The Mysterious Fayum Portraits:
Faces From Ancient Egypt
by Euphrosyne Doxiadis
Harry N. Abrams, 247 pp., $35
Scattered around the world's museums - and usually accompanied
by surprisingly scant explanation - are some portrait paintings of
They immediately strike you as so lifelike, in such bright
condition, and so vigorously painted that you have to doubt their
They also have an apparent spontaneity and directness of touch,
as if painted at considerable speed.
We tend to think of such bold immediacy as belonging to our own
period, rather than to that of Egypt, Greece, or Rome. But these
particular representations (which are mummy portraits) - like some
of the marvelous wall-paintings of Pompeii or Herculaneum - prove
how wrong we can be.
In fact, they were painted during the first three centuries AD
in Egypt at the time of the Roman Empire, and are either by Greek
painters or painters trained in the traditions and stunningly
convincing realism of Greek portraiture.
Suspicions regarding their authenticity were sometimes voiced
when they started to appear in Europe and the United States from
the 1880s on. Many of these portraits have little or no provenance,
because those who found them were lax about documenting their
discoveries. Some of the archaeologists were, however, scrupulous
in such matters, which must have helped suspicions about their
genuineness to disappear.
Nevertheless, they have still, according to the modern Greek
artist Euphrosyne Doxiadis, "been consistently neglected by
historians and critics and are virtually unknown to the general
There may be some exaggeration in this statement since her new
book, "The Mysterious Fayum Portraits: Faces from Ancient Egypt,"
contains a sizable bibliography, and she herself admits in her text
that she approached this corpus of portraits with "humility"
because she was a painter rather than a scholarly art historian or
archaeologist. In the event, however, she has produced a study of
academic distinction as well as aesthetic judgement.
It may also be that more of the "general public" are aware of
these portraits than she realizes. One of the most popular general
art history books, E.H. Gombrich's "The Story of Art," illustrates
and describes one of them. Other widely selling guides also do not
fail to include them.
The Fayum portraits (named after the region in Egypt where most
of them were found, preserved in the hot dry sand) are
irresistible, and quite different from virtually any other known
portrait paintings. They are unpretentious yet, in a number of
instances, masterly examples of strong, knowing, practiced painting.
Professor Gombrich observes that they "still astonish us by
their vigour and realism. There are few works of ancient art which
look so fresh and 'modern' as these."
Clearly much research into this subject is still needed,
particularly with regard to a precise understanding of technique
and materials. But this book provides a thorough-going
clarification of the portraits' purpose, social context, historical
context, and geographical origin. …