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Portrait of an Older Woman

Let your eyes wander over this sculpture. Folds of fabric cross the woman’s chest, drop off her shoulder, swing across her belly, fall to her ankles—only to swoop back up towards her head. But the action stops there. Curls of hair cling tightly to her scalp in orderly rows. They frame a stern face, with firm jaw and tight lips.

Cover her head with your hand. Beneath the folds of fabric we sense a body that is active, strong, and young. Her shoulders are almost dainty, and her breasts are firm. Now take your hand away. Does the head surprise you? Perhaps a bit large for the body, it bears the steady gaze of an older, more mature woman than the body suggests.

The contradiction between the head and body of this sculpture may seem odd at first. But the puzzle reveals important aspects of this woman's character and role in life.

Roman, Portrait of an Older Woman, 60–70 A.D., marble

The sculpture is a portrait of an actual woman.
Hairstyle is more than a fashion statement in Roman portraits.
Greek art provided inspiration for artists of the Roman Empire.

A Sense of Personality: The Roman philosopher Seneca honored his mother with the words, “You never polluted yourself with makeup and you never wore a dress that covered about as much on as it did off. Your only ornament, the kind of beauty that time does not tarnish, is the great honor of modesty." (Seneca, Letter to his Mother, c. A.D. 41) Look again at the close-up images of this woman’s face in Key Ideas 1 and 2. What might she have been like as a person from what you can see in her face? Compose a three-sentence inscription for the statue that might describe her importance to the people in her life.  

At the Museum: Compare the Portrait of an Older Woman with a number of other examples of Roman portrait sculpture in Gallery 240. Choose one of the other sculptures and write an imagined conversation between it and the Portrait of an Older Woman. The conversation should reflect character traits suggested by the expressions on the faces of the sculptures.  

D?Ambrosio, Antonio. Women and Beauty in Pompeii (Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2001)

Kleiner, Diana E. E. and Susan B. Matheson. I, Claudia: Women in Ancient Rome (New Haven, CT: Yale University Art Gallery, 1996)

Yale University Art Gallery. I, Claudia II: Women in Roman Art and Society (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2000)  

March 2004