(Re)see ancient Egyptian art at the Art Institute
As we celebrate the museum’s first new presentation of ancient Egyptian art in nearly 30 years, it seems fitting to look back on the long legacy of this historic collection at the Art Institute.
By Ashley Arico
When the museum moved to its new permanent home on Michigan Avenue in late 1893, just three years after acquiring its first Egyptian antiquity, Egyptian art quickly became a focal point. Room 32 (today’s Gallery 213, where Rembrandt’s old man with a gold chain is now suspended) was filled with hundreds of objects that museum president Charles L. Hutchinson and administrator Martin A. Ryerson had obtained in Egypt by purchase or loan. Announced in an 1894 Trustees’ Annual Report as “objects of great rarity and value, sufficient…to form a collection respectable in quantity and more than respectable in quality”, this fledgling collection ushered in a new era for Egyptian art in Chicago.
As this late 19th-century photograph shows, three wooden coffins, including Nesi-pa-her-hat’s coffin in the foreground, served as the centerpiece of the Egyptian installation, which shared a room with the collection of Greek antiquities from the museum. A sign hung near the center of a wall proclaimed its contents: “Egyptian Antiquities – Originals.”
This specification – “Originals” – was important because since the mid-1880s the museum had collected and exhibited plaster casts of ancient Egyptian sculpture. These replicas of famous works, depicting high officials, royal women and famous kings, were exhibited alongside casts of works of art from the ancient Middle East and Greece. All were part of the Elbridge G. Hall collection of plaster casts, which occupied most of the museum’s ground floor galleries when the Michigan Avenue building opened. These instructional works continued to be the cornerstone of the Art Institute’s presentation of ancient art for decades, even as more originals were added to the collection.
The inclusion of replicas, however, was not the only way the first display of ancient Egyptian art differed from today’s exhibit. When our first galleries were set up, the field of archeology had just established itself as a scientific discipline for the study of the distant past, and the presentation of objects was strongly influenced by this academic approach. Dense and typologically organized display cases flooded visitors with a multitude of recently unearthed objects.
Objects have been classified by material and type. Entire display cases were devoted to stone and glass vessels, canopic jars, jewelry, earthenware figurines and carved stone reliefs. Along the tops of the cases, ceramic vessels were arranged by shape.
The cabinet pictured above featured dozens of bronze works depicting gods, goddesses, and sacred animals as well as more utilitarian objects, such as the hand mirror on the second shelf from the top right. The statuettes were arranged by type: along the top shelf, divine serpents, falcons and cattle were grouped, while the bottom shelf displayed an array of feline goddesses ranging from tiny seated cats to standing women with heads. of lioness. Other groupings reflect Egyptian mythology, such as the pairing of a statuette representing the crocodile-headed god Sobek with several representing his mother, Neith, on the middle shelf. Together, these numerous statuettes introduced early visitors to the diverse pantheon of Egyptian gods, provided insight into ancient religious practices, and served as a testament to the skill of Egyptian artists in metalworking.
Many of the works of art exhibited in this former gallery of the Art Institute remain centerpieces of the Egyptian collection and of our exhibition today. We are thrilled to have our Nesi-pa-her-hat coffin on display for the first time in over eight decades as a focal point in the new space.
Back in our galleries, a wooden model of a river boat can be seen prominently in the archival photograph above. Over a century of study and reinterpretation has altered the appearance of this object since the photograph was taken, most notably in the removal of a modern sail and the repositioning of the helm oar from the hands of the coxswain to the back of the boat. Its presentation in our new gallery brings us closer to understanding this work as it was conceived more than 3,000 years ago.
As we enter a new era of exhibiting ancient Egyptian art at the Art Institute, we continue to learn from the rich ancient and modern history of these objects – how they were created and used, how they may have changed and how they were displayed. If you haven’t yet had the opportunity to visit the new gallery dedicated to the arts of ancient Egypt, I hope you will soon and rediscover the wonders of this vibrant African culture.
—Ashley Arico, Assistant Curator of Ancient Egyptian Art, Arts of Africa
This article has benefited from Dr. Emily Teeter’s previous research into the history of the Art Institute’s collection of ancient Egyptian art.
- History of the museum
- From curator