Head of a woman (Arsinoe II or Arsinoe III)

Photo: Susan Cole

Head of a woman (Arsinoe II or Arsinoe III)

3rd century B.C.

Marble, pigment
10 1/2 x 4 x 4 3/8 in.
Thomas D. Stimson Memorial Collection
Provenance: [Paul Mallon, Cairo/New York, by 1949]; purchased by Seattle Art Museum (with funds donated by Mrs. Thomas D. (Emma) Stimson), January 1950
Photo: Susan Cole
Not currently on view

Women in the Greek world played a variety of roles, many of which were idealized and celebrated, straightforwardly conveyed, or caricatured and reviled through art. Mythic and mortal women might be shown in various media in a wide variety of guises. Perhaps the most difficult job of modern scholars and viewers is determining the identity, whether mythic or mortal, of the women depicted in Greek art.
Silhouette, 50.42

Identifying This Sculpture

Portrait of a Queen (possibly Arsinoë II, Berenike II or Arsinoë III), 3rd century B.C., Greek
Who were Arsinoë II and III? Why do we think this sculpture depicts one of them? Why don't we know for sure which one it is?

Arsinoë II and III were queens in Egypt during Hellenistic (Greek) times. Both were powerful rulers who married their brothers, the pharaohs Ptolemy II and IV.  Both helped their husbands lead their country, not just in peace, but in war as well. At different times, in fact, both Arsinoë II and III led troops into battle, not from a throne, but atop horses at the head of their armies.
Octodrachm (rev.), busts of Ptolemy II and Arsinoë II, ca. 260-70 B.C., Greek, Egypt
The seat of Hellenistic Egyptian power was Alexandria, the city where we believe this head was found in the early twentieth century.  Portraits of the Ptolemies (the ruling dynasty of the period) were produced in a wide variety of scales and media during their reign, but one of the most popular sizes for sculpture in the third century BC was just over half life-size.  Other examples of portraits known to be Arsinoë II and III have also been excavated in Alexandria.
Portrait of Arsinoë III, ca. 215 B.C., Greek, Hellenistic Period
Writers of the third century BC remarked on the looks of both Arsinoë II and III. Arsinoë II's beauty was renowned while Arsinoë III's was refined.  Portraits of these queens reflect both their grace and power. They are shown alongside their husbands or on their own on the faces of coins, in the guise of Egyptian goddesses in granite or as Greek beauties in marble and bronze. Many of the portraits can be considered realistic, although they were made after the subjects' deaths. Upon her death, Arsinoë II was deified, while a priesthood was established in honor of Arsinoë III when she died.
Phoenician decadrachm, with head of Arsinoë II (obv.) and double corucopia (rev.), 242 B.C., Greek, Egypt, Alexandria, 67.181
Distinctive characteristics materialize from the study of these portraits. Arsinoë II had a prominent, strong chin, most evident from her profile on coins. Her wavy hair was parted and pulled back from her face with a diadem. It was often covered with a veil or mantle (added to many sculptures with stucco applied to the unfinished rear surface of the head) to indicate the portrait was posthumous. Her nose is always shown with a "Roman" slope.  Arsinoë III, on the other hand, is shown having a nearly straight nose with a distinctive tip.  Her hair is also shown parted and pulled back, although it has more exaggerated waves, with a curl in front of the ear and a knot at the nape of the neck. Her chin, unlike Arsinoë II's, is small and rounded.
Octodrachm of Arsinoë III, late 3rd century B.C., Greek, Egypt
Features of both women can be seen in this head. From the front, the chin appears to have the same roundness as Arsinoë II's, while in profile it seems smaller and recessive, similar to Arsinoë III's. The parted-with-diadem hairstyle has the clearly defined waves we associate with Arsinoë II, but it appears to end in Arsinoë III's knot at the back of the neck. We cannot determine, however, whether the stucco that would have completed the rear of the head was formed into a veil or mantle or molded into more waves. The missing end of the nose also leaves us with a mystery: although the slant of the remaining portion is that of Arsinoë II, the missing portion may well have been the distinctive tip we associate with Arsinoë III.

The hairstyle and facial features clearly indicate that this is not the pleasantly blank, idealized face of a goddess. This is the face of a living woman, a queen of the Ptolemies, although which one cannot be firmly determined.

Women in Greek Art

Torso of Aphrodite, 2nd Century B.C., Greek, 70.106
Through much of Greek art history, from the abstract grave or cult carvings of the Cyclades to the portraits of Hellenistic Egyptian queens, the Greeks usually depicted women as ideals of beauty and grace—external beauty symbolizing internal beauty. More than any other artist, the Greek Hellenistic sculptor Praxiteles influenced this course. His nude Aphrodite was interpreted and copied thousands of times.
Antefix with Medusa, 6th century B.C., Greek, Southern Italy, 2002.40
Women in art could also signify power, even when they were shown as the grotesque antithesis of beauty, the Gorgon. While mythology casts the monstrous Gorgon Medusa and her sisters as wicked—again, the external manifestation of internal character—the Gorgon was regularly incorporated into art that celebrated military victory. The goddess Athena was used by leaders as a physical symbol of power as well, and queens were depicted as both themselves and in the guise of goddesses to convey their strength and power.


Exhibition HistoryBellevue, Washington, Bellevue Art Museum, 5,000 Years of Faces, January 28-July 30, 1983

Tulsa, Oklahoma, Philbrook Art Center, "Our Ancient Heritage," 1963

Published ReferencesOur Ancient Heritage, Tulsa, OK: Philbrook Art Center, 1963, no. 106; also no. 280.

Engagement Calendar, Seattle, WA: SAM Guild, 1953, no. 38

Handbook, Seattle Art Museum: Selected Works from the Permanent Collections, Seattle, WA: Seattle Art Museum, 1951, p. 108 (b&w)

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