metropolitan the obelisk of Thutmose III was erected in 1881. In 1889 the English traveler, Amelia B. Edwards, lectured here on Egypt--how successfully anyone will know who has read her book, A Thousand Miles up the Nile, still the best one, graphic, alluring, and illuminating, to prepare a tourist to enjoy his voyage. During the eighteen-nineties two American universities, Harvard and Chicago, began to offer instruction in Egyptology. And in 1899 the first American exploring expedition was sent out--by Mrs. Phoebe Hearst for the benefit of the University of California.
Public and private collections were now growing and multiplying. The Metropolitan Museum began its purchases of Egyptian material in 1886, although not until 1906 did it create that Egyptian department which has developed with a rapidity astonishing to anyone who does not know why, in recent years, there have been better chances to acquire Egyptian works of art than those of many nearer lands and times. During these years the Government of Egypt has both stimulated and regulated exploration by granting to responsible institutions and individuals from other countries exclusive rights in certain selected places, all valuable finds to be divided between the explorers and the museum at Cairo. Under these conditions several American universities and museums have year after year kept their own expeditions in the field, while others have contributed to the cost of similar English undertakings and shared in the rewards. Generous persons have furthered this work, and others have conducted, under expert guidance, very successful explorations. By these private as well as corporate enterprises many of our museum and colleges have profited, as also by frequent and important gifts from friends who found their chance when valuable antiquities came into the market.
Meanwhile American Egyptologists, although still too few in number, have taken rank with the most accomplished; notably, by virtue of his writings as well as his explorations, Dr. Breasted of the University of Chicago, and Dr. Reisner who, working for the Boston Museum and Harvard University, has recovered from the veiling yet preserving sand the history of Ethiopia, at one time the vassal, at another time the overlord, of Egypt.
I should like to show how rich America now is in the multiform artistic products of ancient Egypt. And I should like to point out their special interest for the lover of art, their purely aesthetic significance. But I want still more to comment upon a certain peculiar importance that they have for the public at large, pertain fundamental, elementary lessons that they teach more distinctly and more emphatically than could the assembled products of any other land.
They had already attracted popular attention in large measure before Tut-ankh-amen's spectacular resurrection drew upon ancient Egypt the eyes of all the world. At the Metropolitan, for example, the fourteen Egyptian rooms have of late years been more frequented than any others excepting the picture galleries. Of course not every visitor has been allured by the hope of aesthetic gratification. With the majority the chief magnet has undoubtedly been not the merits and charms of Egyptian art as such but the engaging loquacity with which it tells of a long dead civilization--of the daily habits and pursuits, the mortuary customs, and the singular religion of a people so ancient that we can see no other beyond it. Nowhere else did a peculiar physical environment so mould the character of a civilization as in Egypt, or so promote an extraordinary national longevity, or preserve in such mass and variety the major and minor products of its arts and industries. 11oreover, nowhere else have the arts both served and recorded the life of the people, of all classes of the people, as fully as in Egypt. For these reasons this phase of art reveals to us more clearly than any other a phase of man's life in the far past. To want to get a general idea of the story thus carried through successive millenniums of time, and vivid glimpses of many bits of it, is not, as I have shown, primarily an aesthetic desire. But none the less it is a legitimate and a laudable desire, and to gratify it as far as possible is a legitimate and laudable aim in a museum of art, especially as an eventual appreciation of artistic values may thus be promoted.
A different way of thinking, I know, may prevail in a museum. The products of Egyptian hands differ much in quality, even when they date from the height of one of those great artistic periods that were separated from each other by long lapses of unproductive years. All kinds of things for all kinds of men and women, living and dead, were not made with the same expenditure of material, time, and skill. There were perfect things and makeshift things, costly things and cheap ones, things for the use of Pharaohs and of peasants, things made by humble artisans, by better equipped purveyors of what has been called "commercial imagery", and by amazingly accomplished artists, some of whom, as we know, bore the titles of great court functionaries. Moreover, there seem always to have been in different parts of the land contemporaneous schools of art of unequal ability. Therefore it may be thought permissible and desirable to segregate the finest things of important kinds and relegate all others to background places where the studious and the curious may seek them out. But there are great objections to such a plan.
In the first place, to say of Egyptian things fine and poor does not mean that vast difference in conception, in aim, in fundamental character, which the same words may imply if used of our own products. If we compare our own creditable works of art with the useful things offered generally in our shops-furniture, for instance, china ware, table silver, not to speak of humbler objects of household utility--we find no point of relationship. The two classes of things differ so greatly, in kind and in quality, that they hardly seem to have been made for the same race of men. But in ancient Egypt, as in all the old artistic lands, there was an integral connection between all the works of men's hands. Nothing was made simply to he set up and looked at for the sake of its beauty; everything was made to be of use, actually or symbolically, to the living or the dead; but, on the other hand, everything was made with a wish for beauty in the result. All things were inspired by the same ideas, ideals, intentions. All show the same principles of design, the same choice of motives and patterns, the same kind of taste; only they vary in complete ness of expression, in excellence of execution, as money or as skm abounded or lacked. Therefore the best and the poorest are united by so many intermediate grades that it is impossible to separate logically, satisfactorily, along any definite line of kind or of quality, what is of artistic value and what is simply of archeological interest. This is all the more true because among the most utilitarian little objects we may find a very gem of art and among the rudest objects we may chance upon one which suggests the character of admirable things that we do not possess-- for despite the marvelous generosity of the land of the Nile we have, of course, only a fragmentary, accidental selection from the riches it once owned. In short, to try to set apart Egyptian works of "fine art" from all others is to tear to pieces the fabric of a great national legacy that has been almost miraculously preserved for us and, so doing, to impair its exceptional value to teach a fundamental truth which our modern world has almost forgotten in theory and quite forgotten in practice. This is the truth that art should be considered not a source of luxury, pleasure, or "culture " for the few, but a necessary food for the eye, the mind, and the spirit of all men and, therefore, should concern it self with the lowliest as well as the loftiest tasks.
This, then, is the first great lesson that our large Egyptian collections can teach our public. But they can teach it only by a close association of the various kinds of things recovered from a given time, fully and instructively labeled, and supplemented by' photographs, copies, and casts of illuminative objects elsewhere preserved. Only in this way can a museum collection suggest the character of the life of that time and the part that the artist played in it; and only such a suggestion can attract many eyes to an art which in its more important manifestations is so different from all others, so alien to our own ideas and practices, and in some respects so puzzling as the art of Egypt. Anyone may test, this for himself by visiting, for example, the populous rooms at the Metropolitan and then those of a museum where the segregating method has been adopted with the wish to concentrate attention upon the finest products of the "fine arts". Probably no one will deny that to attract the public must be the first step toward informing it and awakening its latent aesthetic sensibilities. And year by year there are fewer who deny that this should be the aim of a great museum, especially in a land which lacks the widespread artistic inheritances of the elder world--an aim which I need hardly explain, does not exclude that desire to serve the serious student and the already accomplished amateur of art which until recent times was thought the whole duty of man as a museum administrator.
Another important lesson that may he taught by an Egyptian collection better than by any other is a lesson in the meaning of beautiful workmanship. It is taught, of course, with more or less emphasis by the products of every country to which a museum opens its doors, but by those of no other in such diversified ways as by the legacies of Egypt or, in regard to certain kinds of work, with such supreme authority. This people, which had no forerunners to encourage or instruct it, which knew nothing of precept or precedent, but was its own inspirer, teacher, and critic, seems to have been born--no, very evidently was born--not only with a great gift for ornamental design but with an extraordinary supply of that combination of ingenuity, manual dexterity, and patience which is the endowment of the master-craftsman.
Even in prehistoric times, Neolithic times, this endowment gave proof of itself, for it was in the Valley of the Nile that were most beautifully, most perfectly wrought those weapons and tools of chipped flint which in many quarters of the globe served primitive man before he learned to use the metals. With these we may begin our museum survey. Then from the early historic times that we call archaic, long before the days of the pyramid builders, when copper implements had come into use and the bow drill and the stone-borer had been invented, we shall find large vessels of so hard a stone, or of alabaster so translucently thin, that a modern workman with modern tools would not care to try to imitate them. And from the time of the pyramid builders we find, on the walls of tomb chambers, mural sculptures in low relief of most precise and skilful workmanship. And so it is as we follow craftsman after craftsman through the long, long centuries--the potter, the weaver, the basket-maker, the carver on a small scale in wood or ivory, stone, or shell, all of whom did admirable work even in prehistoric times, the workers in gold, in silver, in bronze, enamel, in glass, and the great artists who raised magnificent colonnades with floriated capitals and statues of colossal size, and lined the walls of huge temples with complicated carved and painted pictures. Everywhere we find an admirable and sometimes an unequaled skill of hand, even in the making of garlands and collars of natural flowers and leaves more delicately elaborate than any other people ever devised.
In a large portrait head of very hard stone the modeling may he too much summarized to be properly appreciated by an inexperienced eye, but it is none the less right on that account and is all the more remarkable. And if the generalized, conventionalized treatment of other parts of the body, notably the hands and feet, may seem inadequate, incompetence is not the explanation. Who could use this term to explain, for example the succinctly modeled hands of the great alabaster statue of King Mycerinus, in Boston, when he notes that they rest upon knees truthfully and delicately modeled in all those subtile details which make them harder to render than hands? But why the discrepancy? This is one of the problems-they are many!--which add interest to the study of Egyptian art.
But while we are looking for examples of beautiful workman ship we need not concern ourselves with problems. We need only mark the way in which the Egyptian sculptor could perfectly accomplish tasks of the most disparate kinds--the knees of a statue larger than life, gigantic heads carved from the living rock, such as those of Ramses II at Abu Simbel which many pictures have shown us, elaborate ceremonial scenes in very low relief like those from the memorial temple of Ramses I at Ahydos, which are prime treasures of the Metropolitan collection, or a lily-shaped cup, a statuette a couple of inches in height, a tiny amulet or seal, a bead of glass or stone or gold, a row of hieroglyphic signs in each of which we may take delight as in a precious little object of art.
The work of the painter has, of course, been less abundantly preserved than the work of the sculptor to which, especially in the earlier periods, it was held subordinate. Yet in wall paintings and steles, in mummy cases and coffins, we have a great deal of it, often in its pristine freshness. There could hardly be better examples of the tasteful and dexterous use of colour in intricate little patterns than we may see on certain great wooden coffins recently acquired by the Boston Museum.
Considering all these varied things, we find another reason why with the very best others less excellent should be shown us. It is the eye that we are educating, and the eye learns chiefly by making comparisons. So, to take one example, it may most surely learn to value the exquisitely modeled heads of some of those little figures, most often of blue-glazed faience, which are called ushebtis ("responders", servants buried with the dead man to answer his call and act as his substitutes if onerous tasks are laid upon him), when it can. compare them with others varying through many lessening degrees of accomplishment to rudely modeled specimens where the features are indicated by touches of black paint.
Even Egypt could not ensure long life to works of art in the precious metals. Into the melting-pot of its conquerors, its tomb robbers, or its needy citizens went sooner or later incalculable treasures of gold and silver, electrum and bronze. Yet hosts of minor ones survive statuettes, small articles of use, and jewelry often of the finest quality.
Jewelry, we say, but the term is misleading, for we cannot escape from its suggestion of that modern jewelry which, with its subordination of the metal work to a profusion of sparkling diamonds and of coloured gems mistakenly cut in facets in the hope that they will sparkle too, seems almost as trivial and meretricious as Christmas tree gauds in comparison with the beautifully designed and chiselled, richly yet soberly coloured, sumptous yet dignified ornaments that Egyptian men and women wore. For these, goldsmith's work- is a truer term than jewelry, all the more because the Egyptians had none of our gems but only what we call semi-precious stones and, moreover, did some of their most beautiful work in gold alone. Scarcely any museum can be with out some small specimens, but in Cairo is the largest store of great ones and, next to Cairo, in New York.
Here the chief group of them includes the ornaments worn in life by the Princess Sat-hathor-iunut, whose tomb lies near the pyramid of her father, Sesostris II, at Lahun in the Fayoum. Dating back to about the year 1900 B. C., more than five centuries before the days of Tut-ankh-amen, they come from the best period for such work, the period called the Middle Kingdom.
"So many of them seem to be chiefly beads," said, rather slightingly, someone who had not yet seen but had only read about them. Yes--but, as we commonly use them, the pearls we so highly value are beads. And even the glass beads that the Egyptians of the later periods made are little works of art, delicately striped and figured, while these Middle Kingdom beads are variously and beautifully shaped of precious materials-lapis lazuli, giving a fine dark blue, turquoise, pale blue-green feldspar, coral red cornelian, purple amethyst, and very yellow gold. The clear, quiet, yet rich and strong colour thus achieved, 1 may add, was enhanced by the lack of colour- in the garments it was worn with, and its sumptuousness by their scantiness. Men and women alike, these Egyptians of high rank dressed chiefly in thin white linen, and a little of it often sufficed them.
The most splendid of the princess's possessions is a great girdle with elongated gold ornaments in the shape of cowrie shells separated by rows of rhombic beads of three colours; the most delicate are bracelets formed of many strands of little beads disposed in gold bordered panels; the most precious and lovely is a pectoral of gold and polychrome enamel, an openwork design with the oval containing the name of Sesostris II supported by two great fal cons. It was made as are the cloisonne enamels that we all know, but with bits of precious stones instead of fused pastes, and on the back- is elaborately and delicately engraved. But in any of these adornments of Pharaoh's daughter, in others from other periods which are scarcely less wonderful, and in many minor things wrought in the precious metals, we may study in variety the very perfection of human handiwork.
These, then, are two important lessons which the public at large, which even an eye not yet trained to seek and appreciate purely aesthetic values, may learn from our Egyptian collections: it may learn how all embracing should be the service of art to a community, and it may learn the difference between admirable and untutored or mechanical workmanship. Both of these lessons we need to learn, we must learn, if in America good taste is to grow and great art is to develop; for the chief among the arts of design cannot rightly flourish unless the eyes of the people are sensitive enough to ask for beauty in small things as well as great, in things of use as well as in things of luxury and display. A feeling for good workmanship as such, I may add, especially needs cultivation in these days when we must not only revive taste and skills in the handicrafts but must try to master another problem--the production of beautiful, or at least of agreeable, machine made things. In many directions a hopeless problem? Perhaps! But in many directions it has not yet been attacked.
Van Rensselaer, Mrs. Schuyler. "Ancient Egypt in America." The North American Review 218, July 1923.