Artists working for King Amunhotep III (circa 1390 – 1352 BC) were simultaneously conservative and innovative.
They looked to the past for ideas, but also broke new ground and developed fresh sculptural styles. An interest in earlier art was only one part of a comprehensive concern for the past during Amunhotep’s reign. His antiquarian fasciation may have been ideologically motivated. By associating himself with the remote past, he broke with the political and military policies of his immediate predecessors.
Under Amunhotep III, priests searched through ancient archives to learn how traditional rites such as the royal jubilee (sed festival) had been performed in the earliest dynasties. Artists borrowed details from Old Kingdom tomb and temple decoration that had been carved a thousand years earlier. Perhaps the most significant development was the new king’s devotion to solar worship, which had dominated Old Kingdom religion throughout Dynasties 5 and 6 (circa 2500 – 2170 BC). This renewed movement came at the expense of the god Amun – the favorite of all previously Dynasty 18 kings—whose importance diminished under Amunhotep III.
However, the past was not the only influence. Egypt was a truly cosmopolitan country with ties to kingdoms through Africa, West Asia, and Europe. Treaties linked Egypt to major centers of power such as Babylon, Assyria, Mittani, and Arzawa. In addition to his powerful wife, Queen Tiye, the king married several foreign princesses.
International connections brought innovative influences that coexisted and were mutually enveloped with the old.
Perhaps inspired by the style of ancient Near Eastern art, artists under Amunhotep III depicted humans in an elegant, stylized manner with slanted, almond-shaped eyes, short noses, and long, dainty fingers. Women’s bodies were rendered as sensuous, with physically impossible hourglass figures.
At the same time, some depictions of the king show him in a highly naturalistic form with swollen cheeks with a noticeable paunch. These representations contrast with images of earlier kings that always depicted the pharaoh with a youthful face and body.
New trends in royal iconography also reflect the innovativeness of art under Amunhotep III. Since before Dynasty 1, Egyptian rulers were depicted as valiant warrior kings who executed enemies or led their armies into battle. Such traditional images essentially vanished under Amunhotep III, who had himself represented as a god incarnate, peacefully receiving his subjects’ worship.
The self-styled Dazzling Sun-Disk of All Lands, King Amunhotep III initiated monumental building programs and commissioned vast amounts of sculpture. He also supported artisans and workshops that produced extraordinary personal arts such as faience, glass, and intricately designed pottery vessels and gold jewelry. Found in both domestic and funerary contexts, these luxury objects were prized by the living and often buried with their owners for use in the afterlife. The opulence of these objects reflects the splendor and extravagance of the reign of Amunhotep III and anticipates the flamboyant style of Tutankhamen’s time (circa 1332 – 1322 BC).