The Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius (reigned A.D. 161–80), the archetypal “philosopher-king,” is perhaps best known today as the author of the Stoic philosophical treatise The Meditations. Despite his nonroyal birth, Marcus gained the attention of the emperor Hadrian while still a child and was the subject of imperial portraiture from his youth. The ensuing corpus of portraits records the emperor’s changing facial features as well as his evolving hair and beard styles. The Kimbell head, which comes from a bust or full-length figure, is one of a group that replicates the fourth and last of Marcus’s official portrait types, characterized by upswept curls above the forehead, a thick mustache covering the upper lip and partially overlapping the lower, and a full beard that falls in two main groups of curls.
The powerfully modeled features lend this portrait a quietly authoritative and intelligent air, the lofty upward gaze signifying the emperor’s divine nature. Some features, especially the distinctive, drilled pupils of the eyes, find parallels in later portraits of the emperors Caracalla and Alexander Severus, suggesting that this may be a posthumous work made under the subsequent Severan dynasty. Septimius Severus, an army general who established a new dynasty in A.D. 193, claimed the deified Marcus Aurelius as his adoptive father to legitimize his claim to the throne.
(Auction, Münzen und Medaillen, Basel, 6 May 1967, no. 208);
(Charles Lipson, Boston);
purchased by Kimbell Art Foundation, Fort Worth, 1967.