Egypt’s Old Kingdom (Dynasties 3–6, ca. 2649–2150 B.C.) was one of the most dynamic periods in the development of Egyptian art. During this period, artists learned to express their culture’s worldview, creating for the first time images and forms that endured for generations. Architects and masons mastered the techniques necessary to build monumental structures in stone. Sculptors created the earliest portraits of individuals and the first lifesize statues in wood, copper, and stone. They perfected the art of carving intricate relief decoration and, through keen observation of the natural world, produced detailed images of animals, plants, and even landscapes, recording the essential elements of their world for eternity in scenes painted and carved on the walls of temples and tombs.
These images and structures had two principal functions: to ensure an ordered existence and to defeat death by preserving life into the next world. To these ends, over a period of time, Egyptian artists adopted a limited repertoire of standard types and established a formal artistic canon that would define Egyptian art for more than 3,000 years, while remaining flexible enough to allow for subtle variation and innovation.
Although much of their artistic effort was centered on preserving life after death, Egyptians also surrounded themselves with beautiful objects to enhance their lives in this world, producing elegant jewelry, finely carved and inlaid furniture, and cosmetic vessels and implements in a wide variety of materials.
Roehrig, Catharine H. “Egypt in the Old Kingdom (ca. 2649–2150 B.C.).” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/oking/hd_oking.htm (October 2000)
Hayes, William C. The Scepter of Egypt: A Background for the Study of Egyptian Antiquities. 2 vols. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1953-59.
Schulz, Regine, and Matthias Seidel, eds. Egypt: The World of the Pharaohs. Cologne: Könemann, 1998.