Human beings have been making pictures of themselves for at least 26 millennia, and probably far longer. From the first appearance of Ice Age artefacts, throughout the art of all civilisations, the human face has been preserved in defiance of space and time.
The word ‘portrait’ comes from the Latin ‘portrahere’ meaning ‘to reveal’ and, whether carved on mammoth ivory or photographed on film, the human face is a revelation – either of the religious, political and social aspects of a civilisation, or of the likeness, personality, and even mood of an individual.
The following timeline shows our long fascination with our own image:
26,000 years ago
Carved from a woolly mammoth tusk 26,000 years ago, this image of a woman is one of the earliest portraits ever created. It is just 4.8cm high and was made using stone tools in the middle of the last Ice Age, in a valley in what is now the Czech Republic. It was discovered at a paleolithic site near the village of Dolní Věstonice. The left side of the figure’s face appears distorted. The skull of a human female skeleton discovered at the site, aged around 40 years old and ritualistically buried beneath a pair of mammoth bones, was also disfigured on the left side. This suggests that the ivory figure was an intentional depiction of this specific individual. The bones and the earth surrounding the body contained traces of red ochre, a flint spearhead had been placed near the skull, and one hand held the body of a fox. This evidence suggests that this was the burial site of a female shaman.
25,000 years ago
The Venus of Brassempouy, also carved from mammoth ivory, was discovered in a cave at Brassempouy in southwest France. It is 3.65 cm high and, while the forehead, nose and brows are carved in relief, the mouth is absent. It was accompanied by at least 8 other human figures, so may be an example of unfinished work if the artist was carving several figurines at the same time. A vertical crack on the right side of the face is linked to the internal structure of the ivory. On the head is a checkerboard-like pattern formed by shallow incisions at right angles to each other; it has been interpreted as a wig, a hood, or simply a representation of hair.
13,000 years ago
This image of a woman discovered in Siberia was carved in mammoth ivory.
9,000 years ago
This artefact, from the city of Jericho c.7200-6700 BC, is a human skull with its features restored in plaster, painted and inlaid with seashells. It is believed that the people of Neolithic Jericho considered the head a special body part due to its separation from the body during burial, as well as the act of giving it a new lifelike face.
8,500 years ago
This is one of a series of half-size human figures found in Ain Ghazal, a Neolithic site on the outskirts of Amman in north-western Jordan. Ain Ghazal was an early farming community and one of the largest known prehistoric settlements in the Near East. The figures are modelled in white plaster around a core of bundled twigs and have painted clothes, hair, and in some cases, ornamental tattoos or body paint. The eyes are created using cowrie shells with a bitumen pupil.
5,200 years ago
This sculpture of a female head from Uruk, an ancient city of Sumer (now in modern Iraq), was made from white marble around 3200 BC. The statue is probably an image of the goddess Inanna, but its actual mortal subject is unknown. The head is actually just a face with a flat back, which may have been attached to a wooden body. The eyes and eyebrows would have been filled with coloured shell or stone; a wig, probably made of gold leaf, would have been anchored to the top of the head in the deep groove. The wooden body would have been covered with expensive fabrics and jewels.
4,300 years ago
This head of a king, probably Sargon of Akkad, was found in the ancient city of Nineveh (now in modern Iraq). It was cast in bronze and dates from around 2300 BC.
3,300 years ago
This painted limestone bust of Nefertiti, queen of the Pharaoh Akhenaten, was one of ancient Egypt’s most copied works. It led Nefertiti to become one of the most famous women of the ancient world and an icon of feminine beauty. The bust was created around 1345 BC by the sculptor Thutmose.
Among the earliest painted representations of the human face are the striking Roman funerary portraits dating from the first century AD found in the Fayoum region of Egypt. Funerary portraits covered the faces of bodies that were mummified for burial. The portraits, painted using encaustic (wax and pigment) on wood, seem incredibly modern and lifelike, and their realism was not surpassed until centuries later during the Renaissance. The young teenage boy in this portrait is dressed in a white Roman tunic. The portrait is inscribed in Greek, the common language of the eastern Mediterranean at the time, and tells us the boy’s name – ‘Eutyches, freedman of Kasanios’.
The iconic image of Christ Pantocrator was one of the first images of Christ developed in the Early Christian Church. This oldest known surviving example of the icon was probably painted in encaustic on wood in Constantinople around 600 AD and was preserved in the remote desert of the Sinai, in Saint Catherine’s Monastery.
One of Japan’s oldest surviving examples of realistic portraiture is the sculpture of Shunjōbō Chōgen (1121-1206), a Japanese Buddhist monk who devoted 25 years of his life to the rebuilding of the Tōdai-ji temple after its destruction in war. The sculpture was constructed by hollow assembled woodblocks and still bears traces of pigment.
Portrait of a Lady is an oil-on-oak panel painting created around 1460 by the Dutch painter Rogier van der Weyden. Van der Weyden was among the first generation of ‘Northern Renaissance‘ painters, who portrayed their subjects naturally rather than in a medieval Christian idealised form. The subject’s name is not recorded.
Portrait of a Man captures an almost photo-realistic human face. Its creator Albrecht Dürer, a German artist, mathematician, and theorist from Nuremberg, is generally regarded as the greatest painter of the Northern Renaissance.
Portrait of Sir Thomas More by the German artist Hans Holbein the Younger, is best known for its mastery of colour and texture. Very few works of art capture the human form so realistically until the invention of colour photography 4 centuries later.
Now that colour images of the human face are omnipresent, it is very rare for modern portraits to strike the soul so deeply as that of the ‘Afghan Girl‘. The photograph, taken by journalist Steve McCurry, was acclaimed worldwide when it was featured on the cover of the June 1985 issue of National Geographic Magazine. Its subject is Sharbat Gula, who at the time was a 12 year-old refugee in Pakistan during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. She had fled when her parents were killed during a Soviet airstrike on her village. Her identity was largely unknown until 2002, which added to the photograph’s enigmatic quality and it’s likening to Leonardo da Vinci’s painting of the Mona Lisa.
…and finally, a curious depiction of a human face that sits way outside of this timeline at around 2.7 million years ago.
Strictly speaking, it is ‘out of scope’ because it isn’t a man-made attempt to capture the human face. The Makapansgat pebble, a 5 by 8 cm, 260-gram jasperite cobble, has been chipped and worn by nature into a crude rendition of a human face. It was discovered in a cave in the Makapansgat, South Africa, along with the fossil remains of the early hominid Australopithecus africanus. The pebble is curious because it was found some 20 miles away from any possible natural source of jasperite. It has been suggested that some australopithecine might have though of it as a ‘human’ face, in possibly the earliest example of symbolic thinking or aesthetic sense in the human heritage, and brought the pebble ‘back to camp’. At between 2.5 and 2.9 million years ago, that would make the pebble a candidate for the oldest known manuport.