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Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Ancient Portraits

A Fayum Mummy Portrait, 50 BC to 250 AD
Modern day painted portrait
With the advent of modern portrait photography, the painted portrait has risen in cachet, fallen in popularity, risen in price, and fallen in numbers, while rising in quality. Of course, all these elements are interrelated, some having to do with cause and effect, others simply correlation. Add into this the digital revolution of the past decade or two, and it appears likely that the preservation of faces in search of immortality will never be the same again. Strangely enough, there's really nothing new in all that. Nowhere is this more obvious than in comparing the art of painted portraiture now with its earliest beginnings during the first few centuries of the Christian era. All too often we think of painted portraits as if Leonardo da Vinci invented them when he made Mona smile (sort of).

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.
First of all, before we can talk about ancient painted portraits we have to locate reasonably well preserved examples. That's why we have hundreds of Greek and Roman portraits in marble but virtually none on painted surfaces. Forget canvas painting; Leonardo may, indeed, have invented that. Before his time, painting was done on wooden panels covered with gesso (basically plaster and rabbit skin glue). Though some survived; most didn't; and those that did, didn't do so very well. Moreover, the faces on them were either royalty or deities, not to mention being highly stylized. It comes down to the fact that painted portraits during the days of ancient Rome were not very common, not very archival, and not very well done. And, in any case, the highly skilled art and artists did not survive the fall of the Roman Empire (above). All of which brings us back to the riverbanks of the Nile.

Portrait of a Boy,
Roman period,
2nd century
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.
Today, we call it encaustic painting. That's not to say it was a quick and easy hobby activity for talented amateurs. I've not tried it myself, but some I know who have say that while it can be an exciting, highly expressive painting medium, it is also highly technical, unforgiving, time-consuming, and frequently frustrating. Moreover, as a method of painting, it does not lend itself to realism, which makes the incredibly natural qualities of Egyptian portrait painting from this era all the more amazing. The other thing to keep in mind in appraising such work is that, as today, there were excellent (above, right), good, fair, bad, and simply god-awful practitioners of such art. It would seem, then as now, you got what you paid for.
One of the hallmarks of portrait painting, at least up until the Renaissance, was the tendency artist have had in wanting to stylize the face. Most often this can be seen in their handling of the eyes. Just as women spend hours (okay, several minutes) a day applying mascara and eye-shadow makeup, portrait artists have long had similar inclinations. The Egyptian portrait masters were not immune to such temptations, yet amazingly, some seem to have resisted the urge (above, right). But, despite some degree of stylization, these Egyptian painters also seem to have had an instinctive handle on lighting the face, creating textures, mastering proportions, hair, bone structure, expressions, and skin textures. Of course we'll never know how well they did at capturing likenesses, but inasmuch as all the skills mentioned above contribute so much to a good likeness, the artists' expertise in handling them would also suggest a similar skill in capturing the actual appearance, perhaps even the personality, of their deceased subjects (below).

Even on male portraits, the eyes
are often larger than life.
Besides emphasizing the
eyes, mouths are often a
little too narrow in width.

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