Student Post: The Fayum Portraits

16, March 2009 § 3 Comments


I attended The Aegean Center for the Fine Arts last Fall 2008 and wrote a blog post at the end of the semester expressing my strong desire to return to the following session to complete a full year of study. Fortunately, after a short winter break of working, I was able to fulfill that vision and was delighted to arrive back in Paros two weeks ago. I have since resumed classes in painting, drawing, art history and Greek literature.

While I was home in CT between semesters, I traveled to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. I was amazed at how objects and paintings that I would have at one point rushed past now emerged from their displays with a historical context and meaning. I was able to adequately identify the importance of most of the artifacts and pieces of art, displayed not only in the Ancient Greek and Roman collection, but also in the Renaissance Art collection– what a great way to gauge how much I’d learned. My only regret was that Jeffrey, our art history teacher, didn’t materialize from behind one of the ancient marble statues to guide me through the rest of the museum as he’d done so many times before in Italy.

In between the Greek and Roman art and the Renaissance collection, I took a quick trip to the Egyptian collection and passed a room with earthy colored portraits painted on wood panels. Although some dated back to 2000 years ago, the color palette, emotion and mastery with which the portraits were painted reminded me almost of the Renaissance styles we had seen in Italy. I’d remembered seeing these paintings in the book The Mysterious Fayum Portraits, Faces from Ancient Egypt at the Aegean Center last semester and made a note to myself to take a closer look at it when I returned. Fortuitously, last weekend, the author of the book, Euphrosyne Doxiadis, visited the Aegean Center to give a guest lecture. Upon hearing about her presentation, I was reminded again of how important it is to see art in a comprehensive context and to understand the connection between the ancient world and the Renaissance. When approached in this holistic way, it is easy to view art’s continuity and progression over multiple centuries and the Fayum Portraits are an integral part of understanding the beginning of ‘western art’.


The Fayum portraits are a collection of paintings discovered in the Fayum, a valley near Cairo, dating to the Roman period, from the early 1st century AD and onwards (possibly to the 3rd century AD). Painted on wood panels or directly onto the linen cloth of burial wrappings, these portraits are an unbelievable discovery because they show us some of the only existing examples we have of paintings from the ancient world. While much pottery and sculptures have survived, paintings on wood and linen often don’t last long (let alone 2000 years) and we are fortunate that the low rainfall in the Fayum valley allowed for them to endure.

As Euphrosyne explained, in ancient Roman Egypt at the time of Christ, it was a Greek profession to paint the portraits of people living in Egypt and then have the paintings buried with them for passage into the afterlife. This Egyptian tradition speaks to the cultural emphasis that was put on death and life after it. As a result, the portraits are meant to portray the true essence of their subjects; that is, to capture them as individuals in life and not death. They are the means through which someone’s essence becomes eternal. To emphasize the sense of life that is infused in each of these portraits, Euphrosyne had us view them while she carried around a bundle of lavender stems and played an Egyptian dessert song.


Almost as if these portraits served their indelible purpose, thousands of years later, it is impossible to view them without feeling connected to the subjects portrayed. Each face is slightly different in form and color, but is consistent in its ability to engage the viewer completely. As John Pack commented, it is almost comforting to view the collection of faces again because they have become like old friends. There is a timeless and accessible quality to these paintings making them both current and unforgettable. As Euphrosyne explained, the Fauym paintings are “monuments of mourning” that venerate the people just as they are. She shared the poem, Tomb of Lanis, by the modern Greek poet, Constantine P. Cavafy, to better illustrate this.

Tomb of Lanis

The Lanis you loved, Markos, isn’t here
in this tomb you come to weep by, lingering hours on end.
The Lanis you loved you’ve still got close to you
in your room at home when you look at his portrait-
the portrait that still keeps something of what was valuable in him,
something of what you used to love.

Remember, Markos, that time you brought in
the famous Kyrenian painter from the Proconsul’s palace?
What artistic subtlety he used trying to persuade you both,
the minute he saw your friend,
that he absolutely must do him as Hyacinth-
in that way his portrait would come to be better known.

But your Lanis didn’t hire out his beauty like that;
reacting strongly, he told him to paint
neither Hyacinth nor anyone else,
but Lanis, son of Rametichos, an Alexandrian.

-Constantine P. Cavafy

In addition to its broader relevance to our study of art right now, I also found this lecture particularly interesting for technical reasons given that we are learning about the earth palette and portraits in painting class right now. As if to even further infuse their portraits with life, the artists of the Fayum paintings would use only organic colors from the earth (black, burnt sienna, yellow ochre and white) to depict the skin color of their subjects. Any other colors were used on inorganic parts of the paintings, like clothing or jewelry. Given the fact that we are learning how to paint with the earth palette and I am in the process of painting flesh colors on two of my paintings, I felt that this lecture was both informative and inspirational. We are also learning more about portraits and how to effectively convey a subject’s essence based on their gesture, tilt of their head and expression on their faces. The Fayum portraits are an unbelievable discovery not only for their historical significance, but also for their contemporary contribution to artists and painting students. We were fortunate to have Euphrosyne Doxiadis join us last weekend and share her knowledge and passion on this topic.

-Aimee Palladino

An Open Letter to John Van Buren

4, December 2008 § 2 Comments


Dear Mr. Van Buren,

As the end of the semester approaches and we are all working diligently on finishing and preparing final pieces for the exhibit, I am moved to write you a letter to express my gratitude again for making the last few months possible. You have not been far from my thoughts through this experience, as I am aware that it was your generosity that helped manifest this. As I mentioned in my past email to you, the decision to attend the Aegean Center was a heart-centered and passion-filled one — a departure from my anticipated next step of attending a master’s or law degree program. Reflecting on these amazing months, I cannot believe that I could have continued my life without having lived this! As a result, I would love to share a long-awaited update on how I have been.

I had never been to Italy before, and considering my Italian-American heritage, was so excited for our time at the Villa. Apart from the amazing food (from which I have acquired many new recipes!), the art history component was the most effective and sustainable way that art history can be taught. I wrote home to my family saying that I felt like all of my childhood art books had come to life! We recently had a discussion in my painting class about the important connection that new artwork has to tradition. If my time in Italy was demonstrative of anything, it was the importance of understanding the ancestral artistic mastery in the Mediterranean. I feel confident that I can walk into any church and assess its history based on time period, architecture and the intention for construction. In addition, I feel comfortable with my ability to identify the defining characteristics of most 12th-17th century Italian art — such an amazing amount of material taught to us in just one month! I particularly loved Bellini’s works (I am spending one night in Rome before I depart to the US and am hoping to go to the Bellini exhibit!), especially his ‘Sacred Conversations’ in Venice. In addition, Simone Martini’s ‘Annunciation’ and Donatello’s wooden sculpture of ‘Mary Magdelen’ were very memorable. The Sistine Chapel was exciting to finally see in person — I actually attached a drawing I started of one of the Sybil’s. I am planning on turning this into a painting or pastel piece one day. I know I will return to Italy again in the future, and hopefully at that point will be able to speak a bit more Italian!


Since arriving to Greece, I have continued the Ancient Greek part of Art History which has been fascinating in the context of the Renaissance work we observed in Italy. In addition to Art History, I am taking Basic Drawing, Oil Painting, Life (Figure) Drawing, Photo History and Greek Literature. Since I had never oil painted before, the first day of painting was exciting and also a bit reminiscent of being younger and trying something new for the first time — I realized how long it had been since I had been a complete beginner at anything! My first painting assignment was spent largely trying to understand how to control the paint — how to thin it, what brushes to use, how to do an under-painting. Afterwards, we started using color and I learned how to mix paints effectively and to stretch a palette to its limit by just using 3-4 colors. Since I have recently started feeling more comfortable with the paint and mixing colors, I am trying to pay more attention to things like brush stroke and composition. I have attached four pictures of the paintings I have done, since unfortunately you will not be able to see them at the show! The attachment is the third oil painting I did and is a study of how ‘reflections’ can be rendered, using the earth palette. The next painting is the first that I did using the prismatic palette (so much brighter!). I chose a zoomed in composition of the familiar chairs at the school, specifically because of how nostalgic they will be for me after leaving here. I was a bit worried that they looked too graphic, but after playing with shadows and negative space, I hope they have a bit more character to them.



The next painting I attached is a study we did of a master by using a method of modeling our painting from a dark background up with whites. I originally intended to do a self-portrait, but found this John Singer Sargent painting and felt instantly excited about it. Sargent uses so many glazing techniques and is fantastic at rendering the form with simple and deliberate strokes — a technique I would love to achieve! It was a great study to attempt and a very important exercise in understanding glazing.


The last attachment is my landscape assignment. I wanted to depart from my more controlled and tight initial paintings and attempt something with larger brushes. I bought 2 large brushes and a roller and really enjoyed this one — I am struggling now, however, with whether or not I should add more rocks in the bottom right corner to make the composition more interesting.

I recently had a conversation with Jane about how to improve my artwork and we discussed that while I achieve clarity in my work, my next challenge is not to just ‘illustrate’ something as an exact copy, but to learn how to render an image that provokes an emotion in the viewer. Today we did a portrait of a classmate and I spent time making choices about shadows, definition and mood and I actually feel positive about the outcome. I will forward along a picture of that when it is finished, if you’d like, so you can see the progression of my work.

It is so apparent to me how much I have learned here and also how much learning I have to go still. I never imagined where this experience would lead, but I knew it felt right… I realize now as the semester concludes what an incredible turning point it has been. I look around and notice light and color differently– the negative space between objects, the shapes that shadows make in a composition, the temperature of color. I have in the past compartmentalized art in (and out of) my life. When I began this program, I had the fear that my time here would be a departure from myself and after 3 months, I would return and revert back to the ‘Aimee’ I was before, scared of embracing and creating art. This time has awakened a familiar part of myself that is both natural and true. The delight and gratitude I feel to wake up every morning and have nothing else to do but paint and draw is very revelatory for me in terms of understanding what makes me happy! I am in the process of integrating this experience and realize how much I want this learning process about art and the Self to continue — as they are largely part of the same process. For the first time in my life, I see a long-term commitment to develop and foster this passion. I cannot imagine a better place to learn than this program. John, Jane, Jun, Jeffrey and Liz are a remarkable group of teachers — who extend beyond the classroom and understand the importance of self-improvement, self-love, building community and becoming better in touch with the land and nature. It is truly admirable that you take such an interest in the Aegean Center and its students — I can confidently say that you are not only supporting people’s artistic journeys, but also allowing them the opportunity for the larger journey to the Self. Paros is a magical place that inevitably awakens a sensual and archetypal connection to the earth that I will forever take with me.

Thank you again for all of your support, well-wishes and practical generosity. I apologize that this email has come late in the semester, but it seems like a great time to reflect, integrate and share all I have learned. Please let me know if you would like me to send any more drawings along to you. I am actually in the process of writing a blog post about Basic Drawing class and will be attaching more of my drawings to the entry. If you check the website, keep your eye out for it! In addition, I have some video footage of me stretching canvas and painting. I am scrambling to cut and edit it into something small, but if I get a chance to, I will send it along. It will probably be a great way for you to see a personal view of the students that you support here at the center!

I am hoping all has been well with you and that this email finds you healthy and happy.

With gratitude,

Aimee Palladino

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