The painting was likely discovered along with many other funerary portraits in 1887 by Flinders Petrie in Egypt at an excavation site at Hawara. The painting was constructed in Graeco-Roman Egypt using Roman and Greek styles of painting, rather than the more common Egyptian painting style. This portrait was constructed in Graeco-Roman Egypt, which was culturally diverse due to the mixing of Roman and Egyptian cultures over hundreds of years. Although this painting and the ones like it were made using a Greek style of painting, they were used for Egyptian practices such as funerals, and this tells us it was constructed during the Roman period in Egypt. [Riggs 2002, 93] This painting currently resides in the Metropolitan Museum of Art , located in New York City.
This painting is an encaustic on wood. An encaustic painting uses dry colors combined with heat softened wax on a variety of mediums. The technologies that were used to make these works of art were relatively advanced for this time period, as it enabled the works of art to last for thousands of years. According to an excerpt from the Funk and Wagnalls New World Encyclopedia, to create these paintings, "They heated both the painting surface and the palette with charcoal burners and worked with a two-ended metal spatula or a brush. Sometimes they incised the design with the heated end of the spatula and then filled the incision with paint." [Funk and Wagnalls 2016] These encaustic paintings were made using pigments, sea water, and wax. Due to the materials that were used, it would seem that there were no extremely rare or expensive materials used. The wax and sea water are materials that are relatively easy to acquire, as they can be acquired from the local area depending on the area of Egypt where the artist was located. The only material that most likely woulf have had to been imported from other places was the pigments they needed, however this could easily be accuired from other areas in the Roman empire. This particular painting was discovered in the late 19th century, and was donated to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1918 by Edward S. Harkness , an American philanthropist
Local Historical Context:
The Portrait of the Boy Eutyches was constructed in Graeco-Roman Egypt in around A.D. 150. The society in which it was constructed was based around that of Roman society, however the culture was a mixture of that from both Roman and Egyptian society. This mixture of cultures and adoption of Roman society was a long process. This is shown in the transition from referring to Emperor Augustus as a pharaoh in the initial years after being taken in as a province, to writing about the inclusion of Egypt into Roman society in later years. [Tomorad 2014, 2]
As this society was essentially just another Roman province, their leader at this time was likely Emperor Hadrian . Their local leader at this time was likely one of the many prefects appointed to govern Egypt by the emperor; however, due to the miniscule amounts of time each man spent in this role, it is impossible to determine exactly which of these prefects was in power at the time this portrait was commissioned.[Tomorad 2014, 2]
The majority of the people in this society were farmers who were expected to provide grain for Rome. There were four basic classes of people in this society; the first which consisted of Roman citizens that performed the most important provincial duties, the second that consisted of the citizens of the largest Greek cities, such as Alexandria,and Naucratis, the third which consisted of Egyptians, and other citizens of Egypt without Roman citizenship, and lastly the fourth class that consisted of slaves. [Tomorad 2014, 3] The Roman citizens who held positions of power insured that the Egyptian citizens were kept out of positions of power in order to keep them producing grain.[Tomorad 2014, 3]
Based on the distribution of power in this society, it is likely that the person who created this object was a Roman citizen who was relatively wealthy. The creator of this object was likely paid handsomely for this portrait, as only welathy citizens would have been able to commission this painting. This object was likely created as a funeral portrait for the boy depicted in the painting, as this was a common practice in this society where Egyptian and Roman culture were mixed together. The item was likely commissioned by the boy's family to commemorate his passing, and based on this we can assume he and his family were wealthy Roman citizens, because these death portraits were expensive to have commissioned. This portrait was one of less than one hundred funeral portraits from this time period that has been discovered, as it was remarkably preserved, and due to this we can assume that it was buried within a rather luxurious burial chamber, which would lend further support to the claim that the boy's family was wealthy. This piece of artwork was commissioned as a funeral portrait to go over the face of the person who had died. This implied Egyptian beliefs about the after life, however it is not known what specific purpose the funeral portrait served in religious beliefs.
This funeral portrait signifies the spread of Rome into Egypt, which allowed for Rome to continue its expansion due to the grain that Rome could extract from Egypt. It also signifies the mixture of Roman and Egyptian cultures, which slightly began to blur the lines between the differences of the four different classes. This object is unique in that it is one of less than one hundred funeral portraits recovered in Egypt.
While other cultures throughout history have created likenesses of people after death, these people have typically been previous rulers. However, it appears that using portraits like these to place over the face of deceased people in normal society is linked specifically to Graeco-Roman Egypt. As it is not clear what the specific purpose of these portraits was, it is impossible to determine whether it had a similar function to objects produced by other cultures. However, there are other societies that created and used funerary art, such as the Han Dynasty in China . In Han China they began to place their deceased into stone coffins around 200 B.C.E. and this led to them incising simple images onto these stone coffins, which in time began to transform into more complex images. Unlike the funerary portraits in Graeco-Roman Egypt, these funerary carvings became widespread in China during the Han Dynasty. [Yan 2012, 65]
Most of the materials used in this painting would have been available in Egypt, however it is likely that the wood that was painted on had to be imported from some distant land such as Syria and Lebanon.[Flesher 2015]
Funk and Wagnalls New World Encyclopedia. Encaustic Painting. World Book, Inc., Chicago, 2016.
Rice, Danielle. Encaustic Painting. Oxford University Press, 1996.
Tomorad, Mladen. Egypt during the Roman and Byzantine period until the Arab conquest. Prilozi Instituta za Arheologiju u Zagrebu. 2014, Vol. 31 Issue 1, p239-255.
Riggs, Christina. Facing the Dead: Recent Research on the Funerary Art of Ptolemaic and Roman Egypt. Archaeological Institute of America, 2002.
Yan, Zheng. Western Han sarcophagi and the transformation of Chinese funerary art. The Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology and the Harvard Uiversity Art Museum, 2012
Flesher, Dale L. Trade and Commerce in the Ancient World. Salem Press Encyclopedia, January, 2015.
Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia. Edward Stephen Harkness. Columbia Uiversity Press, 2016.
Drower, Margaret S. Flinders Petrie: A life in Archaeology. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1995.
Funk and Wagnalls New World Encyclopedia. Hadrian. World Book, Inc., Chicago, 2016.
Metropolitan Museum of Art, "Portrait of the Boy Eutyches," http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/547951?sortBy=Relevance&when=A.D.+1-500&where=Egypt&what=Paintings&ft=*&offset=0&rpp=20&pos=2
Metropolitan Museum of Art, "Han Dynasty," http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/hand/hd_hand.htm
U.S. Department of State, "Egypt," http://www.state.gov/r/pa/ei/bgn/5309.htm
U.S. Department of State, "China," http://www.state.gov/r/pa/ei/bgn/18902.htm