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Dionysius of olive, and many more, in cypress and other woods, painted, gilded, or inlaid with gold.
Such information as this is, to our regret, almost all upon which we can rely regarding wood sculpture in ancient Greece and the Roman empire: actual existing examples are rare indeed. But of a still more ancient civilization—that of Egypt—we are more fortunate in the remains of statuary and small sculpture in wood which are not surpassed in interest by any other sculptured records whatever. The age of some of them, amounting to thousands of years before our era, is conjectural only. The museum at Cairo, as is fitting, possesses the finest and the greater number: amongst them the famous figure of the Sheik el Beled. The Louvre is rich, in quality at least, but the examples in our British Museum, however interesting in archaeological interest, are sadly deficient in beauty and attraction. That we look to Egypt as the cradle of our race, and seek in her monuments for traces of the earliest efforts made by man in the expression of art, is, of course, undeniable. Amongst these earliest efforts —that is of an art which appears to have already attained an extraordinary degree of development and perfection, for the earliest we possess have that character—are the figures and statues in wood, from which two or three will be selected for illustration. More than this cannot be done here, for no pretension is made to an examination of ancient Egyptian art generally, with which these figures are so intimately connected that we should soon be led far beyond our limits and beyond the capacity of the present writer.
At a period of the world's history so remote as to be almost fabulous, but may be counted as at least sixty centuries, if we may judge from the earliest examples of sculpture which have come down to us, Egypt was in possession of a fully developed system of art. This system, whether based on hieratic traditions or on a natural aptitude for the observation of nature, has in its way never since been surpassed. However this may be, we are not in possession of sufficient information to justify any certainty of opinion concerning what canons, if any, were followed by the sculptors of these great portrait figures, whose use and destination will presently be alluded to. To that use, added to the dryness of the climate and to the rifling or systematic examination of the numerous tombs, we owe the preservation of these works of art in a material which, under ordinary conditions, perishes in a comparatively short time. Looking at these wonderful figures, of which we shall examine a few of the most striking, remembering that they are amongst the earliest specimens of art of which we have any knowledge, and that any approach to their actual date cannot be ascertained nearer than within a lapse of time measured by hundreds or even thousands of years, one is struck with admiration and astonishment at the height of their art, the perfection of their execution. We know, without being able to account for the fact, that the farther we go back in the history of the arts of ancient Egypt—notably in the case of sculpture—the more advanced appears to be the standard to which they had attained. From this it would appear that the age of perfection preceded the system of hieratic dogmatism which, in the course of time, became established and ruled by rigid laws. In these wooden figures, as in thousands of other examples of all kinds, in stone and bronze, statues and statuettes, figurines and basreliefs, the individualism of the artist is most pronounced. There is evidence of an absolute liberty of expression, of a rendering from nature drawn by the personal observation of each individual artist. They are portraits of men and women as they lived, in the surroundings amongst which their existence had been passed. Whatever the material used, whether it be wood or limestone, granite or bronze, the analogies are so great that it would be difficult to consider them apart, though the wood is naturally most nearly approached to the figures in soft stone. All are of the same type, with the same fidelity to nature, the same lifelike expressions, the same evidence of the use of a living model, the same attention to anatomical detail and method of expressing it. For this method is not a scientifically applied one, the result of established canons of art which later ages produced. There is no undue emphasis, no attempt at producing an artificial effect, no idea of art in fact. Yet in its impressionistic manner it suffices. Its naturalism is convincing, expressed by an almost sketchy rdsumd of the principal lines and masses of the subject. It may be that those whose acquaintance with the entire history of the rise and progress of Egyptian art in all its branches is profound, may find an easy solution of the problem which seems to be involved in the consideration of these wooden figures alone. Many questions suggest themselves. What is the date assigned to the figure of the Sheik el Beled? The fourth dynasty? At how many thousands of years before our era is this period to be placed? At any rate at some remote period of man's existence on earth, at a period of which we have no general history, still less a knowledge of the progress — we see here with astonishment a system, a mannerism, instinctively adopted. That is to say, that four thousand years at least before our era we find in Egyptian sculpture an established system of art at such a state of perfection that it continues unchanged during these forty centuries. By what successive stages, slow or quick, by what teaching of principles or canons, by what laborious evolution of technique it was accomplished, that is what we are entirely ignorant about. We are able to study in our museums—at any rate in the great museum at Cairo — innumerable examples, ranging from shreds and tatters to those possibly oldest figures of all, the limestone Hetep and Nefert, as fresh and perfect as if carved last week. But of the evolution of the creative genius—nothing I Yet we are told by Egyptologists that more than nine thousand years ago there flourished in the valley of the Nile a school of free sculpture with a genius surpassing our own. It is a great gap—three thousand years!
The impression produced by these figures will be different on the minds of some from that which is conveyed to others. For my own part I am unable to reconcile the seeming evidence on the one hand of untaught natural genius, on the other of the apparently trained comprehension of principles. In Egypt the practice of statuary is coeval with the earliest efforts in decorative architecture. It would appear that man had no sooner emerged from his primeval condition as a pure savage than he exercised his imitative faculties in an intelligent manner, and set about constructing ideal types of beauty and of manly vigour, reproducing the likenesses of everything that was in the heavens above and in the earth below. Evidently the primitive races would begin to model, and to model well, before any principles of architecture had been evolved, and they would have chosen wood, for its solidity, before clay. With the earliest glimmering of religious sentiment, and the first requirements for the construction of the idols necessary in worship and ceremonial, there would have been a tendency to the establishment of hieratic laws, and of a kind of pictorial language for which no very high degree of perfection in expression would have been necessary. Certain types would have been formed, and perpetuated by transmission from age to age, before the idea occurred of endeavouring to make a direct imitation of those which nature provided in every form of life around. It was not always ignorance, or inability to do better, which produced the archaic groups and figures which we associate in a general way with the monuments of ancient Egypt. It was deliberate choice guided if not dictated by hieratic prescription. And so we find in statues and bas-reliefs certain conventions in conjunction with considerable skill in rendering the human form and the suggestion of movement. The body is fronting, the head in profile: the whole weight is thrown on the soles of the feet: one foot is generally advanced, the right in the case of men, the left of women and children, and so on. As time went on two currents were formed and proceeded on two different principles. The one rigidly adhered to the precepts and dogmas imposed by hieratism; the other, which finally triumphed, was in the direction of emancipation from these trammels and restrictions. But, in accordance with the laws of evolution which Nature causes to be repeated over and over again, in art as in more important matters, the triumph, or arrival at perfection, is followed by decadence. The early loyal efforts at faithfully reproducing nature little by little induce suggestions of what she teaches. We learn to appreciate the ideal, and little by little the highest perfection of its expression is arrived at, only to fall again, little by little, without pausing for a moment until, as an anticlimax, imitative realism is the miserable result. It is not without reason that a question of too great importance to be followed in a single chapter has been hinted at. It is not only in this early history of peoples that we have to remark this phenomenon, this unchangeable law. In one form or other we shall encounter it repeated over and over again as we pass under review the arts of many nations from the times when we are in possession of evidence of their beginnings under conventional forms held captive by the restraints of priestly domination, until emancipation from these