Why Do People Still Think That Classical Sculptures Were Meant to Be White?

Kim Hart
Apr 10, 2018 9:25PM

Alexandros of Antioch, Venus de Milo, 130-100 B.C. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

René Magritte
Les Menottes de Cuivre
Art Lithographies

If you’ve ever visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, chances are you’ve seen its collection of Classical marble sculptures. Weaving through these mighty Greek warriors and Roman busts, you may chuckle at a missing nose here, a broken arm there—visual reminders that no matter how perfect these works may have once looked, some haven’t completely stood the test of time.

There’s something else that time has taken from these exquisite ancient sculptures, but it’s far less obvious—the colors that were vibrantly painted atop their pristine, white surfaces.

Indeed, from Phidias to Polykleitos and every anonymous sculptor in between, ancient Greek artists and their Roman copycats are known to have applied paint onto their marble gods and leaders. If not for thousands of years spent underground, those austere monochrome sculptures now found in museums across the world would have been coated in a rainbow of colors, as their makers intended.

Yet ever since their rediscovery over 600 years ago, these formerly saturated statues have been widely misunderstood by artists, critics, and museum-goers as having been white all along. It’s a snafu that’s profoundly altered our understanding of Western art and the Classical world in general, perhaps becoming the greatest mix-up in history, and making colored sculpture a huge taboo in the process.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art's Carroll and Milton Petrie European Sculpture Court. Photo by Jean-Christophe Benoist, via Wikimedia Commons.


It’s particularly ironic because of how important color actually was to the Greeks and Romans, who added it to sculptures in an effort to capture their subjects’ dynamic spirits, embellishing them not only with paint, but also gold, silver, and inlays of stones and gems. (They also used naturally colored marble, such as the green cipollino verde, from which they carved figures or architectural details.)

Vibrantly painted sculpture even showed up in frescoes, which occasionally depicted 2D renderings of unnaturally tinted stone. Take the multiple bright-red Corinthian columns seen on the walls of a bedroom displayed within the Met’s Greek and Roman wing, or a Pompeiian fresco from the 1st century C.E., which shows a sculpted warrior sporting a bronze hat and red-tinted drapery while standing atop a plinth.

There’s also written proof of the Classical world’s adoration of saturated sculpture. In Euripides’s 412 B.C.E. tragedy Helen of Troy, the titular queen hints toward the Greeks’ dislike of marble that wasn’t colored: “If only I could shed my beauty and assume an uglier aspect…the way you would wipe color off a statue.” Roman writers Vitruvius and Pliny the Elder detailed the process ancient sculptors followed to colorize their creations. Pigments were pulled from minerals and mixed with egg yolk or beeswax, and artists either applied the resulting paint directly to marble, or atop a priming layer made from stucco. To make its colors more vibrant, many rubbed cloth-wrapped candles onto their painted works as a finishing polish.

But few of these hues survived after the Roman Empire began collapsing around the 4th century, and its citizens began securing their sculpted masterpieces underground. These works remained remarkably preserved for nearly a millennium and a half, but their colors mostly eroded due to dirt buildup and oxidation; in some cases, the hues faded from exposure to air and light upon being excavated.

Some may have even had their colors purposely erased, such as a 2nd-century Roman copy of a statue by Polykleitos. This marble rendering of the Greek god Hermes—which is currently part of the Met Breuer exhibition “Like Life: Sculpture, Color, and the Body,” on view through July 22nd—had “traces of original paint [that] were likely cleaned off to give the piece the aesthetic purity…demanded by [its] audience,” as stated by its wall text.

Copy of work attributed to Polykleitos, ca. A.D. 69–96, via the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Copy of work attributed to Polykleitos, 1st or 2nd century A.D., via the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The widespread desire for “aesthetic purity”—and our current mental image of the pristinely white ancient statue—has its origins in the mid-14th century, when relics from the Classical world were first excavated from the terrain of central Italy. White, unembellished, and exquisitely carved, these ancient masterpieces that were hiding for thousands of years were taken by the Italians at face value, mistakenly believing they had always lacked color.

Not only did this initial misunderstanding transform into a new artistic ideal that partially sparked the Renaissance, it also led to the development of several theories that remained gospel in art circles for centuries.

For one, the definition of artistic refinement was essentially rewritten after the discovery of these white statues. Italians had thought the Greeks and Romans—whose achievements in subjects like philosophy and political theory were well known—left their marbles bare on purpose, and perceived this approach as yet another intellectual accomplishment from the Classical era.

Further, Italians of the 14th century associated colored sculpture with the preceding Middle Ages, a time period they viewed as degenerate. To them, medieval sculptors weren’t intelligent enough to think to not paint their works—unlike the brilliant Greeks.

Suddenly, “high art” had to be smart, and a sculpture was only considered as such if it was colorless. Indeed, from around the 15th century on, painted statues were rarely welcome outside of churches—where the Catholic public used them in prayer—and private homes, where they functioned as decorative trinkets. As Met curator Luke Syson has written, “Polychrome sculpture [was] judged too easy and too popular to be good art, high art, or even art at all.”

The initial misunderstanding of ancient sculpture also raised the question of skill. What mattered most to Renaissance viewers wasn’t the superficial coloring of a work’s surface, but the way in which its maker transformed a block of stone into a stunning vision of humanity, using hammer and chisel alone. Painting a statue was, thus, viewed as a form of cheating. Why would a sculptor need to add color if his work could be beautiful without it?

Gregorio Fernández, Dead Christ, 1631-1636. Photo by José Luis Filpo Cabana, via Wikimedia Commons.

This tied into paragone, the popular Renaissance debate that pitted painting and sculpture against each other. While it was never settled, art lovers, including Leonardo da Vinci, agreed that the two media should remain separate—paint had no place on marble. “The power and virtue of the sculptor lie in the effects of the chisel,” asserted artist and collector Vincenzo Borghini in 1584. “If some clumsy oaf in this field uses colors, it denies the very nature of that art.”

After trade and travel brought these concepts out of Italy, monochromy became Europe’s sculptural standard, even in religious contexts. Though some degree of color was necessary in devotional statues (to better depict the subject’s suffering), by the 17th century, sculptors from Spain to Germany were coloring Catholic characters with palettes far more limited than before, thereby bringing them closer to the Classical ideal. (Religious statues also seem to have harnessed the ancient ideal on a more formal level, possibly hinting that these biblical figures were modeled on specific secular compositions from antiquity.)

The intellectual German elite demonstrated a particular fondness for the unpainted marble statue, as well, including the 19th-century philosopher G.W.F. Hegel, whose famous writings on aesthetics often referenced the white ancient marble. Hegel’s own views were shaped by those of art historian Johann Winckelmann, who influenced both artistic practices and popular tastes of 18th-century Germany and beyond with his consistent praise for ancient Greek sculpture, which he viewed as the pinnacle of beauty.

Winckelmann based his theories of unpainted marble’s aesthetic superiority on what he considered physical proof. As he wrote in 1764, “White is the color that reflects the most rays of light, and thus is most easily perceived.” Because of this, he believed, “a beautiful body will be all the more beautiful the whiter it is.” Though seemingly based in science, this problematic statement is mostly a reflection of how white Europeans generally viewed themselves versus people of color—and an early indication of the ancient white ideal’s inherent racism.

Though Winckelmann and other advocates of unpainted sculpture were generally ignorant of these connotations, they were impossible to ignore after the white marble ideal was embraced by Adolf Hitler, who only allowed Classical-inspired art into Nazi Germany. Contemporary white supremacist groups like Identity Evropa—which uses images of ancient Greek and Roman sculptures in its propaganda—have since taken a nod from Hitler. (The racist resonances that the ancient white marble carries for conservatives were made especially clear last June, when several members of the alt-right viciously harassed a classical history professor after she published an essay on the ancient world’s actual preference for colored sculpture.)

Detail of Marble statue of a wounded Amazon, 1st–2nd century A.D. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Detail of Franz Ignaz Günther, Christ at the Column, 1754. Courtesy of the Detroit Institute of the Arts.

Long before the Classical ideal was so blatantly associated with such prejudice, its racist tendencies were already evident, particularly in sculptures that originated in Italy in the 17th and 18th centuries. Cheap, kitschy painted statues of dark-skinned figures known as “Blackamoors” were popularly utilized as furniture, such as tables being “held up” by African servants. Unlike white marble statues, which were universally considered high art, these low-brow works—along with colored sculptures in general—were merely viewed as frivolous objects.

The myth of the white sculptures of antiquity remained uninterrupted for centuries—until around 1800, when excavators began noticing leftover specks of pigment on the surfaces of some marbles. Yet even when faced with contradicting proof, its believers remained faithful. Hegel accepted the evidence that Classical sculptors actually used paint, but dismissed the practice as stemming from a prior, “primitive” era. Neoclassical artists, who had based their entire practices on the illusion, also pushed back: “Marble, by its whiteness, has something pure [and] celestial…[while] colors are terrestrial,” wrote French sculptor David d’Anger. “Sculpture bears the image of eternity. The more brilliant the colors of a flower, the less it lasts.”

Some, however, did embrace the truth about Classical sculpture and tried their own hand at polychromy, like British sculptor John Gibson, who called its detractors “less refined than the Greeks in matters of art, [and] from long and stupid custom reconciled to the white statue.” In 1856, he completed The Tinted Venus, a life-size marble of the Roman goddess which Gibson tinged with soft touches of color on her lips, eyes, and hair. Offering a rare positive response to sculptures like this, George Scharf—who later became director of London’s National Portrait Gallery—openly championed polychromatic sculptors like Gibson, praising their “sober, harmonious, well-balanced application of colour…to sculpture.”

Despite this spike in support, colored sculpture was still largely reviled by 19th-century Europeans, and Gibson’s effort was a critical and commercial failure. Even Impressionist darling Edgar Degas received harsh responses to a colored sculpture he made in 1880, The Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer. As one French critic described the work after its first exhibition, “The terrible realism of this statuette makes the public distinctly uneasy, [as] all its ideas about sculpture, about cold lifeless whiteness…are demolished.”

Edgar Degas, Little Dancer Aged Fourteen, 1878-1881. Courtesy of the National Gallery of Art.

Marcel Duchamp, Étant donnés: 1° la chute d'eau, 2° le gaz d'éclairage . . ., 1946-1966. © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris / Estate of Marcel Duchamp. Courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

But within a few decades, the devastations of a global war and the advent of modernism led to radical changes in the art world, giving polychrome sculpture an unexpected second chance. Due to its negative connotations and capacity for experimentation, the colored statue provided avant-garde artists with suitable ammunition in their revolution against the art establishment’s outdated, frivolous concept of “perfection.”

One such rebel was Surrealist artist René Magritte, who, in 1936, purchased a cheap plaster replica of the Venus de Milo (3rd–1st century B.C.E.) from a gift shop and painted blocks of color onto the iconic Greek statue’s white surface—an act that would make anyone in the Renaissance shudder. Writing to André Breton, Magritte explained his rationale: “The head is white, the body is flesh-coloured, the drapery is blue…[giving] the Venus new and unexpected life.” Breton suggested that his friend title the work Les Menottes de Cuivre (The Copper Handcuffs), theoretically giving it one more hue.

And the ever-subversive Marcel Duchamp spent two decades experimenting with painted sculpture, during which he secretly created Étant donnés (1946–66), an eerie installation centered around a sculpted female nude lying in a field. Oil paint and human hair helped the woman in Duchamp’s final artwork look astonishingly real—both predicting and influencing the hyperrealist practices of future polychromatic sculptors.

Duane Hanson
Old Couple on a Bench, 1994
"Duane Hanson" at Serpentine Sackler Gallery, London (2015)

Indeed, from Duane Hanson and Ron Mueck to Greer Lankton and Rigoberto Torres, artists are now free to sculpt multicolor portraits without the fear of failure, and have access to technologies enabling ever-more realism. Whether casting from life or simply painting a surface, today’s sculptors continue to use color much like the Greeks and Romans, while also bringing the medium to incredible new levels of authenticity and artistry—achievements that would surely impress their ancient forerunners.

Over the last decade, an ongoing campaign for polychrome justice has developed within the art world, with eye-catching museum exhibitions (and research-heavy artistic projects by the likes of Francesco Vezzoli) increasingly colorizing the Classical era. Yet even with our increased awareness of its vibrant reality, the myth of the all-white ancient sculpture remains so ingrained in the cultural imagination that it’ll probably never be forgotten.

But the next time you find yourself in the Met’s Classical wing, try to imagine how all those figures and faces would look if they were a hundred times more colorful. You’d be on the right side of history.

Kim Hart