The Nahman / Hendershott Portrait Head of Alexander

A Graeco-Egyptian Marble Portrait Head of Alexander The Great 3rd Century B.C. The youthful head with short wavy fringe and long loose curls falling down over the nape of his neck, the sockets of his eyes deeply cut originally to have taken black onyx and stone inlaid eyes, with sensitively modeled ‘rings of Venus’ on his neck, traces of original light brown painted gesso on the curls of his long hair. 28 cm high.


Formerly in the Maurice Nahman Collection, Cairo & Paris (1868-1948), ink inscribed inventory numbers N2451 and M263(?).
This portrait of Alexander the Great was believed to have come from Hermopolis (the city of Hermes), modern day Ashmunein, where a temple in Egyptian style had been dedicated to Alexander the Great and his half brother, Philip Arrhidaeus, visible until 1820. Remains of a lintel bearing the names of Ptolemy III Euergetes (246-221 B.C.) and his wife Berenike II survive (1).
“ The portrait is sculpted from a very fine grained imported marble, which had to have been imported into the country because Egypt was marble-poor. The style, however, is decidedly Hellenistic, suggesting that the portrait was sculpted by the Alexandrian school founded in Alexandria, Egypt by Alexander the Great. Hallmarks of this school are the so-called ‘rings of Venus’ on the neck which here appear as corpulent muscles, responding to the sharp turn of the head to its right. In contrast to the finely polished flesh of the face, the hair was only summarily treated. The degree of difference in the surface treatment was intentional. The hair on this head would have been completed with the addition of plaster, another hallmark of Hellenistic marbles created in the Alexandrian school. The hair is full and maintains much of its original light brown color, framing the face and falling onto the nape of the neck at the rear. The eyes were originally inlaid with black onyx. The mouth is designed with down-turned corners, imbuing the head with a pathos that is consistent with other representations of Alexander the Great (2).
The coiffure of Alexander the Great, as depicted on the overwhelming majority of his portraits, is combed back over the forehead and parted in two waves which then cascade back on the forehead in line with the outer corner of each eye (3). The anastole, which became a personal marker of identification, is alternatively described as ‘long hair arranged around the head in a wreath’, brushed up from the forehead in a distinctive, off-center parting (4). Whereas it is true that the coiffure represented on this portrait differs significantly from this traditional hairstyle, it is equally true that very few images of Alexander the Great created in Egypt have survived (5).
The coiffure of this portrait of Alexander the Great finds its closest correspondences in a red granite portrait of him now in the Alexandria Museum (6), in which the anastole has been replaced by ‘crab claw’ style hair locks on the forehead.


In addition to the reliance on the ‘crab claw’ style for the rendering of the locks of hair, both portraits depict the king with long hair, framing the face and falling on the nape of the neck at the back. Additionally both portraits of Alexander originally had inlaid eyes, and both possess a down turned mouth, imbuing both images with a sense of pathos and longing. The heads are almost identical in their overall dimensions, the granite portrait in the Alexandria, Egypt Museum measuring 34 cm. in height. Both portraits would have had diadems in their hair as well, indicating Alexander’s special status (7).


Although Grimm would date the granite portrait to the late Hellenistic Period (8), others would place the head into the middle of the dynasty, because of the stylistic similarities shared by the depictions of Ptolemies of the period designed in a pharaonic idiom in hard stones (9).

There can be no doubt, therefore, because of these similarities, that both the Nahman and Alexandria Museum granite portrait of the Alexander the Great “ are Hellenistic originals “ rather than Roman copies.


The Nahman portrait of Alexander the Great belongs to an Alexandrian tradition indebted to Praxiteles and his Attic followers, who Alexander the Great brought to Egypt when he founded the city bearing his name Alexandria, rather than the more Scopaic-Lysippean baroque tradition. It is for this reason that the coiffure of the Nahman portrait relies upon ‘crab claw’ style hair locks rather than upon the anastole.
This is a significant point, because the Nahman portrait belongs to a stemma to which the granite portrait of Alexander the Great in Alexandria also belongs. One can suggest that a Hellenistic image of Alexander the Great with ‘crab claw’ hair locks sweeping the forehead was created by an Alexandrian atelier. That portrait served as the model for both the Nahman portrait and the granite portrait, because both heads are so close to one another and so distinctly different from other images of Alexander the Great as to suggest a common origin. It may be for this reason that ‘crab claw’ hair locks on the forehead rather than an anastole appears to be the coiffure of choice for the majority of portraits of the Ptolemaic kings in Hellenistic style (10). The popularity of this particular coiffure for depictions of Ptolemaic kings in Hellenistic style suggest that the coiffure was introduced as an insignia exclusive to images of Alexander the Great associated specifically with Egypt! The Ptolemies associating themselves with Alexander the Great and by promoting their legitimacy as Alexander the Great successors to rule Egypt after his death would naturally adopt his coiffure as their own in their portraiture.
The sculptor of the Nahman portrait has sensitively manipulated his medium; his modeling of the flesh of the face as subtly merging planes with the complete avoidance of linear adjuncts is characteristic of Alexandrian sculpture at its finest. The granite portrait in Alexandria likewise appears to be a product of the same Alexandrian school because its details do not betray any of the idiosyncrasies of a pharaonic atelier.
This hitherto “Unpublished Portrait of Alexander the Great” and its corresponding image in granite in Alexandria raise significant art historical issues, which can only be summarized here. Of these the most significant is the observation that the granite portrait of Alexander in Alexandria stylistically only betrays the hand of a Greek sculptor. There is nothing pharonic about the treatment of the face and hair. The nexus between this granite image and the marble presented here is so close that both could only have been created by artists trained in an Alexandrian atelier producing Hellenistic Greek sculpture. Taken together, both portraits document the existence of an Alexandrian image of Alexander the Great which served as the fountain and source of inspiration for both these images as well as for images of the Ptolemies.”

Significant Attributes of Alexander the Great portrait

  • The 'golden brown' stucco color of his hair.

  • The inset eyes [one of only two known to exist].

  • The Alexandria 'Rings of Venus'

  • This portrait was made in Alexandria, Egypt in the 3rd Century BC by Alexander's own artists that he brought with
    him to Egypt.

  • This portrait was collected during the 19th Century by the most famous collector of the time, Maurice Nahman

This portrait descended through Mr. Nahman's family in France until acquired by Mr. Hendershott at public auction in London this year [2004].
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Gerhardt Hendershott -
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