Online Review: Book

The Female Portrait Statue in the Greek World


By Sheila Dillon. Pp. xvi + 254, figs. 80. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2010. $99. ISBN 978-0-521-76450-6 (cloth).

In her introduction to The Female Portrait Statue in the Greek World, Sheila Dillon is careful to acknowledge that most of the material in the volume has been previously published. She is equally courteous when she recognizes the three studies—a short section in Smiths famous Hellenistic Sculpture (New York 1991); Eules new dissertation on images of women in Hellenistic Turkey (Hellenistische Bürgerinnen aus Kleinasien [Istabul 2001]); and Connellys important Portrait of a Priestess (Princeton 2007)—that each provide some measure of context for her own work. Ultimately, however, these self-effacing disclaimers do nothing to hide the obvious: Dillons new book is a revolutionary first step in a new sub-field in the history of Greek sculpture that paves the way for the next decades research on images of ancient Greek women in the plastic arts. She presents her material with an authority, a candor, and—perhaps most importantly—a critical imagination, what Panofksy famously called "synthetic intuition" (Studies in Iconology [Oxford and New York 1939]) that make this a must-buy book for all students of ancient Greek sculpture.

Dillon divides her text into three parts: a brief introduction (within which the scope and method of her text is outlined), her body text (which includes four principal chapters: "Portrait Honors of Women in Late Classical and Hellenistic Greece," "Clothes and Women: Statue Formats and Portrait Costumes," "The Female Portrait Face," and "The ‘Not Portrait Style of Female Portraiture in the Roman Period"), and a conclusion (which pulls it all together). The volume is closed with a thorough select bibliography, four detailed appendices (which list portrait statues from Athens and Delos in the fourth through first centuries B.C.E.), and three (very useful) indices. Let us take the four primary chapters in turn.

In chapter 1, Dillon treats the evidence for the historical/cultural practice of dedicating portrait statues of ancient Greek women within both the polis and major sanctuaries. This chapter is based primarily on the epigraphic record—an appropriate move, considering the state of the evidence and what the inscriptions can reveal about the "sitters" for these impressive monuments. Dillon shows here that images of women became more prominent over time and that, by the later Hellenistic period, images of women within the public sphere would have been almost as numerous as men. Dillon argues that this might be the result of an increased interest in commemorating the role of women as key family members within the ever-present flux of Greek political life as well as the growing importance placed on women in their roles as priestesses. Since some priesthoods were hereditary, these spheres sometimes overlap often with important results, such as Praxiteles famous statue of Chairippe. Also included here is a discussion of family group monuments and the impact images of women would have had within these contexts. This chapter provides much of the foundation-level data for the more synthetic chapters that follow.

Dillon tackles costumes and format in chapter 2. Here, she shows how body type, dress, and gesture formed the primary fields within which female identity was reflected and generated in the Classical and Hellenistic periods. While the previous chapter was informed (primarily) by solid discussions of chronology and style, here Dillon is interested in a more complex kind of cultural history. While providing a detailed survey of types and formats from the Early to Late Hellenistic period, Dillon describes the wide range of social expression made possible by a complex matrix of pose, costume, drapery, and gesture. Within this matrix, Dillon argues, a huge range of imaginative options were explored by Greek sculptors and their patrons, a range of possibilities that held at its center a deliciously complex interplay between the needs of traditional, conservative feminine modesty on one hand and conspicuous, elite visibility on the other. That all this was strained through a veil of both repressed and explicit eroticism makes the resulting image all the more compelling—and believable. As she did in her impressive Ancient Greek Portrait Sculpture: Context, Subjects, and Styles (New York 2006), Dillon once again shows how a robust, complex, and imaginative history of Greek sculpture can be generated by a detailed analysis of the physical evidence and a close reading/construction of contexts. She provides a powerful model and argument for those who believe that ancient Greek art history can and must engage a full range of early Greek culture including such (taboo) aesthetic concepts as ἀγλαία and χαρίεις and how these ideas might interface with socially constructed ideas of power, status, and display.

In chapter 3, "The Female Portrait Face," Dillon deals with individual physiognomies—and their opposite. Here, she shows how the models and patterns of representation applied to and generated by images of males in the Hellenistic period do not (and could not) apply to women. Instead—defined by specific ideals and ideas of female beauty—the faces of female portraits were limited to a representational range within which a general sense of beauty was the primary descriptive goal. The faces of these images are far more similar than they are different; they are formulas, not individuals. Dillon identifies two broad groups in this chapter (young women before marriage and married women and mothers) and points to the origins for these in Classical-period gravestones. While she does not give a detailed explanation for this phenomenon—beyond a general matching between homogenous image and a (relatively) homogenous social group—she does open the door for further inquiry. It is a fascinating problem for which many solutions are possible.

Chapter 4 focuses on the continued use of the generic female portrait in the Roman period, with a specific focus on portrait statues of women from the Sanctuary of Artemis Polo on Thasos and from the cities of Aphrodisias and Perge. Here an interesting phenomenon emerges: the use of a "new" Late Republican realism coexisting with the more traditional generic portrait type, discussed in chapters 2 and 3. In Perge, for example, most of the evidence points to women adopting the traditional, formulaic style of portrait (with some important exceptions), while at Aphrodisias, we have a rich and complex merging and blending of both traditions. Thasos, on the other hand, is revealed as being virtually immune to the new Roman trends. In addition to being fascinating in its own right, this chapter is also important methodologically. Here, as she did in her 2006 study, Dillon continues to insist on recreating the nuance of Roman context within which many of her Greek objects were situated. This, by itself, of course, is not new. What is exciting is Dillons insistence that these Romanized objects can tell us something about Greek art and culture and the manner in which these two aesthetic systems fused, borrowed, and reinvented each other in powerful, dynamic ways.

Peter Schultz
Department of Art
Concordia College
Moorhead, Minnesota 56560


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