This suave portrait head represents Menander, one of the best-known Greek playwrights of the ancient world. Although his life dates are approximately 342–ca. 290 BCE, the smooth features, the triangular face, and the carefully shaped locks of hair indicate that it was carved during the first century of the Roman Empire. The Romans, following Greek precedent, took pride in setting up commemorative portraits of famous men, including military leaders, philosophers, orators, and poets. Whereas the Greek monuments were always public, the Romans also placed cultural heroes in palaces, villas, and homes, to reflect their personal appreciation and tastes. The high regard for Menander is attested by over sixty portraits of him that survive; and many, like this one, were sculpted to be fitted into a separately carved body.
Menander’s epithet, the “father of New Comedy,” refers to his innovation in writing plays about the foibles and conflicts in bourgeois families, as opposed to earlier comedy, which usually revolved around issues of wider social concern. The new focus on the struggle between children and their parents and between clever servant-slaves and their bumbling owners created a pattern that has lasted through more than two millennia. Many of Menander’s plays are still known, but knowledge of others is preserved only through quotations in other ancient authors, sometimes by no more than a single line. This is true of the isolated line inscribed on the west architrave of the Courtyard Gallery: “Art is a haven from misfortune for mankind,” chosen by the Blisses to express the effect they hoped their collections might have on visitors to Dumbarton Oaks.
J. J. Bernoulli, Griechische Ikonographie mit Ausschluss Alexanders und der Diadochen (Munich, 1901), 112, 119.
A. Hekler, Portraits Antiques (Paris, 1913), xx, pl. 105b.
R. Norton, "Greek and Roman Marbles from the Brandegee Collection," Museum of Fine Arts Bulletin, Boston 9.65 (1913): 45-46, no. 65, fig. 3.
F. Studniczka, "Das Bildnis Menanders," Neue Jahrbücher für das klassische Altertum 21 (1918), esp. 23, 25, pl. 6.3, 7.1, 9.3.
L. D. Caskey, Catalogue of Greek and Roman Sculpture (Cambridge, Mass., 1925), 164.
J. F. Crome, "Das Bildnis Vergils," Atti e Memorie, Reale Accademia Virgiliana di Mantova 24 (1935), esp. 39, pl. 108.
D. M. Robinson, "A New Marble Bust of Menander, Wrongly Called Vergil," Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 83.3 (1940): 468-69, pl. 2, fig. 5-7.
The Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection of Harvard University, Handbook of the Collection (Washington, D.C., 1946), 19, no. 8, fig. p. 30.
O. Brendel, "R. Carpenter, 'Observations on Familiar Statuary in Rome', 1941 (review)," The Classical Journal 153.1 (1947).
R. Carpenter, "A Contribution to the Vergil-Menander Controversy," Hesperia 20 (1951): 34-44, esp. 43.
The Dumbarton Oaks Collection, Harvard University (Washington, D.C., 1955), 10, no. 7, fig. p. 28.
G. M. A. Richter, Catalogue of Greek and Roman Antiquities in the Dumbarton Oaks Collection (Cambridge, 1956), 4-10, no. 4, pl. 2.
"Literary and Medical History May Answer Artistic Riddle: Whose Head is this in Ancient Marble?," Scope 4.37 (1959): 16.
T. Fay, "The Head," Expedition (The Bulletin of the University Museum of the University of Pennsylvania) 1.4 (1959): 12-18.
Handbook of the Byzantine Collection (Washington, D.C., 1967), 3, no. 7.
G. Bühl, ed., Dumbarton Oaks: The Collections (Washington, D.C., 2008), 22, pl. p. 23.
S. H. Carlos A. Picón, Pergamon and the Hellenistic Kingdoms of the Ancient World (New Haven, Connecticut 2016), 147, no. 54.
Tarquinia (Corneto), Museo Civico.
Collection of Mrs. Edward D. Brandegee, Faulkner Farm, Brookline, Mass.
Purchased from Aldo Jandolo by Joseph Brummer, May 20th 1943.
Purchased from Joseph Brummer (dealer) by Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Washington, D.C., February 1946.
Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Byzantine Collection, Washington, D.C.