In Focus

Roman Figure of a Woman [1973.11]

The following essay is from the 1996 publication Gods, Men, and Heroes: Ancient Art at the Dallas Museum of Art_._

This life-size figure of a woman served as a commemorative or funerary statue. The majestic image of feminine Roman nobility seen here is derived from 4th-century BCE models created by followers of Praxiteles or sculptors in the circle of Lysippus. The positioning of the arms, feet, and drapery folds clearly characterizes this statue as one of a number of similar marble figures found in the ancient theater at Herculaneum and known as the Small Herculaneum type. An example of this type, as well as the large Herculaneum type, is now in Dresden.

The Dallas Museum of Art statue wears a long chiton, or tunic, which can be seen below her neck and over her sandaled feet. Her himation, or mantle, is worn over the chiton, embracing the figure in a series of magnificent folds, and has been pulled up over her head to create a veil. Through the drapery folds, the form of the female figure is realized and the body animated. The angle of the bent elbow, the diagonal of the extended hand, the gentle convex planes of the stomach, and the protruding impression of the right knee are all created and yet muted by the drapery. The woman moves forward, her left foot trailing behind, while she secures the placement of her veil with her left hand. In place of significant action, here the figure is subdued and pensive, indicating the reflective state of mind associated with a commemorative or funerary image, as well as conveying the desirable attitude associated with Roman women of noble rank.

In the creation of portrait images, Roman sculptors followed the tradition of representing Demeter and Persephone, mother and daughter, by the Large and Small Herculaneum types, respectively. The Large Herculaneum type was generally used for portraits of older women while the Small type was the form for younger ones. In classical mythology, Persephone was the bride of Pluto (Greek Hades), and Demeter was often depicted mourning her loss to the underworld. Therefore, either of these mythical subjects offered an ideal context for funerary sculpture.

The DMA statue follows the formula for the Small Herculaneum type except that the figure wears a veil, which is often associated with a bride and is more commonly an attribute of the Large Herculaneum type. According to Margaret Bieber, the blending of the two herculaneum types, specifically the depiction of the Small Herculaneum type with a veil, began in the late 2nd century CE and continued into the early 3rd century. On the DMA figure, the mouth is small; the head is slightly bowed; and the eyes, carved to reveal the irises and pupils, are somewhat downcast. The hairstyle is distinctive, combed up from the face and bearing a pronounced central divide. The face resembles portraits of Faustina the Younger daughter of the emperor Antoninus Pus, and his wife, Faustina the Elder. Faustina the Younger became the wife of the emperor Marcus Aurelius. Aspects of the hair and face, however, deviate from accepted portraits of Faustina the Younger, leaving the DMA statue without clear identification.

Excerpt from

Anne R. Bromberg, PhD, and Karl Kilinski II, PhD, Gods, Men, and Heroes: Ancient Art at the Dallas Museum of Art. (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1996), 99.