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Portrait of an Older Woman:


Minneapolis Institute of Arts



Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
After defeating Mark Antony at Actium in 31 B.C., Octavian emerged as the sole ruler of the Roman world and completed the founding of the Roman Empire, a monarchical takeover begun by his granduncle Julius Caesar. Given the title of Augustus ("revered") by the Senate, Octavian instituted a series of reforms which soon brought peace and order to a land torn by civil wars and class conflicts. He halted the offensive campaigns of the army, cut its number in half, and fixed the boundaries of the empire along easily defensible borders (the Atlantic Ocean to the west, the African desert to the south, and the Rhine-Danube rivers to the north). He appointed honest, capable men to govern the provinces; encouraged home rule in local matters; and levied more equitable taxes through a system of regular census taking. He built new roads, improved the postal service, and made the seas safe from pirates. Agriculture, industry, and commerce flourished during this era of political and social stability, as did the arts. Under Augustus, Rome was transformed from a city of brick into a city of marble. The poets Virgil, Horace, and Ovid wrote some of the finest works in the history of Western literature, and Roman sculpture evolved into an original art form, independent of Hellenic prototypes.
Up until the last years of the Republic, the Romans imported original Greek works by the thousands and copied them in even greater numbers. But although a great deal of early Roman sculpture was clearly based on Greek examples, it was not exclusively so. It also reflected, to a lesser extent, the art of Etruria, Egypt, and the Near East. During Augustus' reign, however, two sculptural forms developed which were wholly Roman in character: portraiture and the narrative relief. Made to either capture a person's likeness or to commemorate a political or historical event, these new forms were essentially secular in nature and emphasized the realistic depiction of the human individual. Classical Greek sculpture had always tried to embody the perfect, the ideal, the timeless.

Roman sculpture sought to depict the exact opposite: the real, the factual, the flawed, the finite. The Greeks sculpted generalized types, while the Romans sculpted individualized personalities. Generally, portraits were made for two reasons: for political motives, honoring a prominent public figure; or for familial purposes, often as funerary statuary. Members of the Patrician class immortalized their ancestors by the making of wax effigies and death masks, as had the Etruscans. The Roman historian, Pliny, wrote:

"In the halls of our ancestors, wax models of faces were displayed to furnish likenesses in funeral processions; so that at a funeral the entire clan was present."
The custom of making wax-portraits of family ancestors was originally a jealously guarded privilege of the patrician class-indeed, it was restricted by law to them alone. These wax portraits were piously preserved in the atria of aristocratic homes, and brought out for family funerals. Undoubtedly, behind this custom lay the ancient belief that the likeness preserves the spirit -- a belief already encountered in ancient Egypt and Etruria. The stark realism that constitutes an essential characteristic of early Roman portraiture of the late Republican period is thought to derive from the death-mask practice.

The realistic portrayal of aging is a feature of Roman portraiture from the Republic onward. Roman sculptors did not hesitate to portray the wrinkles, creases and sagging flesh of older men and women. The sympathetic portrayal of the aged in sculpture reflects a fundamental social ideal, the respect for maturity.

When it was carved, the marble was much whiter; over time it has weathered to a soft golden tint.

The portrait in stone was a logical outgrowth of this tradition, a more permanent memento of one's loved ones and one which reflected the Roman reverence for the family. Moreover, all classes of Roman society commissioned such portraits, from emperors to governmental officials to tradesmen. The subject of this sculpture was once thought to be a likeness of Agrippina the Younger, thefourth wife of the Emperor Claudius and the mother of the Emperor Nero, but is now considered to be a portrait of a private citizen.

This sculpture blends the severity appropriate to a realistic depiction of a middle-aged Roman woman, with the idealized body of a Greco-Roman goddess. Beneath the stiff, curled rows of a fashionable coiffure (which indicated the woman's status), the artist presents in detail the distinctive features of the aging woman. A prominent mole on her right temple, wrinkles around her eyes, nose and thin lips, deeply set eyes, and slack skin. She looks to the right, her strong face composed. Although the head is a portrait of a specific Roman woman, her figure and drapery imitate idealized Greek sculpture. For this reason, her body is more youthful than her face.

She wears a stola, a loosely fitting outer garment, over which is draped a palla, a scarf-like cloth which is bunched and gathered at the waist. These garments cling to her thigh, knee, and breasts, clearly accentuating the presence of the body underneath. Her right knee is slightly bent and breaks the cascading folds of the deeply cut drapery. It is likely that the Roman sculptor improvised the drapery on her bosom to cover her breasts, which were probably bare in the Greek original. The deeply cut, cascading folds of the lower drapery illustrate a more direct imitation of a Greek statue. Despite the fact that the right foot and arm are missing, as well as part of the left, the work seems amazingly complete and remains a convincing, uncompromising depiction of an aging woman whose countenance reveals her to be strong, determined, and self-controlled.

This sculpture has been dated to the close of the reign of Claudius (40-54 AD) or to the beginning of the reign of Nero (54-68 AD), or perhaps slightly later. The hairstyle, with its rows of tight curls, is a fashionable Neronian coiffure. Like their male counterparts, the female members of the Imperial family were pace-setters in popularizing certain hair-styles, and a great number of portraits of private women reproduce or imitate imperial coiffures. It should be noted that tight curls were achieved with the use of a manual drill, a technique widely used in Roman imperial sculpture but not prevalent in classical Greek sculpture.
Kleiner, Diana E.E. and Susan B. Matheson, eds., I Claudia: Women in Ancient Rome (New Haven, Yale University Art Gallery, 1996)
Use on the following tours:
  • Women and Art
    • Compare and contrast her to idealized depictions, such as:
      • Lady Teshat
      • Aphrodite
      • Sande Society Mask
    • symbolic depictions, such as:
      • the Venus figure
      • the Cycladic figure
      • Mary
      • Parvati
    • or the women in:
      • Gauguin's Under the Pandanus
      • the Ukiyo-e prints
      • Marisol's Cocktail Party
  • Ancient Art
  • Sculpture
  • People and Places
  • Classics and the Classical Influence
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Source: Docent Manual entry for <i>Portrait of an Older Woman,</i> The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Education Division (1998).
Rights: ©MIA
Added to Site: March 10, 2009