Egyptian Revival

Egyptian style was a common revival movement in the late 18th to mid-19th century. Though it was a less popular form of ornamentation than Neoclassicism or Gothic Revival, it had a place in the decorative arts and architecture of the time, particularly in America in the first half of the 19th century.

Lotos Leaves
(William F. Gill, 1875)

Copying Egyptian forms was nothing new. The Roman emperor Hadrian designed part of his Tivoli villa in an Egyptian style in 130 BC and there were various resurgences of interest in the art of this country in Europe throughout the Common Era. A more conscious revival began in the 1760s as part of a general renewed awareness of historical styles. Giovani Batista Piranesi was one of the major 18th century architects and designers who used Egyptian decorations for some of his interiors.

It was Napoleon's expedition to Egypt of 1789-99 that brought some of the most comprehensive information about the country into Europe. Napoleon hoped to gain military control of the area from the Turkish Empire in order to open up the trade route to the West Indies. The attempt was a failure, but he did, however, bring along scholars and artists who documented the journey and Egyptian culture, and collected artifacts as well. Probably their most significant find was the famous Rosetta Stone, which helped decipher Egyptian hieroglyphics. As a result of this expedition several books were published on Egyptian art and culture in the early 19th century. The most significant was the Description de l'Égypte, a 21-volume set published between 1809 and 1828 that included lavish prints of Egyptian art and architecture. These publications were some of the first accurate sources the European public had for images of Egypt.

The use of Egyptian architectural style in the 19th century was especially popular for cemeteries and funeral monuments because many of the most well known Egyptian monuments, such as the Pyramids of Giza, had deathly associations. Designers replicated common forms in architecture like pyramids, columns, temples, sphinxes, and obelisks. The most famous American example of the obelisk is the Washington Monument.

Examples of book covers influenced by Egyptian Revival occur a bit later, starting about the 1850s. Many of the covers relate to the Egyptian subjects of the books' contents, but Egyptian design was also employed generally, particularly for other oriental subject matter (example, pbw01294 - Glimpses into Chinese Homes, J.W. Hamilton, 1887).

pba01294 (Detail)
Glimpses into Chinese Homes
(J. W. Hamilton, 1887)
pbw01922 (Detail)
The Papyrus of Ani
(G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1913 )
pba01259 (Detail)
Pillar of Fire; or, Israel in Bondage
(Pudney and Russell, 1859)

Just as in architecture, book covers in this style often duplicated some of the common building styles of the civilization, such as the Sphinx or pyramid (see pba01259). Where there was a picture of a person, he or she was drawn in the stylized, flat, sideways position found in Egyptian papyrus scrolls and relief sculpture (as on pbw01922). Another common symbol was the winged disk, a heavenly symbol associated with royalty and the god Horus (pba01259).


The Weavers
Harper and Brothers, 1907 (Decorative Designers)



Certain ornaments were typical as well, and 19th century decoration books such as Owen Jones' A Grammar of Ornament (1856) detailed many of these. The stylized lotus blossom was a frequent choice along with other abstract natural forms, like the papyrus bundle column (as in pbw01294). Some of the decorations in Eastlake style have a somewhat Egyptian feel as well. Egyptian forms continued to have an impact well into the 20th century. Art Deco designers used Egyptian ornaments, and events like the discovery of King Tut's tomb in 1922 continued to awaken the public's imagination about the art and culture of Egypt.



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Carrott, Richard G. The Egyptian Revival: Its Sources, Monuments and Meaning, 1808– 1858. Berkely: University of California Press, 1978.

Clayton, Peter. The Rediscovery of Ancient Egypt: Artists and Travelers in the 19th Century. London: Thames and Hudson, 1982.

Curl, James Stevens. The Egyptian Revival: An Introductory Study of a Recurring Theme in the History of Taste. Boston: G. Allen and Unwin, 1982.

McDowell, Peggy. The Revival Styles in American Memorial Art. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, c1994.

Pevsner, Nikolaus and S. Lang. "The Egyptian Revival." In From Mannerism to Romanticism. Vol. 1 of Studies in Art, Architecture and Design. Edited by Nikolaus Pevsner. New York: Walker, 1968, pp. 212–48.

Wilton-Ely, John. "Egyptian Revival." Dictionary of Art. Edited by Jane Turner. New York: Grove, 1996. (online version is available at some colleges and universities)

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