Art Through Time: A Global View
Portraits Art: Standing Statue of Hatshepsut
Likeness was never a chief concern for Egyptian portraiture, which instead emphasized idealized appearance.
The longevity of certain poses and gestures in Egyptian art points to a desire on the part of the Egyptians to convey a sense of stability and order in the world, and portraits of the elite, especially, tend to depict their subjects in the prime of life, eternally young, strong, and healthy. The standing statue of Hatshepsut exemplifies all these qualities. At the same time, the unique circumstances of Hatshepsut’s position called for art that was in other ways atypical.
Hatshepsut, who reigned from 1479 to 1457 BCE, was a descendant of Ahmose, founder of the Eighteenth Dynasty and first ruler of the New Kingdom, and the chief queen of Thutmose II. When Thutmose II died prematurely circa 1479 BCE, his heir, a son by another wife, was still in his infancy. Hatshepsut first acted in the capacity of regent, ruling on behalf of the child. Early in his reign, however, she claimed the title of kingship for herself. She seems to have ruled alongside Thutmose III until her own death.
While women claimed legal equality with men in ancient Egypt, they were nevertheless generally excluded from official positions. Hatshepsut is one of the few women in Egyptian history to have assumed the role of pharaoh. In portraits such as this one, Hatshepsut is depicted not only in the vigorous, forward-striding stance common in Egyptian art, but also bare-chested and wearing the royal kilt. She is shown, moreover, donning symbols of power traditionally reserved for male rulers—the striped Nemes headdress and the false beard, a ceremonial item associated with the gods, hence with the pharaoh’s divine aspect. Images in which Hatshepsut adopts this masculine attire coincide with her increased claims to power and seem to have been one of several methods by which she sought to legitimize her rule.
Anne McClanan, Professor of Art History, Portland State University
“A power portrait has a pretty specific aim. It has to fit within the needs of a whole political structure. It’s about establishing and codifying the person who’s in power to give them authority, to give them credibility as a ruler. Therefore, with a power portrait, it’s essential they get it right. That all the details fit in terms of people’s expectations at that time, at that place in terms of what a powerful person looks like. They have to have the right costume, the right position, the right setting. And when it works it works. You know, you look at the great examples of pictures of Napoleon, pictures of, well even Marie Antoinette, pictures of Hatshepsut, they have all the right markers so that people could read the language they were expressing.
Looking across history you see other examples of cases where women had to appropriate men’s dress as part of having the visual language that expressed that they were in power. Hatshepsut a good example of this, if we look backward in time. Because to show herself as a pharaoh, inevitably she’s implicated in showing herself as a man.
She has the beard, which surprises us and we kind of titter thinking oh she’s cross-dressing, you know, that naughty Hatshepsut. But remember that even for the male pharaohs, it was a ceremonial beard. It’s not their actual beard, it’s just, it’s part of the regalia of Egyptian court life. To be the ruler that’s what you do. And so I think that it’s a more natural expression of power and more, and part of their sense of the representation of rule is that she’s just wearing the regalia of a pharaoh. The goal is to just assume the full accoutrements of power. It’s not about her assuming a male identity.”
Richard Brilliant, Professor Emeritus of Art History and Archaeology, Columbia University
“Power portraits go back to remote antiquity. I mean ancient Egypt, with colossal figures of pharaohs and of the gods, but particularly of pharaohs who were represented in colossal images, statues, many of which fortunately have survived—from the Old Kingdom, the Middle Kingdom, the New Kingdom—which were intended to show the authority and the power of the pharaoh as a semi-divine character or divine-like character, who was the ruler of the world. Such images of the pharaohs were intended to impose upon the spectator, the ordinary Egyptian, a sense of the distance between themselves and these beings represented in a colossal scale. So one of the ways in which power portraits function is by colossality. Being larger than life size.
If you are larger than life size by implication you’ve got more than life size power and authority. That’s been a use of colossal images from remote antiquity for 5000 years. It is also something used as well outside of political circumstances for images of the gods, colossal images of the gods are colossal in part as a vehicle for representing their power and authority over you, the spectator.”
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Robins, Gay. The Art of Ancient Egypt. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000.
Roehrig, Catharine H., Renee Dreyfus, and Cathleen A. Keller. Hatshepsut: From Queen to Pharaoh. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2005.
Silverman, David P. Ancient Egypt. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.
Spanel, Donald B. Through Ancient Eyes: Egyptian Portraiture. Exhibition catalog, The Birmingham Museum of Art, Birmingham, Alabama. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1988.