Thursday, July 29, 2010


Version at BMCR home site
Sheila Dillon, The Female Portrait Statue in the Greek World. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010. Pp. xvi, 254; figs. 80. ISBN 9780521764506. $90.00.
Reviewed by Carly Daniel-Hughes, Concordia University, Montreal


In her second monograph on Greek portraiture, The Female Portrait Statue in the Greek World Sheila Dillon focuses on the commemorative portraiture of non-royal women from the classical into the Roman period.1 Like her earlier volume Ancient Greek Portrait Sculpture: Contexts, Subjects, and Styles (Cambridge 2006), with its focus on unnamed portraits of men, this volume examines an understudied aspect of Greek portraiture in order to nuance the study of this cultural media. This focused study nonetheless arrives at conclusions that extend beyond the art historical and could be of great value to classical historians of various types. Most especially Dillon's analysis sheds light on the gendered construction of public space in the Greek world, revealing how this conception of space informed representations of women's participation in civic and religious life as result. The monograph should find a receptive audience amongst art historians, classicists, and scholars of early Christianity as well. Readers will be intrigued by Dillon's conclusion that Greek cultural practices of commemoration persisted into the Roman period, an indicator of the lasting influence of Greek civic identities.

Dillon's approach parts ways with a focus on stylistics and instead traces patterns of representation in specific, local contexts. She concludes that women's portraiture followed alternative patterns of representation from men's by making sameness and not individuation the rule. Her conclusion shapes the format of the study as well. Chapter one, "Portrait Honors for Women in Late Classical and Hellenistic Greece," begins not with an analysis of portrait heads, which has tended to dominate art historical approaches to this media, but rather with a study of inscribed statue bases from Athens, Priene, Pergamon, and Delos. In the classical period of the fourth century these bases are often the only evidence extant for women's portraiture, making them an ideal starting point for systemic analysis of women's commemoration patterns. The formulaic character of women's portrait styles also lends these inscriptions import as interpretative clues about a statue's identity (26). Dillon treats us to an examination of base types and materials used for women's portraiture. This discussion leads her to an analysis of the inscriptions themselves. Dedicatory inscriptions for women, she demonstrates, highlight their role in familial relationships, whereas men's stress their individual identity (41). Most statues of women were set up in sanctuaries, sometimes individually or as part of a larger group. Male relatives commonly commissioned such a portraiture to memorialize a woman's marriage, her cultic functions (perhaps in conjunction with a celebration of his own), or as simply as a votive (51). Beauty and grace were the defining traits of women commemorated, or so the inscriptions would have us believe, rendering these portrait statues suitable adornment for the gods' own dwelling place.

The following chapter, "Clothes and the Woman: Statue Formats and Portrait Costumes," turns to draped statue bodies. The Greek world abstained from representing women with the "nude" portrait popular for men, and a fad, as well, for elite Roman women.2 All portrait bodies of Greek women donned flowing raiment reflecting cultural expectations that women cut a modest appearance (60). Despite this cultural protocol, women's portrait bodies in the Greek material still show an impressive and diverse array of what Dillon calls statue "formats", most especially in the Hellenistic period (99). Draped in various garb, tunic, peplos, himation, a figure could hold an "open and active gesture" or a more closed, wrapped one (68). The latter format was favored in the Hellenistic context (one thinks of the Pudicitia and Small/Large Herculaneum Women types, for instance), though open postures were common in commemoration of women who were cultic functionaries. It may be that the open gesture recalled a woman's ritual functions, Dillon suggests (77). Similarly raiment, like the peplos, could signal cultic affiliations, and this divine costume also visually aligned a woman with the honored goddess herself. This representational practice was later elaborated in women's statuary in the Roman period (82). On the whole, this chapter concludes that the range of body formats in Greek women's portraiture reveals a complex representational art in which a woman's "erotic charm" and her "self-restraint" were on display (102).

Where portrait bodies could vary subtly to elaborate a statue's identity, portrait heads reveal a monotony of sameness. Chapter Three, "The Female Portrait Face," indicates most clearly the need for a separate study of women and men's Greek portrait statuary. Why, Dillon asks, did men's portrait heads depend increasingly on accented "physiognomic individuality" where women's did not? She argues that because women had limited public roles, aside from being cultic functionaries, the need for individuation was perhaps less pressing, thus even the range of hairstyles and facial expressions were largely unchanged over centuries of statuary (104 and 133). Her analysis shows subtle variations in women's head portraits: they don the head covering mantle, a "melon" coiffure with undulating curls meeting at the nape of their necks, or the high "peak" style, hair piled in a triangular point at top their heads. These favored coiffures were variously paired with soft, youthful, and non-descript countenances. This "narrow range" of styles reveals that what was most important to communicate in women's portraiture was youth and beauty, attributes that not only were an honor to a woman's family, but also Dillon intriguingly suggests, a means to negotiate cultural anxieties about the "public display of the elite female face" (133).

The fourth and final chapter, "The Not Portrait Style of Female Portraiture in the Roman Period," zeroes on women's portraiture at three sites, Aphrodisias, Perge, and Thasos. It explores the endurance of non-descript and formulaic portrait heads into the Roman period, what Dillon calls the "not portrait" type. Evidence ranging in date from the first century BCE to the third century CE allows Dillon to consider the impact of Roman artistic innovations in the Greek east, especially individuated portraits for women. The results show different patterns emerging: portraiture at Thasos and Perge persists with the traditional Hellenistic style where in Aphrodisias, the Roman format takes greater precedence (149). An intriguing analysis of the well-studied statuary at Placina Magna's gate at Perge considers the complex's portraiture as a representation of Plancia Magna's civic identity.3 Dillon shows how Greek patterns of portraiture shaped this iconographic program in which the older Hellenistic generalizing style is preferred. Here the portraits of Plancia Magna and the other women with whom she was placed (including Empress Sabina) echo the Hellenistic values of "female beauty, good breeding, dignity, and personal modesty," thereby setting this female patron in continuity with the pre-Roman history of her Greek city even as inscriptions boldly proclaim her ties with the imperial house (160-163).

On the whole, Dillon's study indicates how women's portraiture reflected existing gender ideologies of the Greek world (166). The Female Portrait Statue in the Greek World makes a compelling case, too, for studying ancient portraiture in its historical and local contexts. This well-argued conclusion places her monograph alongside the rigorous contextual and cultural analyses of Hellenistic portraiture by R.R.R. Smith, of which Dillon is aware (3).4 Like Smith, she reveals that stylistic shifts should not overwhelm our attention to the fact that Greek portrait statues communicated by means of their local settings and places in iconographic programs. Most especially, Dillon reminds us that the representational choices in woman's portrait included the subtle combination of the three key constituent parts: the inscription, the body format, and the sculpted head.


1.   Dillon points out that not only are few royal portraits extant outside of Egypt in the Hellenistic period, but also that royal portraiture did not, by and large, influence commemorative patterns in the Greek context (4).
2.   See the study by Eve D'Ambra, for instance, "Nudity and Adornment in Female Portrait Sculpture of the Second Century AD," in I Claudia II: Women in Roman Art and Society (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2000), 101-114. See also Christopher Hallett The Roman Nude: Heroic Portrait Statuary 200 BC-AD 300 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005).
3.   Key studies of Placina Magna's portrait and this gate include Mary Taliaferro Boatwright, "Plancia Magna of Perge: Women's Roles and Status in Roman Asia Minor," in Women's History and Ancient History. Edited by Sarah B. Pomeroy (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991), 249-272. Also Jennifer Trimble, "The Aesthetics of Sameness: A Contextual Analysis of the Large and Small Woman Herculaneum Statue Types in the Roman Empire" (Diss., University of Michigan, 1999), especially 118-121.
4.   For instance, see R.R.R. Smith "Cultural Choice and Political Identity in Honorific Portrait Statues in the Greek East in the Second Century A.D." JRS 88 (1998): 59-93 and also his Hellenistic Sculpture: A Handbook (London: Thames & Hudson 1991).

1 comment:

  1. Sh. Dillon schreibt nichts, was nicht auch schon vorher bekannt gewesen wäre, so dass man sagen muss: "Das Neue ist nicht gut, und das Gute ist nicht neu." Genau wie in ihrer Monographie über die männlichen Porträts wimmelt es auch in ihrem neuesten Beitrag von zahlreichen methodischen Schwächen, haarsträubenden Missverständnissen, hanebüchenen Verwechslungen, sträflichen Auslassungen, fatalen Spekulationen und falschen Schlussfolgerungen. Als regelrecht peinlich ist zuvermerken, wie sie bemüht ist, ihrem Lehrer R.R.R. Smith nach dem Munde zu schreiben. Ein überflüssiges und ärgerliches Machwerk!


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