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Thursday, March 31, 2016

The Old Market Woman

The Hellenistic period saw a trend toward the representation of the real (as opposed to the ideal) and the lowly or ordinary (as opposed to high end of the social scale): in other words, the very opposite of what artists of the Classical Period chose to represent.

This trend is illustrated by the Greek statue known as the Old Market Woman (in fact it is a Roman copy of a Greek original).  When the statue was first discovered in 1907 at the foot of the Capitoline hill, it was thought to be a woman hawking a pair of chickens and a basket of fruit or vegetables, held in her (missing) left arm.  Her right arm (also missing) is perhaps holding out something else for sale.

She stoops with age (or else “her whole body is contorted as by a sort of recoil from her vociferation,” as an early interpreter supposed), her breasts are partially exposed by her loose garment, and her face shows the signs of old age: “the weary eyes, the sunken cheeks, the deep lines about the mouth, and the shriveled neck and breast all show a sculptor whose aim was to perpetuate an unlovely everyday type precisely as he saw it.”


But what about woman’s costume, legs, and feet?  “The costume is the same that we find on the ideal statues of goddesses or women—a sleeveless chiton, or dress, clasped upon the shoulder, and over this a large himation or mantle. The folds of these two garments fall as gracefully as though they covered the form of a young girl, and it is curious to observe that the limbs which they cover do not correspond at all to the shrunken character of the upper part, but are full and well rounded, as are also the prettily sandaled feet.”  And around her head is a kerchief encircled by an ivy wreath.  The conclusion?  “The occasion on which she is offering her wares for sale is some Bacchic festival.”  So Robinson in 1909.

Since then other interpretations have been offered.  Some think that the woman’s costume and ivy crown make it unlikely that she is a market seller, despite the name by which the statue is known.  Instead, she may be “an aged courtesan on her way to a festival of Dionysos, the god of wine,” while the basket and chickens may be “dedicatory gifts to the god or simply her own provisions for a long day of celebration.”  So the website of the MMA, where the statue may be seen today.
Andrew Stewart agrees that she is a courtesan (her chiton is revealing and "diaphanous"), though one "fallen on hard times."  But he argues against a connection with Dionysus, who had no temple near the findspot.  Instead, he conjectures that the statue was dedicated to the agricultural goddess Ops.
Yet one is left wondering who would commission such a dedicatory statue…

No author.  “Two Kinds of Realism.”  The Classical Weekly 3.8 (1909) 63.
Robinson, E.  “The Old Market Woman.”  The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 4.11 (1909) 201-206.
Stewart, A.  Art in the Hellenistic World: An Introduction (2015) 235.

- Christian McKittrick

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