From Ancient Egypt to Teotihuacán, Centuries-Old Palettes Illuminate the Role of the Painter- Hyperallergic- Nisha Designs

“Paint Box” (1302–1070 BCE), Egyptian, ceramic and pigment cakes, 2 5/16 x 8 11/16 x 2 3/16 inches, RISD Museum (courtesy RISD Museum)

Despite all of the ancient painted objects in our museums, it’s rare to see an actual paint set.

For all the paint fragments found throughout the ancient world, on murals, pottery, sculpture, and scrolls, surprisingly few ancient paint palettes have been uncovered. Ancient palettes in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the British Museum in London, and the Louvre in Paris — among other institutions — number in the single digits. This is even more surprising now that scholars know ancient Greek and Roman statues were vibrantly painted. 

The palettes we do have, many of which still contain traces of original pigment, show us how people painted, but they also tell us about the role of the painter in ancient civilizations.

“Scribe’s Palette” (ca. 2030-1550 BCE), Egyptian, wood and pigment, 13 5/8 x 1 11/16 x 11/16  inches, Metropolitan Museum of Art (courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Most of the existing paint boxes and palettes are Ancient Egyptian: They belonged to scribes, tomb painters, and recreational painters of the upper classes. Some include the original brushes — for scribes, pen-like lengths of rush grass, and for professional and recreational illustrators, thicker bundles of grass to compose larger images.

“Paint Box of Vizier Amenemope” (ca. 1427-1401 BCE), boxwood with inscription inlaid in Egyptian blue, 7/8 x 8 1/4 x 1 7/16 inches, The Cleveland Museum of Art (courtesy Cleveland Museum of Art)

Scribes’ palettes mostly held only red and black pigments and many bear inscriptions of the king’s name, suggesting the importance of the scribe in the eyes of the ruler. Inscriptions with the king’s name — as in a palette at the British Museum featuring hieroglyphs in high relief that read “the perfect god, lord of the Two Lands, Nebpehtire, s[on of Ra, Ahmose]” — may have noted that the owner was the king’s official scribe and suggest that perhaps the king himself gave the palette to the scribe.

An Ancient Egyptian painting palette owned by a professional painter and housed at the Met also bears the king’s name, but one at the Cleveland Museum of Art includes the name of the owner himself, signifying it was likely used for leisurely painting. Unlike scribes’ bicolor palettes, recreational and tomb painters used a wider range of colors, all naturally occurring besides so-called “Egyptian blue.” 

Replacing the expensive lapis lazuli, Egyptian blue was a synthetic compound made by heating malachite, sand, and other materials to a temperature of 1,500-2,000 degrees Fahrenheit. The method was adopted by the Ancient Romans, but by the Middle Ages, the process was lost, and painters relied once again on the prohibitively expensive lapis lazuli.

“Painter’s Palette Inscribed with the Name of Amenhotep III” (ca. 1390–1352 BCE), ivory and pigment, 6 7/8 x 1 3/4 inches x 3/8 inches, The Metropolitan Museum of Art (courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

In Ancient Egypt, blue was used to paint the gods (red, yellow, black, and green all came from the ground, making them unfit to depict deities). This concept is seen again in Christian art centuries later, with Mary and Jesus repeatedly depicted in blue. 

Across the world and made centuries after the Egyptian palettes, another ancient paint setlinks the painter to the divine. 


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