In Focus

Roman Figure of a Woman [1973.11] at the DMA, (100 Treasures, 100 Years)

In 1973 Cecil and Ida Green gave the Dallas Museum of Art a major ancient sculpture, the Roman "Figure of a woman" (1973.11). This followed the couple's 1966 gift of the Classical Greek "Figure of a young man" (1996.26), one of the Museum's great treasures. Since Mr. and Mrs. Green were a devoted couple, the Museum staff fondly called the two sculptures "Ida" and "Cecil."

This sculpture is one of the few life-size and complete figures of a Roman woman in an American museum. It is also unusually graceful and attractive; many Roman female portraits could be fairly described as "old bats," but this lady is delicate and charming yet filled with characteristic Roman personality. The sculpture was probably either a commemorative funerary portrait or a civic or religious dedication. It dates to the middle years of the 2nd century, the height of the Roman Empire.

Unlike Greek portraits of the Classical period, which usually represent types of men and women, Roman portraits were realistic for religious reasons. The early Romans kept wax death masks of their ancestors in family shrines. When Greek sculpture began to influence Roman art, these representations remained historical and realistic, though they now took the form of marble busts and statues. The Dallas Museum of Art has a number of fine Roman portrait busts that complement this majestic sculpture (1981.169, 1984.163, 1994.51, 1999.115, 2015.31, 2016.36).

Although our sculpture is based on a Greek type of female figure (the "Younger Herculaneum type") that was commonly used to show unmarried women, this lady appears as a full-blown Roman matron. She is completely draped, as a chaste wife should be, and her head is veiled to indicate her piety. Youthful though she appears, she is a genuine Roman materfamilias. The piece embodies the pride, consciousness of family tradition, and sense of personal worth and virtue so remarkable in noble women.

The carving has all the earmarks of art under the Antonine emperors of 2nd-century Rome. Crisp garments and flowing mantle contrast with soft melting flesh tones and the lady's large brooding eyes. She is far more than a symbol of womanly virtue; she has an upright force and power, an almost priestess-like dignity. Not surprisingly, the closest analogies to our sculpture are representations of the distinguished Roman Empress Faustina the Younger.

The significance of this commanding work has been appreciated for many years. It was published in 1981 in Cornelius Vermeule's seminal study Greek and Roman Sculpture in America, as well as in several Dallas Museum of Art publications. The sculpture was prominently featured in the Yale University Art Museum's 1996 exhibition I, Claudia: Women in Ancient Rome, where it appeared on both the front and back of the accompanying catalog.

The piece is a signature work in the Museum's antiquities collection. For a long time it has been exhibited near Constantin Brancusi's 20th-century marble sculpture The Beginning of the World__ (1977.51.FA) in the European Painting and Sculpture galleries. Separated by more than eighteen hundred years, the two works nevertheless resonate together as masterly expressions of the classical spirit. Timeless, human yet divine, they embody the ultimate realities of life and death in the universal form of motherhood, the beginning of life.

The Roman poet Propertius captured the essence of the values shown in this portrait. He says of an aristocratic Roman noblewoman:

My life was changeless; through all its days it knew no slander. Between the torch of marriage and the torch of death ours was a life of high renown. Heaven has unbarred its gates to virtue-and my ashes are borne to dwell with my glorious ancestors.

Excerpt from

Anne Bromberg, "Figure of a Woman," in Dallas Museum of Art 100 Years, eds. Dorothy Kosinski, et al. (Dallas, TX: Dallas Museum of Art, 2003), 31.

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