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Work Cosmetic spoon

Department of Egyptian Antiquities: The New Kingdom (circa 1550 to circa 1069 BC)

Cuiller à fard : jeune fille nageant

© Musée du Louvre/C. Décamps

Egyptian Antiquities
The New Kingdom (circa 1550 to circa 1069 BC)

Geneviève Pierrat-Bonnefois

Is there anyone who has not seen one of these pretty, carved wooden figurines in an art book? They are called "the swimmer spoons," as some of them are holding a duck with hinged wings that open to reveal a spoon. This charming work - one of the most famous in the Egyptian department - has far more meaning than first meets the eye.

A Swimmer

With her slender body in a horizontal pose, a nude young woman, wearing only a necklace and belt, holds a bowl in her outstretched arms. The body is carved in a straight line, while the neck and head are sculpted from a separate piece of wood and are placed upright, at right angles to the body, in a fairly unnatural pose. On closer observation, we can see that the head is not placed between the two arms at the top of the shoulders, but is behind and atop the back. When viewed from the front, it is aligned along the same plane as the bowl, along with her necklace, which also forms a base for the head. The head is moreover slightly too large for her body. Her hair, eyes, and necklace are outlined in black paint. 

A Strange Body

These strange details, however, are not visible immediately, and the first impression is one of an extremely charming female figure. This is because the anatomical distortions created by the artist were calculated and deliberate. The work is designed from two distinct points of view: on the one hand, the body is swimming horizontally; and on the other, the bust, the head, and the bowl can be viewed from the front. A larger scale was used for these latter elements. Egyptians composed their statues and drawings by incorporating several different points of view in a single work. They were not interested in a faithful reproduction of reality. The most important aspect was the message: the meaning projected by the creations.

A Lucky Charm

This small sculpture has a twofold meaning. On the one hand, a young female figure is a universal symbol of love and hence the promise of continued life. On the other, the depiction of the bowl as an Egyptian "cartouche" - an elongated form framed by a highly stylized loop of rope - is significant. The rope usually surrounds the name of the king like a lasso, symbolizing the space encompassed by his power. Here, it encircles the spoon with its engraved decor of three Tilapia fish, also called Nile carp, which are nibbling at water-lily stems. This fish incubates its fertilized eggs in its mouth; for the Egyptians, it was a symbol of sexuality and regeneration. This object was therefore imbued with the positive virtues of the magical images, and would have provided good luck and fortune to its owner, whether male or female. Although this type of object is called a "cosmetic spoon," its actual use is uncertain. It has no trace of color, nor does it show any sign of use. It is fragile, delicate, and esthetic. It may have been both an art object and a lucky charm - an auspicious talisman meant to enhance the owner's sexual life and his or her life in general.


- VANDIER D’ABBADIE J., Musée du Louvre Département des Antiquités Egyptiennes - Catalogue des objets de toilette égyptiens, Editions de la Réunion des musées nationaux, Paris, 1972, p. 12-13, notice n° 5.

- LOBSTEIN D., « Objets de toilette ou objets de culte ? A propos des cuillers « à la nageuse », in La  Revue du  Louvre et des Musées de France, 1984, tome 4, p. 236-238.

Technical description

  • Cuiller à fard : jeune fille nageant

  • bois

    l. : 34 cm. ; L. : 7 cm.

  • Young Girl Swimming

    N 1704

  • Egyptian Antiquities

    Sully wing
    1st floor
    The New Kingdom
    Room 24
    Vitrine 13 : Objets d'art

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