Canonical beauty: Ancient Egypt




3100-2950 B.C. – Late Predynastic Period

2950-2575 B.C. – The Early Dynastic Period (1st-3rd Dynasties)

2575-2150 B.C. – The Old Kingdom (4th-8th Dynasties)

2125-1975 B.C. – The 1st Intermediate Period (9th-11th Dynasties)

1975-1640 B.C. – The Middle Kingdom (11th-14th Dynasties)

1630- 1520 B.C. – The 2nd Intermediate Period (15th-17th Dynasties)

1539-1075 B.C. – The New Kingdom (18th-20th Dynasties)

1075-715 B.C. – The 3rd Intermediate Period (21st-25th Dynasties)

715-332 B.C. – The Late Period (20th-30th Dynasties, 2nd Persian Period)

332 B.C.-395 A.D. – Greco-Roman Period (Macedonians, Ptolemies, and Romans)

When we speak about canons and something what is canonical, the very first thing to come to one’s mind is Ancient Egypt. Exactly there the canons were specified and followed, their shaped works of art, symbolizing the continuity from the great rulers of the past.

The idea of beauty itself had a huge influence on the whole culture: in ancient Egyptian beautiful things or people were described using the adjective “N” or “nfr”, same syllables one can find in many words such as teenager (male – “nfrw”, a virgin young woman – “nfrwt”). However, we shall keep in mind that the perception of beauty in Ancient Egypt was completely different from the one we share now. Moreover, hardly could we accurately restore it: not only we are separated from Egyptians by more than 1600 years, the nation itself does not exist anymore for a long time. All we have left are astonishing works of art and discovered texts, which we can read thanks to Jean-François Champollion, who was, by the way, a very interesting person himself. Surprisingly, even if we do not know much about the Egyptian culture or the original meaning of the beauty for them, what we know shapes our definition, too.


One of the main “components” of the beauty was (and still is) youth. In almost all the works of art you could not see any wrinkle or a sign of aging. In the Ebers Papyrus, which is one of the most important papyruses in Ancient Egypt, which contains medical knowledge, we could find herbal remedies not only for wrinkles, but also for baldness and graying hair. The importance of youth was highlightened by Heb Sed festival which was held in order to rejuvenate the pharaoh’s strength and probably have been instituted to replace a ritual of murdering a pharaoh who was unable to continue to rule effectively because of age or condition. Not much has changed as we still perceive youth as synonym of beauty, women and men all around the world are trying to look young and to be full of energy.


Huge attention among Egyptians was paid to how they smelled, which is not surprising in a warm climate. Scent is the one of the most important elements in the erotic texts written in Ancient Egypt. For example, a male of Cairo Vase 25218 says that he feels immersed in perfume when he embraces his beloved, as if he were in the land of incense. Scents play an important role in telling the autobiography of pharaohs (partly mythological, of course). In order to demonstrate this point we shall refer to autobiography of Hatshepsut, who was the second historically confirmed female pharaoh and reigned longer than any other woman of an indigenous Egyptian dynasty. According to Egyptologist James Henry Breasted she is also known as “the first great woman in history of whom we are informed.” At Deir-el-Bahri Hatshepsut tells us the story of her conception, according to which her mother is awakened by the divine fragrance of the god Amun when he appears in her bedroom. It seems clear that in Ancient Egypt there was a straight connection between divine beauty and captivating smell. This connection, slightly changed, however, still persists.


Thanks to many observations and studies we know nowadays that in our brain there is a connection between symmetry and beauty as we subconsciously conceive symmetrical face as the beautiful one. This connection was reflected in Egyptian art as the masters tried to make the portraits of people as symmetrical as possible, adding to idealization of them.


It is well known that many beauty products were invented and widely used in Ancient Egypt. Among them red ochre for lips (forerunner of modern lipstick), cohl for eyes (forerunner of eyeliners) or burnt almonds which were used to tint the brows. Nowadays such makeup could be perceived as seductive, but in Ancient Egypt it was mostly a necessity, which protected the person from bright sun and sand. Elaborate wigs reduced the risk of lice and protected from the sunstroke and overheating. The perception of cosmetics has greatly changed: we use it mostly in order to beautify ourselves even if the usage of beauty products is not necessity justified: for example, wearing concealer in a warm day instead of sunscreen.

Gender difference

Unlike in the Prehistoric era, there is no emphasis on breasts or hips in women’s depictions. Quite the opposite: they look very much alike men and are built in a similar way: narrow hips, almost flat chest (this could be seen as a result of K-strategy). However, they are distinguishable as women have very light skin color, resembling pale gold and the men usually have the opposite reddish-brown tone. It could be explained by determination of roles and perception of both sexes in the Egyptian society. Like in many others cultures, women were associated with softness and effeminacy, which are incompatible with hard work under the sunrays, what was the privilege of the men, demonstrating their strength and masculinity.

After discussing the main “components” of beauty in Egyptians’ perception, let’s pay attention to the two main well-known nowadays “beauties” of Ancient Egypt: Nefertiti and Cleopatra.



Bust of Nefertiti and all her portraits were created during the reign of her husband – Akhenaten, which is, probably, the most revolutionary time in both politics and art in the whole history of Ancient Egypt. Akhenaten made huge changes in Egyptian society concerning religion, which was central to all the aspects of life in Ancient Egypt. The whole concept of beauty during that time has changed, canons of art were almost destroyed. Usually Egyptian art is marked by its geometrical forms, immobility and total restraint. Art of Amarna period is completely different: soft and intimate, very humane and sincere.

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Comparison: Akhenaten (Cairo Museum) and Statue of Thutmosis III at the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.

The concept of feminine beauty has changed, too. For example, deformed skulls were regarded as sign of beauty.



Daughters of pharaoh Akhenaten

The proportions of Nefertiti’s face are distorted, too, in an attempt to create an impressive appearance of the queen. We shall keep in mind the circumstances in which this bust was discovered as it resulted in its fame. The bust was unveiled in Berlin in 1923, what was crucial to its reception: not only ‘Egyptomania’ was in the air, but also Nefertiti’s angular, geometric appearance chimed with fashionable taste of the art deco. Thanks to the fuss made in mass media, she became a star and beauty ideal.


Ever since antiquity, Cleopatra has been known as a woman of unimaginable beauty. In fact, if we refer to her lifetime portraits on coins (which were also partly idealized, of course), we would discover that Cleopatra had a big nose, a protruding chin, and wrinkles, which were hardly components of “beauty” even then. We may find description of her in Plutarch’s works, who has never met her and tells us that her beauty was in her vivacity and her voice, and not in her appearance.


Bust believed to be of Cleopatra VII, Altes Museum, Berlin

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A tetradrachm of Cleopatra VII, Syria mint

We must admit that Cleopatra was very clever, what resulted in seduction of two well-known Roman rulers: Caesar and Mark Anthony, who postponed the conquest of Egypt. However, we can hardly talk about her as an Egyptian: she reigned during the Ptolemaic dynasty, which was Greek and Greek was her native language. We shall point out that she made attempts to learn Egyptian and represented herself as the reincarnation of the Egyptian goddess Isis. That made her, probably, the most Egyptian ruler in the whole Ptolemaic dynasty. It may have been caused by her (and Egypt) opposition to Rome, the culture of which mostly originated from Ancient Greece.

I love Cleopatra case in light of this article for one simple reason: her example proves us that being smart is more important than being beautiful. Even if you are not pretty by nature, if you are smart, you could become one of the most beautiful woman in the whole history, inspiring thousands of great people and William Shakespeare among them.


Canonical beauty: Prehistory



Trying to look like someone else or desire to empathize certain aspects of the person’s own body in order to be beautiful is not a modern trend. In fact, it is a very old partly psychological phenomenon. Beauty canons are often regarded as a direct consequence of the K-strategy* working. However, I would like to argue against this point of view, which has a lot of oversimplification in it.

Indeed, K-strategy has a lot to do with definition of beauty, subconsciously preventing humanity from both the overpopulation and dying out. Other factors of main importance are habitat and the leader, his taste in women if this leader is a man. Moreover, a bright personality should be taken into account, too, as the desire to be like someone mentally and sociologically reflects on the first place in the change of the style and appearance.

Beauty standards are constantly changing, differing in various societies even in a modern globalized world. We shall start with an attempt to define canonical beauty in prehistory era.

Most of art objects left from this time represent animals. In prehistorical society the study of the anatomical structure of an animal was of vital importance as the good knowledge of it could not only save life of the hunter, but also bring some food to home. The inclusion of the image of a human is quite rare, with the exception of the female imagery. All of such females are called “Venuses”.


Vénus de Laussel – example of female in the relief


Venus von Willendorf – example of female in sculpture


Venus of Dolní Věstonice – example of female in ceramics

The faces of all of them do not matter, the artist’s attention is focused on their bodies, highlighting their fertility through empathizing primary and secondary sexual characteristics. The woman was, first of all, a mother, who should have made good and healthy numerous progeny and breed them until the age of maturing. These functions were accentuated by the artist and taken into account when choosing a partner by men. Moreover, these images probably had the sacral meaning, promising praising people abundant harvest and comfortable existence with enough food and less death.

Nevertheless, even at these hard for survival of the humankind times beauty canons were not the same around the globe. In Siberia, where the climate is much harsher than in Europe, where the most of curvy Venuses were found, were discovered totally different statuettes.


Venus of Buret

Very tall and thin, probably wearing fur, without breasts, but with outlined facial features – that’s how typical (or perfect) woman looked like for our ancestors who lived there. According to the K-strategy, the imagery should have been quite the opposite as survival in northern territories was very hard and men probably needed the emphasized fertile women to make offspring and live long enough to raise it.

Even then the beauty canons varied depending on public foundations and presumably many other things about which we have no idea.



*To discover more about K-strategy search r/K selection theory or  click here


The other side of Romanticism



We are used to think that French Romanticism is mostly based on the appraisal of antique motives and aesthetics. It is true, but not the whole of it, by the way. Another great source of inspiration were oriental ideas and elements, dreaming about them. This essay focuses on oriental motives in oeuvre of two very well-known romanticism painters: Ingres and Delacroix.

Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres is considered by some amount of art historians to be a neoclassicist. However, I would argue with that. First of all, classical motives were not his only source of inspiration, they were more like a basis of his style, partly subconscious, derived from years of studying in academic way. Secondly, the ease with which he alters the proportions of human body, the variety of epochs and cultures which he transforms in his paintings point out some significant distance between him, Academy and neoclassicism. Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres created paintings based on mythology for Academy, portraits in order to earn money and a great deal of the art left was inspired by oriental motives, includes them (at least, in the beginning). The interesting fact is that the painter himself had never been to Middle or Far East, all he had were stories about travelling there (documentary or fictional), little objects that were brought from there and, of course, a great deal of his own imagination.

The illustrative example for that may be The Grande Odalisque created by Ingres in 1814. The painter creates quite typical late-Renaissance composition and figure, enriching them by insertion of little oriental details. The woman herself has a European kind of beauty changed by elongation of her back and neck, creating the appealing sense of eastern mystery. The viewer feels that something is wrong but he cannot stop admiring this woman, her intriguing beauty, trying to solve the mystery.

The latter example, which I would like to present here, is Odalisque with slave, finished in 1842. Clearly, the Ingres’s connoisseurship of eastern cultures has broadened, which results in the amount of objects included. Nevertheless, the basis remains the same: the figure and posture of odalisque is quite similar with women on Venetian Late Renaissance paintings. Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres strives to learn more about the culture that fascinates him. He creates a very interesting mix of carefully copied eastern details, professional academic training and his own imagination.


Ferdinand Victor Eugène Delacroix is often opposed to Ingres (even in Wikipedia), but they have a lot of common. Both of them were highly influenced by both Venetian Late Renaissance paintings and oriental motives. They both changed classical canons of interpretation, each one on his own way. The greatest difference between them within the topic of this essay is that Delacroix actually did visit Eastern countries and had the opportunity to base the works on the memories and experience of his own. His early oriental works, such as Woman with a parrot (1827), resemble those of Ingres, lacking his intrigue and sensuality. The eroticism in early Delacroix works is more open and visible. For the painter the oriental details are more like an external frame of naked woman and her beauty.

Women of Algiers painted in 1834 were influenced by the personal experience the painter had in eastern countries. Of course, there was no possibility for him to see the harem inside, but the painter observed the type oriental beauty, depicting it in women. He also inserted more details, which show his connoisseurship of eastern world, its habits, culture and style.

As we can see, oriental motives are an important part of the Romanticism paintings. The East lured dreamers by its mystery, another culture, style of life and mind, producing a great deal of art objects inspired by it.


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