Egyptian Revival, a European artistic style dating from the early 19th century, was inspired by Napoleon’s conquest of Ottoman Egypt and Admiral Nelson’s Battle of the Nile. As volumes documenting Egyptian architecture, antiquities and natural history appeared, with sketches of the Near East’s exotic sights and mysterious symbols, the West’s fascination with this ancient culture grew. Egyptomania, obsession with Egyptian antiquities, increased further in 1820, when translation of the Rosetta Stone led to deciphering ancient hieroglyphics – opening another window into the art and culture of that fascinating world.
Initially, grand Egyptian-inspired sculptures and architectural elements arose in Paris and London. Toward the end of the century, however, stylized Egyptian motifs embellished a variety of functional and ornamental objects, as well.
Red stoneware Wedgewood teapots and underplates, for example, often depicted images of winged sphinxes, crocodiles and canopic jars. Silverplated pots bore curlicued, engraved cartouches, elegantly draped plinths, or images of sacred ibis birds which represented rebirth.
Pairs of tall, tapering marble, slate, or onyx obelisks depicted graceful palm fronds, trumpeted flowers, medallions, sphinxes, and hieroglyphics, in addition to images of scarab beetles, which the Egyptians associated with the life-giving sun. Smaller obelisks often flanked marble and bronze clock garnitures – three-piece, matched sets designed for mantlepieces. Highly stylized settees, armchairs, desks, tables, and sarcophagus-shaped caskets often bore images that could be seen in Egyptian tomb paintings.
After the American Civil War and the inauguration of the Suez Canal (1869), exotic, Egyptian-style furniture also charmed Americans. Their hand-carved cabinets, credenzas, sideboards, and “parlor suites” often featured gold-painted cuffs and collars along with carved or bronze-mounted lion masks, sphinxes, ceremonial headdresses, or palm-frond details. Most surviving post-Civil War-era pieces are associated with the famed furniture design company, Pottier and Stymus. Their opulent rosewood armchair with prickly juniper veneer, for example, featured gilt-brass sphinxes and nailed-bead moldings, along with an abundance of gilt-engraved accents and painted medallions.
By the turn of the century, Tiffany & Co., was marketing a number of Egyptian Revival decorative objects, including clock garnitures, glass powder containers coiled with gold-wash sterling snakes, and gold-wash coffee spoons featuring bright, striped Egypt-evocative enamel detail. Additionally, Tiffany adorned some of their simple bronze candelabras with images of ibises and lotus flowers, symbolizing creation and rebirth.
Other pieces of the period – like Theodore B. Starr’s gold and enamel brooch depicting an Egyptian-clad figure playing a falcon-headed amethyst-scarab harp above a coiled-snake plinth – spared no expense with their luxurious details.
Archaeologist Howard Carter’s discovery of King Tutankhamun’s treasure-filled tomb in 1922, which was celebrated in newspapers, newsreels and on the silver screen, sparked a renewed interest in Egyptomania. Over time, Ancient Egypt’s ancient motifs and symbols permeated all aspects of modern culture, including architecture, theater, literature, and the decorative arts. Bookends, vases, jardinières, andirons, busts, and finely embroidered tapestries depicted an abundance of Egyptian motifs. Fashionistas of the day caught the Egyptian Revival bug and often carried lustrous, Egyptian-motif celluloid or micro-beaded evening bags.
Egyptian Revival design also became an integral aspect of Art Deco, a sleek, geometric style melding ingenuity and fine artistry with precious materials. As a result, gleaming gilt images of pharaohs, royal headdresses, winged sphinxes, and pyramids adorned wall plaques, perfume bottles, belt buckles, lamp bases, cigarette cases, and sconces.
In addition, fine jewelers, including Tiffany, Cartier, and Van Cleef & Arpels, created Egyptian Revival bracelets, beaded bib necklaces, earrings, rings, pendants, bar pins and hatpins. Many bore gilded mummy, sphinx, snake, hieroglyphic, pyramid or plump, rounded scarab motifs.
Art Deco winged scarab brooches resembling beetles in flight were, perhaps, the most popular of all jewelry designs. Simple gold or silver models often featured carved hardstone “bodies” with delicate, stylized champlevé or plique-à-jour wings. Exquisite beauties featuring moonstone and onyx bodies tipped with old European-, rose-, baguette- or fancy-cut European diamond wings were the most extravagant creations of the period. Those now-classic creations, which are favorites in auction rooms worldwide, shimmer like their inspiration: the sun.
# # #