I first saw these portraits when I was a child, most certainly on one of the outings to the Met in New York with my father. I remember being absolutely fascinated by the way that each portrait seemed so alive. I could not believe my eyes. I have done a few drawings over the years which seem to possess that same look as if caught in a brief moment of candor. Would they be looking out at God or Death? I think that they have haunted my drawing ever since.
These are the mummy portraits created for wealthy patrons by very talented painters and who, curiously during this time, held positions of prestige themselves. They were first discovered in the 17th century but it wasn't until the late 19th that they were lifted out of the earth in many different sites around Egypt and actively sought after. Painted on various types of wood they had replaced the Greek death-mask as a means of remembering the dead. One anecdote had an explorer running to a site only to find that the locals had burned many of them to keep themselves warm the previous night in the desert.
Alas, little is known about them even the ones in large museums around the world as they were acquired through dubious means with little documentation. However, It is commonly known that they are portraits of wealthy Greeks who settled in and around Alexandria. They were almost certainly done between 50 BC into the 3rd century AD. Its said that the practice stopped for two reasons: The first is that there was a severe economic crisis in the 4th century which changed the spending habits of the wealthy, but also it has been attributed to the rise of Christianity in Egypt which may have changed people's thinking despite the fact that Christianity never banned mummy portraits.
I still marvel at them and even after so many years can see so clearly their influence upon me.