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Panel painting of a woman in a blue mantle
A.D. 54–68
Director's Fund, 2013
Episode 5 / 2014
First Look

The painting displays
all the fresh enthusiasm
of the early moment
for the power of portraiture
and the most up-to-date
Roman fashions."

The painted panel portraits of Egypt are among the few preserved examples of ancient Greek-style paintings on panel and canvas. They depict notables of provincial Greco-Egyptian society who aspired to the fashions of Egypt's new rulers in Rome, but who at the same time observed age-old Egyptian customs such as affixing these thin painted panels over the faces of wrapped mummies as images of the deceased.

When this superb early portrait of a woman came up for auction, it was clear it would galvanize the potential in the Museum's already strong collection of ancient Egyptian panel paintings. The Museum resolved to bid and luckily was able to obtain the panel. The portrait, remarkable for its very high quality and the preservation of its ancient curvature and texture, belongs to the first generation of panel portraiture, which emerged as an Egyptian funerary style just before the mid-first century A.D. and continued for about two centuries. The painting displays all the fresh enthusiasm of this early moment for the power of portraiture and the most up-to-date Roman fashions. Everything is frankly revealed in a direct white light—the sitter's bushy brows and dark eyes loom over her large pale face and contrast oddly with her gay blue mantle and her tiny elaborate curls arranged in the style popularized by Agrippina, the mother of the emperor Nero. After first laying a dark ground beneath the face as usual to heighten the contrast of the paint tones, the painter evoked the sitter's strong physical presence by building up the encaustic in a thick impasto to define the form of the face, to create dimensionality, and to scatter light. Highlights in the eyes and on the jewelry and the fine ethereal blue of her mantle contribute to the limpid atmosphere.

Portrait mummies remained on view in chapels before eventually being buried in family tombs. Scrutiny of the new panel reveals traces of ancient adjustments: a change in color in the lower chest near the edge of the garment, and differences between the gold of the earrings and the gold of the necklace. Perhaps the necklace with the gold beneficent demon was added as a farewell thought.

Marsha Hill
Department of Egyptian Art
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