Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History



  • Portrait of a Boy, Roman period, 2nd century
    Egyptian
    Encaustic on wood

    H. 15 3/8 in. (39 cm), W. 7 1/2 in. (19 cm)
    Gift of Edward S. Harkness, 1918 (18.9.2)

    The young teenage boy in this remarkably lifelike mummy portrait looks calmly at the viewer, his head in three-quarter view. He is dressed in a white Roman tunic with a narrow purple clavus (a vertical stripe) over the right shoulder. A mantle is draped over the left shoulder. The boy wears his dark brown hair short, with locks brushed to both sides of the forehead.

    The inscription in dark purple pigment below the neckline of the tunic is in Greek, which was the common language of the eastern Mediterranean at the time. Scholars do not completely agree on the inscription's translation. The boy's name ("Eutyches, freedman of Kasanios") seems indisputable; then follows either "son of Herakleides Evandros" or "Herakleides, son of Evandros." It is also unclear whether the "I signed" at the end of the inscription refers to the painter of the portrait or to the manumission (act of freeing a slave) that would have been witnessed by Herakleides or Evandros. An artist's signature would be unique in mummy portraits.

    Paintings of this type, often called Faiyum portraits (although not all of them come from the Faiyum oasis), are typical products of the multicultural, multiethnic society of Roman Egypt. Most of them are painted in the elaborate encaustic technique, in which pigments were mixed with hot or cold beeswax and other ingredients. This versatile medium allowed artists to create images that in many ways are akin to oil paintings. The boy's head, for instance, stands out from the light olive–colored background, creating an impression of real depth. His face is modeled with flowing brushstrokes and a subtle blend of light and dark colors. Shadows on the left side of the face, neck, and garment and below the right eye indicate a strong source of light on the boy's right. Most arresting are the dark brown eyes with black pupils reflecting the light with bright spots. This manner of painting, which is very different from the traditional Egyptian style but was well known in Ptolemaic Egypt, originated in Classical Greece in the fifth and fourth centuries B.C.

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    On view: Gallery 138
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    Portrait of a Boy, Roman period, 2nd century
    Egyptian
    Encaustic on wood

    H. 15 3/8 in. (39 cm), W. 7 1/2 in. (19 cm)
    Gift of Edward S. Harkness, 1918 (18.9.2)


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