News from the Conservation Lab—analyzing ancient portraits and panel paintings – The Kelsey Blog

News from the Conservation Lab—analyzing ancient portraits and panel paintings

By Caroline Roberts, Conservator

Every time I walk through the first-floor galleries I like to pay a visit to KM 26801—the remarkable portrait of a woman on display in the museum’s Egyptian galleries. This arresting painting is a type of funerary object that was popular in Roman Egypt: a painted wooden panel that would have originally been secured via linen wrappings over the face of a mummy. Portraits like this one can be found in collections worldwide. They are often separated from their mummy, with their original findspots unrecorded and now no longer known.

We are taking a closer look at the Kelsey’s collection of panel paintings as part of the conservation lab’s ongoing NEH Color Research project, with the goal of adding what we learn to our growing color dataset, as well as to the APPEAR mummy portrait database. Multispectral imaging has allowed us to reinterpret the imagery of one panel painting (featured in an earlier blog post), and it has allowed us to identify pigments on mummy portraits in the Kelsey collection. On one painting (KM 26574, pictured here), the sitter wears a purple clavus (a decorative strip of fabric worn on the shoulder) that is painted in a way remarkably similar to the purple robe of the woman in KM 26801. On another, Egyptian blue appears in unexpected places in the figure’s skin—something we see in portraits from other collections. We also found another blue pigment—indigo—in the hair of a mummy portrait fragment that was discovered in a house at Karanis.

Fragment of a mummy portrait. Roman Egypt (Minia?), 2nd century CE. gift of Peter Ruthven. KM 26574.

All of this provides us with more evidence about the materials and techniques artists were working with when they painted these wonderful panel paintings and portraits. Just another day in the Kelsey conservation lab!

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