© President and Fellows of Harvard College
Gallery Text

What Is in a Head?

Figural representation often emphasizes the head and face. Eyes, ears, nose, and mouth hold particular potential for interaction with the viewer, and the face is frequently perceived as a mirror of the mind. In ancient Egypt, the Near East, and Greece, most depictions of humans and deities included the full body. This allowed the subjects to strike a distinctive pose, while their clothing indicated social standing. Portraits in head or bust form became common in Roman art and have played a major role in Western art ever since. The art of other cultures around the world also reflects special significance attributed to the head. The Edo peoples of the Benin kingdom in present-day Nigeria, for example, regarded the head as the seat of knowledge and decision-making power and crucial to a person’s, or in the case of a king, the state’s well-being. In this space outside the Roman gallery, several sculpted heads — self-contained images, a vessel, and statue parts — invite comparison across continents and millennia.

The sculptures place varying emphasis on accessories, such as the royal coral-bead cap and collar of the Benin bronze head and the “barbarian” floppy hat of the Roman marble head. Hairstyle and physique can express social roles and character traits, as in the case of the philosopher’s beard of the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, seen here in an Italian Renaissance version, and the princely topknot of the Gandharan bodhisattva, an enlightened, compassionate being distinguished from other Buddhist figures by his depiction in royal Indian attire.

The individualized features of the ancient Peruvian stirrup-spout bottle — probably portraying a historical or mythical figure — contrast with the idealized face of the bodhisattva and the classicizing one of the Roman marble head of what may be a generic Easterner. The heads meet the viewer’s gaze with unemotional, controlled expressions that correspond to the codes and conventions of their time.

Identification and Creation
Object Number
Unidentified Artist
Head of a King
Other Titles
Alternate Title: Portrait Head of a Princess / Head Pedestal
Work Type
head, sculpture
Creation Place: Africa, Benin
West African
Level 3, Room 3710, North Arcade
View this object's location on our interactive map
Physical Descriptions
Lost-wax process
22.7 x 21 x 23 cm (8 15/16 x 8 1/4 x 9 1/16 in.)
with base: 31.3 x 24.4 x 23 cm (12 5/16 x 9 5/8 x 9 1/16 in.)
Louis Carré, Sold to Rockefeller at Knoedler, NY, 1936. Carré Collection sale, January 3, 1936, no. 997(?).
Mrs. John D. Rockefeller, Purchased at Carré Collection sale, Knoedler NY, 1936, Gift to Fogg Art Museum, 1937.
Acquisition and Rights
Credit Line
Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Gift of Mrs. John D. Rockefeller, Jr. (Abby Aldrich Rockefeller)
Accession Year
Object Number
European and American Art
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Publication History

Charles Ratton, "Les Bronzes du Bénin", Cahiers d'Art (1932), no. 3, pp. 209-216, repr. p. 216

[Unidentified article], brochure (December 1932)

Louis Réau, L'Art Primitif; L'Art Médiéval, A. Colin (Paris, France, 1934), p. 21, repr.

James Johnson Sweeney, African Negro Art, exh. cat., Museum of Modern Art, New York (New York, NY, 1935), no. 264

Bronzes and Ivories from the Old Kingdom of Benin, exh. cat., Knoedler & Co. Inc. (New York, NY, 1935), no. 1, repr.

Emanuel M. Benson, "Benin - a Dead People and a Living Art", The American Magazine of Art (Washington, D.C., January 1936), pp. 36-38 and repr. on cover

Louis Carré, "Benin, The City of Bronzes", Parnassus (New York, NY, January 1936), p. 12; repr. in b&w, p. 14

Frederick Bruce Robinson, "The Art of the Kingdom of Benin", Harvard Alumni Bulletin (Cambridge, MA, April 23, 1936), vol. XXXIX no. 26, pp. 822-825

"African Bronze Princess Given to Fogg Museum is Exhibited", Boston Evening Transcript (April 22 1937), p. 5, p. 5, repr.

Frederick Bruce Robinson, "Exhibition of Benin Bronzes", Boston Evening Transcript (April 17 1937), section 6, p. 7, section 6, p. 7

Loan Exhibition of the Art of the Kingdom of Benin, exh. cat., Fogg Art Museum (Cambridge, MA, 1937), p. 8, no. 51

Lawrence S. Cunningham and John J. Reich, Culture & Values: A Survey of the Humanities, Thomson Wadsworth (Belmont, CA, 2006), p. 545, repr. in b/w as fig. 20.2

Stephan Wolohojian, ed., Harvard Art Museum/ Handbook, Harvard Art Museum (Cambridge, MA, 2008), p. 82, repr.

Exhibition History

Exposition de bronzes et ivoires du royaume de Bénin, Muséum national d'histoire naturelle, Paris, 06/15/1932 - 07/15/1932

African Negro Art, Museum of Modern Art, New York, New York, 03/01/1935 - 03/31/1935

Bronzes and Ivories from the Old Kingdom of Benin, M. Knoedler & Co., Newport, 11/25/1935 - 12/14/1935

Sculpture from the Kingdom of Benin, Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge, 04/13/1937 - 04/29/1937

Problems in Portraiture, Pennsylvania Museum of Art, Philadelphia, 10/16/1937 - 11/30/1937; The Phillips Collection, Washington, 12/01/1937 - 12/31/1937

The Heavenly Twins: Edward W. Forbes, Paul J. Sachs and the Building of a Collection, Harvard University Art Museums, Cambridge, 09/23/1995 - 12/17/1995

Re-View: S422-423 Western Art of the Middle Ages & Renaissance, Harvard Art Museums/Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Cambridge, 08/16/2008 - 06/18/2011

Landmarks of World Art and Architecture, Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, 09/04/2012 - 01/19/2013

32Q: 3710 North Arcade, Harvard Art Museums, 11/01/2014

Subjects and Contexts

Collection Highlights

Google Art Project

This record has been reviewed by the curatorial staff but may be incomplete. Our records are frequently revised and enhanced. For more information please contact the Division of European and American Art at am_europeanamerican@harvard.edu