11/24/06 - fayum portraits

In today's excerpt - the extraordinary portraits from Fayum, Egypt, painted in the second century C.E. These portraits exhibit a sophistication in lighting and expression not attained until centuries later in European art. The most famous is commonly known as 'European Girl', and hangs in the Louvre Museum in Paris:

"These portraits we now admire under sophisticated museum lighting were intended to be buried. The painters who created them would never have dreamed they would one day become visible again. This is something that should be borne in mind as we look at what are now known as 'Fayum Portraits.' Fayum is a fertile region in Egypt, one of the most important wheat-growing areas of the ancient world. ...

"For these likenesses, painters worked together with the future deceased, not to enhance the social standing of the sitter or to glorify their art: their collaboration was intended to give the patron a face suitable for the afterlife. The aim was to produce an identity for an individual before he or she entered the realm of death; to have one's portrait painted was to prepare to cross over into the other world.

"The Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, Libyans and Syrians who lived at Fayum during the Greco-Roman period all mummified their dead. Once finished, the 'face' of the deceased, painted on linen or on a thin plank of wood—usually poplar—and slightly smaller than the actual face, was inserted into the strips just above the mummy's head. Many different kinds of Fayum portraits exist. There are hundreds of them, all realized by untutored or local painters. The artists remain equally anonymous: some were second rank, but others were geniuses such as the one who executed the fascinating face [below] which is now in the Louvre and known as the 'European Girl.' ...

"Every illusory trick is brilliantly deployed: the light is very slightly brighter on the upper lip, contrast is reinforced around the eyes ... but here, as in nearly every such portrait, the most conspicuous and haunting features are the eyes, which have an infinitely expressive look of caressing softness, totally cleansed by the imminence of death or its expectation. The extraordinary humanity of this remarkable face is here allied to a feeling of abeyance, to a thoughtfulness that hovers on the brink of the eternal chasm."

European Girl


Michel Nuridsany


100 Masterpieces of Painting




Flammarion, Paris, 2006


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