This portrait was excavated from a burial chamber and dates to the second century AD, when Egypt was part of the Roman Empire. A middle-aged man directly confronts the viewer through his large heavy-lidded, golden-brown eyes. His portraitist has taken care to paint every hair of his beard and moustache so that they appear coarse and wiry. A gold wreath of leaves with a flower at its centre garlands his curly hair. Folds of cream-coloured drapery curve around his neck, crossing diagonally at his chest. At the far left of his tunic is a deep red clavus, a coloured stripe that denoted status in Rome.
The painting was probably commissioned at the man’s death and then set into the case containing his mummified body. Only the wealthiest citizens would have been able to afford this kind of burial rite and image. He came from a mixed society of Greeks, Romans and Egyptians, explaining his choice of Roman fashion and Egyptian burial custom.
A young man with large gold-brown eyes with heavy lids and thick, straight eyebrows directly confronts the viewer. His portraitist has taken care to paint every hair of his beard and moustache so that they appear coarse and wiry. A wreath of leaves and a flower at its centre garlands his head – the gold leaf is applied over the paint of his curly, dark hair. The damage to the panel makes it difficult to distinguish his clothing but folds of cream-coloured drapery are visible curving around his neck and crossing diagonally across his chest. At the far left of his tunic a deep red brushstroke may be intended to represent a clavus, a coloured stripe down the side of the tunic.
This portrait is painted in egg tempera on limewood. Limewood is not native to Egypt – it comes from the Mediterranean – and its use here represents the cosmopolitan nature of the image. The young man depicted here lived in the second century AD in Egypt, when it was part of the Roman Empire. The portrait was excavated from a burial chamber in Er-Rubaiyat in the Faiyum region of Egypt, south-west of Cairo. It was probably commissioned at his death and carried in a funeral procession before he was mummified. It was then cut at the top corners and placed within the mummy wrappings. It was important that the man was recognisable, which explains the detailed observation of his features.
Only the wealthiest citizens would have been able to afford this kind of portraiture, let alone mummification. The man may have been of Greek origin, for before Egypt became part of the Roman Empire it was ruled by the Ptolemies, generals of the Greek conqueror, Alexander the Great (d. 323 BC). As part of a Roman society, however, he may have held administrative roles for the Empire and thus adopted their fashions; the clavus, for example, was a sign of social status in Rome. His beard, on the other hand, reflects contemporary Greek style.
A large number of portraits of this kind were excavated in the 1880s and sold in Europe to private collectors and public institutions. This portrait was purchased by one of the Gallery’s most notable benefactors, Ludwig Mond, who left a number of paintings from his collection to the National Gallery in his will. He owned four of these portraits, which he acquired in 1893 from a Viennese dealer called Thomas Graf. The National Gallery Director, Sir Frederic Burton, acquired seven portraits for the collection in 1888.
As non-Western paintings, these portraits were unusual purchases but Burton thought they showed the link in the history of painting between the ancients (the Greeks and Romans) and the painters of the Renaissance. He was particularly interested in providing models for art students and he may have put these on display as examples of the encaustic technique. They were transferred to the British Museum permanently in 1994. This image, along with A Young Woman, is on loan to the British Museum; one of the conditions of the Mond bequest was that his works had to remain the property of the Gallery.
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