When you pass from this life to the next, how will they know that it’s you? It’s a real concern, especially since, well, who knows what shape you’ll be in?
The cultured upper classes of Roman Egypt figured that a portrait attached to the head of your mummy would do the trick nicely. It would show you at your best, but more importantly, at your most identifiable.
The Bowdoin College Museum of Art is celebrating the acquisition of one such portrait, made 2,000 years ago, somewhere on the Nile River.
It shows a teenage boy with dark, liquid eyes, a long neck, and a gold laurel wreath. He has tight curls, a long nose, and a triangular jaw line, which makes him seem somewhat feminine.
The image is hauntingly lovely, and its acquisition is a coup for Bowdoin, the only museum in Maine with a nationally esteemed and extensive collection of ancient art.
Portraits like these are highly treasured today. They are often known as “Fayum portraits,” after the region, 50 miles southwest of Cairo, where most of them were found. There are fewer than 1,000 extant.
Bowdoin and its associated curator Jim Higginbotham have been looking for a good example for about a decade. The museum acted decisively when this portrait, previously owned by private collectors in Europe, came up for sale at Christie’s last October.
Combining stylistic traits of Egyptian, Roman, and Greek portraiture, such works were painted in a restricted palette (white, black, yellow ochre, and red earth suspended in beeswax) on thin panels of wood, or sometimes linen. They are mostly life-size.
According to Frank Goodyear, the museum’s co-director, a piece of this panel that had come loose was examined by scientists in the college’s biology department. They determined that it was limewood, which was common in Northern Europe but did not grow in Egypt. The discovery, he said, emphasizes the centrality of Egypt to international trade routes at the time.
What’s striking about Fayum portraits is not just the economy of means and the visible, rhythmic brushstrokes, but how plainspoken and honest they are. The best of them attain a level of immediacy and genuine realism that can force a gulp of recognition.
The persons depicted will often have dark patches under the eyes, asymmetrical features, heavy jewelry, or distinctive hairstyles, including facial hair. The sense of realism is enhanced by highlights and shadows created by a single light source — in this case, coming from the left and raking lightly across the youth’s face.
And then, of course, there are those signature dark, slightly enlarged eyes, often with prominent eyelashes. They can remind the modern viewer of portraits by El Greco, Modigliani, or Lucian Freud.
You can see images in the same style, and from roughly the same time, at Harvard Art Museums and the Museum of Fine Arts. They are always arresting.
Bowdoin has reason to celebrate the arrival of its own Fayum portrait, after a long, arduous, 2000-year journey.
Fayum Mummy Portrait Mask
At Bowdoin College Museum of Art, Brunswick, Maine, through June 5.
Sebastian Smee can be reached at email@example.com.