"Cuirass Torso" (reconstruction), Acropolis, 460 BCE (2005), artificial marble, h: 57 cm, Stiftung Archäologie, Munich (all photos by Stephan Eckardt, Ole Haupt; all images courtesy Archaeological Institute Göttingen and Stiftung Archäologie, Munich)

“Cuirass Torso” (reconstruction), Acropolis, 460 BCE (2005), artificial marble, h: 57 cm, Stiftung Archäologie, Munich (all photos by Stephan Eckardt, Ole Haupt; all images courtesy Archaeological Institute Göttingen and Stiftung Archäologie, Munich)

Everyone knows that classical sculpture is white. Think of the gleaming marble of artworks like the Belvedere Torso and “Laocoön and His Sons” — the whiteness imparts a kind of purity, a sense of being the ground zero of Western culture, the original from which an entire civilization’s canon has sprung. Would we view these sculptures differently if they were in color?

An exhibition currently on view at the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek in Copenhagen is making the case for polychromy. Transformations: Classical Sculpture in Colour argues that “Antiquity was anything but sceptical of colour” and that “the white marble of Antiquity was merely a tenacious myth.” The show features around 120 pieces: original sculptures alongside experimental, colored reconstructions.

Transformations grows out of the work of the Copenhagen Polychromy Network (CPN), an international and interdisciplinary research group that’s devoted to studying polychromy in ancient Greek and Roman sculpture. The network and its Tracking Colour project in turn were spurred by an initial exhibition examining polychromy at the Glyptotek in 2004. Ten years have passed since then, and considerable advances have been made.

“Young Roman,” 3rd century CE, marble, h: 0.26m, Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, alongside its reconstruction

“Research in ancient sculptural and architectural polychromy is an interdisciplinary venture combining the humanities and natural sciences. Technological developments in science are therefore affecting our field at an increasing rate,” CPN project coordinator and Transformations curator Jan Stubbe Østergaard told Hyperallergic over email. He continued:

The examples are many. Multi spectral imaging (MSI) is becoming an important means of identifying pigments; isotopic analysis allows provenancing of lead based pigments; X-ray diffraction spectroscopy (XRF) and other spectroscopic analyses are providing us with evermore refined information. The combined result is that the complexity of ancient sculptural polychromy and its interfaces with the sculptural forms is gradually reemerging. But we are still at the beginning.

Østergaard explained that the myth of monochromatic classical sculpture began during the Renaissance, when sculptures like the Belvedere Torso and Laocoön Group were discovered. “They were understood to be from classical antiquity, were therefore regarded as exemplary models — and they were perceived as being monochrome white, simply because their polychromy had largely disappeared over time. So, it was not a case of suppression, but of a misunderstanding by a small, highly cultivated and influential minority which was subsequently codified in art academies and transmitted on.”

He went on to add, however, that “suppression — and repression — may come into it when studying 20th century reception of the fact established in the course of the 19th century that ancient sculpture had demonstrably been polychrome: this fact collided frontally with long established European aesthetical, ethical, ideological norms, ultimately with Western identity.”

So, scholars have known for at least a century that classical sculpture was colorful, but that knowledge has not become common.

So-called “Peplos Kore,” original alongside reconstruction, Athens (540 BCE/2011), artificial marble, h: 130 cm, Stiftung Archäologie, Munich

The Carlsberg exhibition may help change that. (Artist Francesco Vezzoli is also experimenting with the idea in his own but similar fashion at MoMA PS1, painting directly on marble busts.) But it’s admittedly a tough pill to swallow; looking at some of the before and after photos, what stands out (at least in this writer’s mind) is how … garish the color versions look, like a child might have painted the pigments on.

“The role of color in ancient sculpture is a decisive one,” Østergaard wrote. “It is decisive for the visual aesthetics of the sculpture, obviously; it is as clearly decisive for the legibility of a narrative in a variety of ways, from the painting in of sandal straps and horses reins to the blood oozing over the skin of a wounded Amazon, and on to the proper identification of subject of a sculpture — the Archaic Peplos Kore is not wearing a peplos and is therefore not a young girl (kore), but a goddess as evident from the dress parts shown only  by way of painting.”

Indeed, even without understanding those details, the color does bring the artworks to life in a particular way. It seems to undermine that sense of timelessness we often attach to them, instead anchoring the pieces in a specific context. In doing so, it makes them more human and, ironically, brings them closer to us.

“Caligula” (37-41 CE), marble, h: 28 cm, Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek

“Caligula” (reconstruction), 37-41 CE (2011), marble. h: 28 cm, Archäologischen Institut der Universität Göttingen and Stiftung Archäologie, Munich

“Lion from Loutraki,” Greece (c. 570-560 BCE), limestone, h: 53 cm, l: 100 cm, Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek

“Lion from Loutraki” (reconstruction), Greece, c. 570–560 BCE (2003), plaster, h: 53 cm, l: 100 cm, Ulrike Brinkmann and Glyptothek München Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek

“The Byzantine Empress Ariadne” (c. 500 CE), marble, h: 70 cm, Museo della Basilica di San Giovanni in Laterno

“The Byzantine Empress Ariadne” (reconstruction, 2008), painted plaster, h: 32 cm, Museo della Basilica di San Giovanni in Laterno

Transformations: Classical Sculpture in Color continues at Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek (Dantes Plads 7, Copenhagen) through December 7. For those who want to learn more, extensive information about objects and research methodology is available on the Tracking Colour website.

The Latest

Jillian Steinhauer

Jillian Steinhauer is a former senior editor of Hyperallergic. She writes largely about the intersection of art...

23 replies on “What Do Classical Antiquities Look Like in Color?”

  1. My art teacher was an American Classical Sculptor., Antonio Salemme
    1892-1995. http://www.antoniosalemme.org I can still remember the day he
    spoke to me his sculpture in terms of color. Now here, we are not
    talking painting the surface of a work, but rather the fact that he was
    acutely aware of the visual space his work inhabited, of the light and
    shadow it defined. Pretty much immediately I got the visual nature of
    the work and its color and the richness of the color. To paint a truly
    classcial piece of sculpture is worse than gilding a lily, as the above
    examples testify to…this isn’t to say that some pieces of ancient
    sculpture were not intended to be painted.
    One of the things I
    learned from Antonio was that ‘color and form are one.’ It doesn’t take
    a whole lot of time to understand this universal principle if you
    reflect on it.
    Every thing you see is color. It is not simply
    color painted on the surface of the form of visual reality. It is
    profoundly one with form. Very important concept for the visual artist,
    or for one wishing to appreciate the visual arts.

    1. From a strictly aesthetic point of view, what you’re arguing makes sense, but –

      “To paint a truly classical piece of sculpture is worse than gilding a lily, as the above examples testify to…this isn’t to say that some pieces of ancient
      sculpture were not intended to be painted.”

      What makes a piece of sculpture “truly classical”? I’m afraid it has been pretty well established for a few generations now that most ancient Greek and Roman sculptures were, in fact, painted. We’re free to like it or not as we choose, but it’s no good maintaining that Greek and Roman sculpture was lovely monochrome virgin white like Michelangelo, because it just ain’t so.

      1. I’m not really arguing, just pointing out the nature of sculpture from a classical viewpoint. Classical being the recognition of of the archetypal nature of the medium. Like Rodin once said “Sculpture is the art of the hole and the lump.” –

        1. Ah. Now I get you.

          Considering that, when the subject is sculpture, most people understand the word classical (especially with a capital C) to refer to Greek and Roman antiquity, can you think of another word? It would certainly help avoid misunderstandings, especially on topics like the one discussed in this article.

          (That’s the kind of question I pose all the time when I’m copy-editing.)

        2. Isn’t “Classical” a later construction, though? Would the ancient Greeks have considered their sculptures “classical” in the sense we understand it? They were cult objects, like the statues that one still sees in certain Catholic churches, meant to teach and to inspire veneration, not detached esthetic contemplation.

      2. We aren’t actually “free” to like it or not, because the aesthetic experience is intuitive. It is not rationally deliberated upon, so there literally is no “choice”. Objectively speaking, the sculptures truly are better unpainted, despite the intentions of their painters.

        1. “Free”? “Choice”?


          You’re way above my level. I wasn’t trying to get into the philosophy or neuropsychology of aesthetic experience.

          I was simply observing that no one can force anyone else to like or dislike the sculptures painted, and one’s like or dislike is independent of the historical fact that many, if not most, large sculptures in ancient Greece and Rome were painted.

          “Objectively speaking, the sculptures truly are better unpainted”

          There is, of course, no such thing as “objectively better” when it comes to a work of art. (There may not be such a thing as “objectively better” at all, but I’ll leave that to the postmodernists and deconstructionists.)

          In any case, NESW, you can relax, because no one is proposing repainting the surviving original statues.

          1. I like to say “it is the job description of the artist to make an ‘object’ of the ‘subject,. Making the objective , subjective and the subjective, objective.” :
            For me there is obviously, objectively better. Even my friend the wine connoisseur says,”…a good red is one that stays down..;)

    2. Hm.

      We do seem to have a lot of folks in this thread using the word classical to mean just what they choose it to mean, neither more nor less, like so many Humpty Dumptys..

    3. ” To paint a trulyclasscial piece of sculpture is worse than gilding a lily, as the above
      examples testify to…this isn’t to say that some pieces of ancient
      sculpture were not intended to be painted.”

      To make such a statement is to show true ignorance. It is to declare the very artists making those sculptures brutal hacks without any appreciation or understanding of their work. These sculptures WERE painted. The paint is still there, just not in quantities and forms appreciable to the naked eye. Which is precisely why the examples in the article were made: Scientific analysis can still detect what paint was used were, even in relatively intricate shapes, which allows us to make copies of the originals painted as the creator intended them.

  2. Back in the 1960s, at the latest, I read that it was widely accepted that the Greeks painted their sculpture. Apparently small residues of paint can still be detected on some of the works. Since then it occasionally amused me to color in photographs of them with varying schemes, and I have heard of others doing it as well. Some people get hold of more or less accurate plaster reproductions of these works and go three-dimensional. The coloring might be realistic or not. I had no idea any of us were doing something earthshatteringly original. Is there money in it, as well as minor fame? I might have a lucrative artistic career after all!

  3. I believe there is sufficient evidence to support the use of pigments to “enhance” classical sculpture. However, I do not believe the current reconstructions are accurate. It is hard to believe that such talented artists as those that made the sculture would be such poor colorists. It seems obvious to me that the goal was trompe l’oeil both in form and in color. These examples demonstrate a heady enthusiasm for the new research. Taken down several notches in saturation, with more attention to detail, modulation and shading would probably bring these examples closer to the real talent and vision of the original artists.

    1. Very fair points.

      Fortunately, the coordinator of this project, as quoted in the article, says, “But we are still at the beginning.”

  4. While the colors are determined from the residue of the original paint that does not mean they looked like these examples. There is such a thing as an art to the painting and these polychrome imatations / simulations are not artistic in a way that matches the skill of the carvings. So I agree with William that there is more to color than slapping paint on.

    The color would emanate from the forming process and the paint would be in response to that with the sensitivity seen in the best classical mosaics and paintings. I think of the surviving Roman paintings where color is a formal problem rather than a coloring book solution. These examples do not show any tinting or shading to inform the carved shaping beneath and look more like a coloring book practice of only flat coloring in the lines. There would be more of a modeling approach, I would speculate, that preserved the deep and shallow structures.

    The examples flatten out the sculpural structure. The result of these examples is of a non-painter doing an academic imitation of painting with no real intent of being an artist. That is the safe bet to prevent criticism that they embellished the design with contemporary ideas of painting but in understanding this consider that the result might not have been so garish and unsophisticated. However, this conservative result is a very pop art coloring approach that is likely unintentionaly informed by modern painting so I think the modern bias has in fact been established to the detriment of historical accuracy. I’d also consider that the Greek Classical ( perhaps the archaic) sculpture may have been painted to enhance the sense of youthfullness which corresponds to what we know about while the Roman portraiture sculptures would have been painted to emphasize the distinguishing character and wisdom of age. So the two cultures would have shared a carving approach but differed in painted results.

    It is not impossible to speculate there would likely have been a grace to the painting and an aesthetic sense of a painter to add to the aesthetic of the sculpture. Ancient sculpture survives with much of its paint intact from Egypt that shows this modeling of the color. Gothic and renaissance painted sculpture indicates a sensitivity to modeling and color relationships not shown in these illustrated examples. In fact I bet the color analysis can not be claimed as complete since the only surviving color is only very small samples that survived in the pours of the stone and could indicate just the under painting rather than the final over laying of color and any finish, glaze or patina applied over top that would not have survived detection.

    1. Timothy, I think everything you’ve said here makes a lot of sense. Thanks very much for saying it.

      I hope you can get what you’ve said here published as an essay somewhere – or at least that there’s somewhere you can post it on this project’s website (link in the article’s third paragraph). The researchers and curators involved may already know what you’re saying, but I think everyone interested in this project could stand to read it.

Comments are closed.