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Work Portrait of a woman, known as "L'Européenne"

Department of Egyptian Antiquities: Roman Egypt (30 BC - AD 392)

Portrait of a woman, known as "L'Européenne"

© 2009 Musée du Louvre / Georges Poncet

Egyptian Antiquities
Roman Egypt (30 BC - AD 392)

Author(s):
Cortopassi Roberta

The youthful face stands out against a blue-gray background. Shown almost frontally, its perfect oval is set off by the regular lines of the drawn-back hair and the semicircle of the plait, from which emerges the gold head of a hairpin. The pearly flesh-tints with their pink touches are applied in small close-packed strokes. The large eyes look to the right, brought to life by two touches of white. Gold leaf hides a slender neck adorned by a pearl necklace.

A fascinating face

Her eyes turned to the right, the young woman does not look directly at the viewer. This detail, very rare in a mummy portrait, certainly contributes to her fascination. She is dressed in a purple tunic and a yellow cloak, which is fastened with a round brooch set with a large emerald. The large, prominent, and somewhat pointed ears are adorned with earrings each consisting of a dark stone set between two large pearls. A gold-headed hairpin fastens the plait at the crown of the head. Beneath the gold leaf applied to the neck, laboratory analysis has revealed a simple pearl necklace.

Gold, symbol of immortality

The portrait is painted on a wooden board, originally rectangular, cut to match the shape of the mummy, this distinctive form apparently being characteristic of the city of Antinoöpolis. Over this were applied several small squares of gold leaf, which cover the neck and part of the clothing, without however masking the oval of the face.
The shine of gold, resembling that of the sun, made it a magical metal, a symbol of immortality. It was often applied to mummy portraits to cover the gray background around the head, the stucco frame around the portrait, or as here, to hide the neck. It never, however, obscures the features of the face, for the individuality of the deceased had to be preserved.

Exceptional technique

This portrait is painted on cedar, an imported wood. This was first covered with a black preparatory coat, on which the portrait was then painted in encaustic. The painter has exploited to the full the density of the wax, laying down fine, close-packed strokes which follow the modeling of the face, the curve of the eyebrows, and the arrangement of the hair. The eyelashes are rendered by scraping away the encaustic with a hard pointed tool to reveal the black ground beneath.

Bibliography

M.-F. Aubert, R. Cortopassi, catalogue de l'exposition Portraits de l'Egypte romaine, Paris, musée du Louvre, 5 octobre 1998-4 janvier 1999, Paris, 1998, n 80 ;

E. Doxiadis, Portraits du Fayoum. Visages de l'Egypte ancienne, Paris, 1995, n 86 p. 114 et 213 ;

K. Michalowski, L'art de l'ancienne Egypte, Paris, 1968, p. 338, fig. 756 ;

Catalogue de l'exposition Art copte, Paris, Petit Palais, 17 juin-15 septembre 1964, n 26 ;

Technical description

  • Portrait of a woman, known as "L'Européenne"

    AD 120-130

    Antinoöpolis (Antinoë), Egypt

  • Encaustic and gilt on a cedarwood panel

    H. 42 cm; W. 24 cm; D. 1.2 cm

  • Purchased 1952

    MND 2047 (P 217)

  • Egyptian Antiquities

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