Unknown artist, Egyptian
Paint Box, 1302–1070 BCE
Ceramic and pigment cakes
5.8 x 22 x 5.5 cm (2 5/16 x 8 11/16 x 2 3/16 inches)
Helen M. Danforth Acquisition Fund 1997.82
Only a handful of paint boxes survive from ancient Egypt. This unusual cermaic example has a sliding lid with a grip in the form of a genet, an animal related to the mongoose. The stylized papyrus thickets represent the genet’s habitat of tall grasses and shrubs.
Featuring a hollow well for water and brush storage, the box contains seven pigment cakes of yellow ochre, Egyptian blue (a synthetic pigment composed of silica, copper, and calcium), calcium carbonate (white), hematite (dark red), hematite mixed with calcium carbonate (lighter red), and two charcoal blacks. Painters used these same pigments to decorate statuary and the walls of temples and tombs.
Animal images were used to decorate a range of objects in ancient Egypt. This paint box is unique in being made of ceramic and bearing a sliding lid whose grip is whimsically decorated with a creature resembling a rodent. The hollow well held water to moisten the brush and the cakes of yellow ochre, Egyptian blue, calcium carbonate for white, hematite and some calcium carbonate for red, plain hematite for dark red, and two charcoal blacks. Artists used such pigments to decorate tomb and temple walls and statuary. Only a few of these paint boxes survive from ancient Egypt.
Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design. “Selected Works”. Providence: Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, 2008.
About the work
Painting was a central part of Egyptian life, practiced as an important trade and a form of recreation. A class of skilled painters decorated the walls of tombs and temples, adorning them with scenes of daily life and religious images. These painters were held in special regard: the spells, prayers, and incantations on the walls were necessary links conduits to the hearts of the gods, and some images were even believed to come alive. Painting was also a leisure activity for the upper classes, as suggested by paint boxes inscribed with the names and titles of their owners found in tombs. Paint boxes were made of wood, a luxury material because of the scarcity of native trees. This example is the only one known to be made of terracotta ceramic, which would have been much cheaper and more durable than wood.
The lid of the box features a genet, a weasel-like animal, stalking in papyrus. Using microscopy techniques, archaeologists have identified the six colors of watercolor paint in the box: black (made from charcoal), white (calcium carbonate), yellow (yellow ochre), Egyptian blue (calcium copper silicate), red (hematite and calcium carbonate), and dark red (hematite). Most of these pigments are from mineral sources common in Egypt. Unfinished tombs have shown us that black was usually used for initial sketches of paintings and red for corrections. Blue was the most used color in this box, which is not surprising, given the role of water in Egyptian life and art. The large reservoir in the box held water for wetting the brush, which was probably made of rushes or other plant fibers.
What do paint boxes look like today? How are the colors arranged? What materials are used?
Compare the role of the painter in ancient Egyptian society with the role of painters in more recent history. Make a list of how painted images are used in everyday life today.
Egyptian artists worked with a limited color palette. Design an Egyptian-style tomb painting using only the colors in this paint box—black, white, red, blue, and yellow. What kind of choices did you have to make when you thought up your painting?
Davies, W. V., Ed. Colour and Painting in Ancient Egypt. London: British Museum, 2001.
Robins, Gay. The Art of Ancient Egypt. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008.
Lee, Lorna and Stephen Quirke. “Painting materials,” in Ancient Egyptian Materials and Technology, ed. Paul T. Nicholson and Ian Shaw. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000, 104 – 120.