The antiquity of painting, as well as of sculpture, among the Egyptians, is sunk in fable. Yet it is certain that they made little or no progress in either art. Plato, who flourished about 400 B.C., says that the art of painting had been practiced by the Egyptians upwards of ten thousand years, and that there were existing in that country paintings of that high antiquity, which were neither inferior to, nor very different from, those executed by the Egyptian artists in his own time.

Before the French expedition to Egypt, a great deal had been written on the subject of Egyptian art, without eliciting anything satisfactory. Norden, Pococke, Bruce, and other modern travelers, speak of extraordinary paintings found on the walls of the temples and in the tombs at Thebes, Denderah, and other places in Upper Egypt; and Winckelmann justly regrets that those curious remains had not been visited by artists or persons skilled in works of art, "by whose testimony we might have been correctly informed of their character, style, and manœuvre." The man at last came, and Denon, in his Voyage dans le Basse et Haute Egypt, has set the matter at rest. He has given a curious and interesting account of the paintings at Thebes, which he reports to be as fresh in color as when they were first executed. The design is in general stiff and incorrect; and whatever attitude is given to the figure, the head is always in profile. The colors are entire, without blending or degradation, as in playing cards, and the whole exhibits the art in a very rude state. They exhibit little or no knowledge of anatomy. The colors they used were confined to four—blue, red, yellow, and green; and of these, the blue and red predominate. The perfect preservation of the Egyptian paintings for so many ages is to be attributed to the dryness of a climate where it never rains.

The Egyptian painters and sculptors designed their figures in a style peculiarly stiff and formal, with the legs invariably closed, except in some instances in the tombs of the Kings at Thebes, and their arms stuck to their sides, as if they had consulted no other models than their bandaged mummies. The reasons why the Egyptians never made any progress in art till the time of the Greco-Egyptian kings, were their manners and customs, which prohibited any innovations, and compelled every one to follow the beaten track of his cast, without the least deviation from established rules, thus chaining down genius, and the stimulus of emulation, honor, renown and reward. When Egypt passed under the dominion of the Ptolemys, she made rapid progress in art, and produced some excellent painters, sculptors, and architects, though doubtless they were mostly of Greek origin. It is related of Ptolemy Philopator, that he sent a hundred architects to rebuild Rhodes, when it was destroyed by an earthquake. See vol. iii., page 1, of this work.