The Oldest Modernist Paintings

Two thousand years before Picasso, artists in Egypt painted some of the most arresting portraits in the history of art

Ancient art portraits
Today, nearly 1,000 Fayum paintings exist in collections in Egypt and at the Louvre, the British and Petrie museums in London, the Metropolitan and Brooklyn museums, the Getty in California and elsewhere. Gift of Edward S. Harkness, 1918 / Metropolitan Museum of Art; © The Trustees of The British Museum; © The Trustees of The British Museum / Art Resource, NY

Between 1887 and 1889, the British archaeologist W.M. Flinders Petrie turned his attention to the Fayum, a sprawling oasis region 150 miles south of Alexandria. Excavating a vast cemetery from the first and second centuries A.D., when imperial Rome ruled Egypt, he found scores of exquisite portraits executed on wood panels by anonymous artists, each one associated with a mummified body. Petrie eventually uncovered 150.

The images seem to allow us to gaze directly into the ancient world. “The Fayum portraits have an almost disturbing lifelike quality and intensity,” says Euphrosyne Doxiadis, an artist who lives in Athens and Paris and is the author of The Mysterious Fayum Portraits. “The illusion, when standing in front of them, is that of coming face to face with someone one has to answer to—someone real.”

By now, nearly 1,000 Fayum paintings exist in collections in Egypt and at the Louvre, the British and Petrie museums in London, the Metropolitan and Brooklyn museums, the Getty in California and elsewhere.

For decades, the portraits lingered in a sort of classification limbo, considered Egyptian by Greco-Roman scholars and Greco-Roman by Egyptians. But scholars increasingly appreciate the startlingly penetrating works, and are even studying them with noninvasive high-tech tools.

At the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek museum in Copenhagen, scientists recently used luminescence digital imaging to analyze one portrait of a woman. They documented extensive use of Egyptian blue, a copper-containing synthetic pigment, around the eyes, nose and mouth, perhaps to create shading, and mixed with red elsewhere on the skin, perhaps to enhance the illusion of flesh. “The effect of realism is crucial,” says the museum’s Rikke Therkildsen.

Stephen Quirke, an Egyptologist at the Petrie museum and a contributor to the museum’s 2007 catalog Living Images, says the Fayum paintings may be equated with those of an old master—only they’re about 1,500 years older.

Doxiadis has a similar view, saying the works’ artistic merit suggests that “the greats of the Renaissance and post-Renaissance, such as Titian and Rembrandt, had great predecessors in the ancient world.”

Memorial paintings done before the end of the third century A.D., mainly in Egypt's Fayum region, blended Roman and Greek portraiture traditions with local mummification practices. c. 180-211 Gift of Edward S. Harkness, 1918 / Metropolitan Museum of Art
At the Glyptotek museum in Copenhagen, where eight Fayum paintings reside, conservator Rikke Therkildsen examines one portrait with a video microscope. Carsten Snejbjerg
A boy, c. 193-211. © The Trustees of The British Museum
Recent analyses found a plant derived red pigment in the garments and a mixture of lead white and Egyptian blue pigments that had helped create the portraits' striking eye color. Carsten Snejbjerg
Records of the deceased as they appeared in life, the portraits were typically painted on wooden panels and affixed to decorated coffins or linen mummy wrappings. © The Trustees of The British Museum / Art Resource, NY
Many were painted before the subject's death, but scholars say others were done posthumously. Rogers Fund, 1911 / Metropolitan Museum of Art / Art Resource, NY
The chalice and ankh-like object of this c. 193-235 portrait likely had religious significance for the subject. Louvre, Paris / Giraudon / Bridgeman Art Library International
Using primarily beeswax and pigment, the Fayum artists produced portraits that historian Euphrosyne Doxiadis calls "sophisticated and highly accomplished works of art." Shown: Gold leaf creates a sumptuous panel. © The Trustees of The British Museum / Art Resource, NY
A priest wears the seven-point star of a Greco-Egyptian god. © The Trustees of The British Museum
This painting is housed in Berlin's Staatliche Museum. BPK, Berlin / Antikensammlung, Staatliche Museen, Berlin / Ingrid Geske-Heiden / Art Resource, NY
Petrie excavated this portrait in 1888. © The Trustees of The British Museum / Art Resource, NY
This man's blue tunic suggests that he was an official or a soldier. By the end of the third century, mummy portraiture had virtually disappeared. Pushkin Museum, Moscow / Bridgeman Art Library International
Mummy portrait: Young officer with gold crown. Antikensammlung, Staatliche Museen, Berlin Germany / photo by Ingrid Geske-Heiden / Art Resource, NY
Funeral portrait of a bearded man. Musee des Beaux-Arts, Dijon, France / photo by Erich Lessing / Art Resource, NY
Portrait of a thin-faced, bearded man. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY, U.S.A. / Image copyright © The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Image source: Art Resource, NY
Funeral portrait of a young man. Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow, Russia, Scala / Art Resource, NY
Funeral portrait of a woman. Louvre, Paris, France / Erich Lessing / Art Resource, NY