Saturday, May 14, 2011

The Colour of White

“My life and fortunes are a monstrosity,”
“Partly because of Hera, partly because of my beauty.
If only I could shed my beauty and assume an uglier aspect
The way you would wipe color off a statue.”
moans Helen of Troy in a play by Euripides.

It seems that Helen has had her wish fulfilled, as when we think of classical Greek or Roman sculpture and architecture, we tend to imagine white marble. It is upon this assumption that we base our whole conception of classical sculpture and architecture on.

Take for example, that Caligula's handsome, marble face has stared out at a fascinated world for almost 2000 years. Now situated at the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek museum in Copenhagen, the celebrated first-century bust of this cruel young Roman emperor is made repellent, yet intriguing, not so much by his petulantly downturned mouth as by the blank, staring eyes chiselled from marble by an unknown sculptor.

So, no doubt we are a bit surprised when confronted with an exact replica, with somewhat unthreatening hazel eyes garish pink skin and glossy brown hair. The bust now looks like one of those funny old mannequins you used to find in certain stores selling men’s hats or the like.

Scientists have now come to the conclusion that most likely many statues and buildings were actually painted and probably adorned with jewellery. A couple of years ago the Vatican Museum hosted an exhibition called “The Colours of White” of some of the most famous classical statues and antiquities with reproductions painted as close to the originals as they can , made possible because many statues contain trace amounts of pigment from their original coats of paint.

When most of these works were discovered, most of the paint had usually come off leaving us with a distorted view of what art was like in ancient times. Over time the idea of unpainted sculpture began to be propagated by art historians as correct/beautiful/preferred. If this is the actual case I'm sure that ancient Greeks and Romans would think it bizarre that later cultures left their sculptures white and unadorned all in the name of classicism.

Consider if Michelangelo's David had been painted. You can get an idea of what it might have looked like from this sculpture created after Michelangelo's David by a German artist, displayed in Cologne as part of the Museum Ludwig collection.

Art and art history could have been totally different than how they have turned out.

Ever since they became the object of scholarly interest, classical statues have been trapped in an aesthetic cage erected by the German scholar and father of modern archaeology, Johann Joachim

“Colored statues? To us, classical antiquity means white marble. Not so to the Greeks, who thought of their gods in living color and portrayed them that way too. The temples that housed them were in color, also, like mighty stage sets. Time and weather have stripped most of the hues away. And for centuries people who should have known better pretended that color scarcely mattered.”

“White marble has been the norm ever since the Renaissance, when classical antiquities first began to emerge from the earth…..Knowing no better, artists in the 16th century took the bare stone at face value. Michelangelo and others emulated what they believed to be the ancient aesthetic, leaving the stone of most of their statues its natural color. Thus they helped pave the way for neo-Classicism, the lily-white style that to this day remains our paradigm for Greek art.

Art and art history could have been totally different than how they have turned out, unless we take the cue from the artist who created the below statue using the discus thrower as inspiration!


  1. Wow..such and interesting post I like it very much..always thought of how some of this statues look in color...and they look amazing! Caligula didn´t look that bad in fact he was a pretty handsome man...cruel...but handsome haha

    The Black Label

  2. Hello David:
    This is such an interesting concept and what you say is so true, our entire way of looking at and thinking about classical sculpture would be very different if we had taken colour for granted as a natural component of the 'antique'.

    The same applies to English churches which would, for the most part, have been highly decorated before the Reformation.

  3. What a wonderful post shedding light on a subject that is still so very much in the dark, amazingly.
    I still have difficulties accepting the fact that the Ancient Greece of my fantasies -- one of pure white marble temples and statues -- is just that: a fantasy! To our eyes how garish it all must have been seeing not just colored statues -- but the whole temples themselves! I remember being at Selinunte in Sicily and thinking how majestic it would have been to approach the white temples from off shore, only to realize they'd have been painted yellow, electric blue and red. Wow!
    Anyway, nice art-historical post, thanx. (Great choice of pix as well.)

  4. Excellent post David, but now that we have explored the world of painted classical statuary, can we go back to the aged white marble. The lack of color forces one to concentrate on the planes of the sculpture rather than the surface and the monochrome is just so much more soothing on the eye.

  5. David very interesting! I do love the aged pieces; these works of art stand out and blend perfectly with any painting genre.

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  6. It seems odd, doesn't it? Yes, we know it, but it is like with Black & White movies, it is difficult to imagine that the world was in "technicolor" back then too!

  7. Somehow I think if they could have used neon back then, they would have too. Caesar's Palace in Vegas might be more accurate than anyone thinks, who knows? :)

  8. A fascinating posting, David, and thought-provoking. I prefer the white statuary, but might yet opt for the colored architecture.

  9. his is certainly a concept that has received much debate. I love Jason's comment about Ceaser's Palace.

    Personally I am with you all that prefer the classical white! Michael you put it perfectly!

  10. Oh My God !! its excellent post and fantastic details share for white color. really amazing this post and beautiful all pics . i love it


    My first thought was this article from last week's Sunday NYTimes. Give me the white over the painted any day!

  12. The Philadelphia Museum of Art has a classical frieze outside which is fully painted, and it doesn't look too strange to the eye--maybe because there is so much of it. Well worth a visit and a look.


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