Our earliest painted representations of the human face are the remarkable Roman Mummy Portraits found at Hawara and other sites in the Fayoum region of Egypt. These striking portraits dating from the first century AD are hauntingly beautiful and the brushwork seems incredibly modern to us. Knowing that these portraits were painted using encaustic (wax and pigment) make them all the more surprising. How was the medium controlled when being applied in such hot temperatures and a seemingly fragile surface having survived for so long?
What I find amazing about this group of funerary portraits is their intense naturalism, particularly found in the examples excavated at Hawara. The next representations we find of this quality are centuries later during the Renaissance. These images of the human face seem as ‘fresh’ and painterly as some early twentieth century London School portraiture, Stanley Spencer, Camden Town etc.
Looking at the current Lucian Freud exhibition along with the portraits of the contemporary painter Tai-Shan Schierenberg we can see a painterly application and expressive brushwork reminiscent of the Hawara pictures. During the recent documentary Lucian Freud: Painted Life the influence of the mummy portraits was acknowledged.
We are lucky that a number of these portraits can be found in London, both at the British Museum and a large collection at the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, UCL. If you find yourself at the Manchester Museum do go and seek out the Mummy Portraits there. One Portrait of a Woman is a particularly fine example.
In my own paintings made during stays in Egypt I have continued to experiment with different surfaces and mediums to find the most sympathetic and responsive materials when working quickly and in very hot conditions. Oil paint becomes very sticky and glue-like even when generously diluted. Textured surfaces can also be difficult when the paint behaves like this. Trying to make a clean brushstroke is a challenge. My most recent portraits have been oil on gesso panel. These I feel have been the most successful, the smooth glass-like surface of the wood allowing for a painterly stroke. The gesso is very absorbent which suits my painting in these temperatures.
On a recent trip to Copenhagen I saw a number of these portraits including an exquisite example (below) which was painted onto canvas and still in position on the sarcophagus. The majority of the encaustic portraits are painted on wood panel, this is a rare example on canvas. This flexible surface rather than a flat wooden surface follows the contour of the mummy intensifying the reality of the portrait. Here you can see the fluid and painterly marks made on the ear, over the eyelid and the flecks of light along the nose. Over the entire surface expressive brushstrokes can be seen applying pigment.
The last images are a few portraits also found in Copenhagen. Please forgive the quality of the images as they have been taken through glass and with artificial light.
For further reading Living Images, Egyptian Funerary Portraits in the Petrie Museum is an excellent and informative read on the techniques, history and restoration of these wonderful portraits and is available from the Petrie Museum.