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Work Black Adolescent, his Hands Bound behind his Back

Department of Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Antiquities: Roman Art

Black adolescent with his hands tied behind his back

© 1999 RMN / Hervé Lewandowski

Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Antiquities
Roman Art

Author(s):
Astier Marie-Bénédicte

This bronze statuette shows a black adolescent with his hands bound behind his back, a subject that was highly prized in the late Hellenistic and Roman periods. Discovered in the region of Fayyum, in Egypt, it was made in the second or first century BC. This portrait of a young slave belongs to the picturesque trend in Alexandrian art and testifies to the success of genre scenes of an exotic and sometimes grotesque nature, in which realism borders on caricature.

An Egyptian bronze from the late Hellenistic period

This bronze statuette was discovered near Memphis, in the region of Fayyum, in Egypt, and purchased by the Louvre in 1892. The unpolished surface of the figurine shows that it was not finished using cold-working techniques after casting, a method characteristic of bronzfounders in Hellenistic Egypt. The work is probably, therefore, of local origin, dating from the second or first century BC.

A black adolescent

This small bronze represents a black adolescent, his hands bound tight behind his back. Slave or captive, the young boy has affected a complex, contorted posture which is deeply expressive of his mental suffering: the torso is intensely arched, with one hip sharply protruding, the upper portion of the body being twisted in one direction while the lower part twists in the other (a stylistic device known as "contrapposto"). The head is raised and turned at a three-quarters angle, seeming to defy the viewer. The artist has been at pains to stress the boy's ethnic origin by emphasizing certain facial details: the hair is arranged in short, curly locks, the brow is deeply lined, the nose is flat, and the lips are thick. The opposing directions of the feet and head give the figure a three-dimensional depth that invites the viewer to look at it in the round in order to understand it fully.

A subject belonging to the picturesque trend in Alexandrian art

This statuette is an original example of the taste for the exotic which seems to have taken root in the Greek cities of the Nile delta, such as Naukratis and Alexandria. During the Hellenistic period, sculptors became particularly fond of genre scenes and vivid, sometimes grotesque subjects, in which exaggerated realism bordered on caricature. In the third century BC, the workshops of Alexandria, in particular, became renowned for their production of figurines depicting the low life of the streets: old people, peddlers, beggars, dwarves, hunchbacks, and other characters. As in the example of this young slave with his hands bound, small figures of black children in bronze or terra-cotta, in a variety of attitudes, were extremely abundant. The exotic ethnic origin of the characters added to the decorative element which was the primary concern in the production of statuary. Black figures were particularly highly prized during the Roman era, until the late imperial period, and provided artists with a favorite subject of study for sculptures in bronze or colored marble.

Bibliography

- ROLLEY Cl., Les bronzes grecs, Paris, 1983, p. 212, fig. 192.

Technical description

  • Black adolescent with his hands tied behind his back

    2nd-1st century BC

    Provenance: outskirts of Memphis (Egypt)

  • Bronze

    H. 13.2 cm

  • Acquired in 1892

    Br 361

  • Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Antiquities

    Sully wing
    Ground floor
    Venus de Milo gallery
    Room 13

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