Marcus Annius Verus (the future Emperor Marcus Aurelius, 161-180 A.D.) was a grandson of the Emperor Hadrian's Spanish friend Annius Verus and nephew by marriage of Hadrian's eventual successor Antoninus Pius. Hadrian fondly called him Verissimus (the "truest"). In 136 A.D. Marcus was betrothed to one of the daughters of Aelius Caesar, Hadrian's first choice as successor. Following Aelius' untimely death, Hadrian adopted Antoninus and ordered that he in turn adopt Marcus, together with Aelius' son Lucius.
This exquisite portrait of the young Marcus likely commemorated his adoption by Antoninus Pius in 138 A.D., when he was not yet seventeen years of age. At least twenty-five versions of this portrait type are known; it is usually referred to as the Capitoline Museum Galleria 28 type after one of the best preserved examples in Rome (see frontispiece and pl. 234 in Kleiner, Roman Sculpture). His youthful portrait is also found on coins minted during the reign of his adoptive father (see the example illustrated above from the British Museum.)
This portrait was likely once in the collection of Charles Eliot Norton, an American scholar who was devoted to the study of literature and art. Norton graduated from Harvard in 1846 and subsequently traveled extensively in Europe where he developed his academic passions. After a number of literary endeavors Norton was appointed professor of the history of art at Harvard, a position he held until 1898. In addition to being a prolific writer, Norton was the first president of the Archaeological Institute of America.