|A Fayum Mummy Portrait, 50 BC to 250 AD|
|Modern day painted portrait|
|A Greek or Roman figure from|
the first century AD.
That's wildly inaccurate, of course, though the style and nature of painted portraits changed greatly about that time (early 1500s),from mostly the profile images dating back to Greek ceramics, to the familiar three-quarter views we take for granted today. For that we can thank the Netherlandish van Eyck brothers, Hubert and Jan, and those such as Antonello da Messina who carried their new approach to portraiture south to Italy. But even taking that into consideration, the painted portrait goes back another thousand years or more to the Roman Empire, though the Romans (Italians) had little to do with it. Their tastes in wall decorations leaned more toward frescoes and mosaics, neither of which lend themselves very well to portraiture (below). No, the real experts in portrait painting during this time were the Egyptians.
|Detail of an Ancient Roman Fresco Portrait of Terentius Neo and his Wife, |
about the best Roman portraiture ever got during the first century AD
|A Roman bust labeled a First Century |
Republican. I know some 21st-century
Republicans who look about the same.
|Portrait of a Boy, |
|This and the portrait at right are|
among the best preserved from
the Fayum Mummy portraits.
I don't think I need to delve into the long history of Egyptian attempts to mitigate death by embalming, sculpting, and by the time of Caesar and Cleopatra, painting the faces of their dearly departed upon their sarcophagi. It was in this latter endeavor that the art of portrait painting first reached its zenith, starting in the first century BC and extending into the first few centuries of the Christian era. However in contemplating this era, we must discard some modern concepts. First, being funerary art, they did not hang on the walls of the rich and famous. For that we can be thankful or else we'd not have them around today to admire and analyze. They were preserved in the highly archival tomb rooms, many discovered only in the past century or two. Second, the Egyptians discovered that pigments and beeswax, melted together, made a highly effective (and fortunately, highly archival) painting medium.
|One of the worst and one of the best. The male figure on the left is from around 250 BC. |
The female portrait on the right is undated, though probably much later
(note the absence of stylization).
|Notice the left eye is|
smaller than the right
eye, which is said to have
a surgical cut beneath it.
|Even on male portraits, the eyes|
are often larger than life.
|Besides emphasizing the|
eyes, mouths are often a
little too narrow in width.