Friday, February 11, 2011

Could this be the earliest portrait in history?

The Dwarf Seneb and his Family, Egyptian Museum, c2500BCJonathan Jones - A lifelike, touching statue of an Ancient Egyptian family shows our sense of individuality has deep and universal roots

An Egyptian family sit proudly for the artist – I nearly wrote, for the camera. But the lifelike portrayal of the Dwarf Seneb and his Family, one of the most captivating things in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, right at the heart of the revolution on Tahrir Square, was carved and painted at least 4,000 years before the invention of photography. It is one of the earliest works of art in history to which it seems fitting to give the title "portrait."

Of course, Seneb, his wife and their two children did not really "sit" or pose for their portraits. For one thing, this is a posthumous image of Seneb, made to fit into a niche in his tomb close to the Pyramids of Giza. But it achieves its moving sense of picturing real people, in all their uniqueness, by a bold utilisation of physical facts. Seneb was a dwarf, but smallness did not hold him back in life – as this fine work of art from his expensive tomb attests. The artist has deliberately used physical difference to proclaim Seneb's individuality; his two children stand in front of his short figure in place of adult-length legs. Meanwhile his tall, slender wife touches her husband affectionately. This is a loving family, memorialised for the ages.

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