What if Sculptures Were Painted?

This week I have been reading Colin Cunningham’s essay “The Parthenon Marbles” (a preview of which is available here). Cunningham spends much of this essay examining how the bringing of the Parthenon marbles (by Lord Elgin) to the British Museum has affected the Western canon of art. (When using the word “canon” I am referring to the artistic standard and aesthetic value that has been determined by Western culture over centuries.)  The bringing of original Greek statues to England was huge, especially in the 19th century, since many artists had only known Greek art through Roman copies.  After the marbles were brought to the British Museum in 1816, thousands of artists began to study these works for their aesthetic properties.

I was most intrigued by Cunningham’s discussion of how classical sculpture continues to be left unpainted.  We know that Greek and Roman sculpture used to be painted, and many sculptures have left behind traces of paint (including sculptures on the Parthenon). Modern techniques have enabled exhibitions (such as this one and this one) to show reconstructions of how these sculptures appeared originally, such as this example of Augustus of Primaporta (right, original dated ca. 20 BC).

However when ancient sculptures were discovered, most of the paint had usually come off.  Obviously, people decided to leave the works unpainted.  On one hand, no one wanted to risk damaging the original works of art.  Plus, at the time no one knew how the paint originally appeared.  In time, though, the idea of unpainted sculpture began to be propagated by art historians as correct/beautiful/preferred, particularly Winckelmann (1717-1768), who declared that “color ought to have a minor part in the consideration of beauty.”1

So, what do you think of painted sculpture?  Does it weird you out? Cunningham points out, “If the idea of coloured sculpture seems strange to you, that shows the influence the western canon has had on all of us.”2 Personally, I like looking at painted reconstructions of ancient sculpture, because it reminds me how much the Western canon and my own artistic preferences have been constructed.  I’m sure that ancient Greeks and Romans would think it bizarre that later cultures left their sculptures white and unadorned.  And the funny thing is, we’ve continued to create unadored, unpainted sculptures for centuries, all in the name of classicism!

What if classical sculpture had still been painted when it was discovered?  That could have changed the face of the Western art – quite literally, in fact, if you think about painted faces!  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 (left, by a German artist, displayed in Cologne as part of the Museum Ludwig collection).  Or what if Bernini’s sculptures had been painted?  Or neoclassical sculptures, like Canova’s Cupid and Psyche?

Art and art history could have been totally different than how they have turned out.  How do you feel about that?

1 John Hooper, “The Ancients: Now Available in Color,” in The Guardian, 22 November 2004.  Available online here.

2 Colin Cunninghman, “The Parthenon Marbles,” in Academies, Museums and Canons of Art, Gill Perry and Colin Cunningham, eds. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999), 70.

  • H Niyazi says:

    Interesting post M!!

    I don't think our perceptions have been that dramatically skewed to be too shocked by seeing a coloured statue.

    The wonderful colours of Egyptian works and the later baroque altarpiece statues would make most of us used to such coloured images in a 3 dimensional representation.

    I think I'd have more issue with the basic and gaudy looking colour used in the primaporta repainting as seen in that image.

    You mentioned the Elgin marbles and the Parthenon – there is a wonderful painting by my favourite neo-classicist Alma-Tadema. It depicts Phidias displaying the Frieze of the Parthenon to his friends… a wonderful painting that imagines what these coloured sculptures could have looked like.

    It was actually the subject of my very first post at 3PP, which I'm sure most of my present readers missed!


    Kind Regards

  • M says:

    I love that Alma Tadema painting, H Niyazi! Cunningham actually uses it in his article, to show how the Parthenon sculptures may have originally appeared.

    Also, I think it's interesting that you described the Augustus sculpture as "gaudy." I can totally see what you are saying (and can agree to a point), but I can't help but point out that a modern reaction to this painting as "gaudy" is indicative of the Western mindset and construct. (Which is completely normal: we are all products of our cultural surroundings and ideology!) Anyhow, I'm sure the Greeks and Romans didn't find their works to be gaudy. 🙂

    Also, people may be interested in another article on this topic. My friend phin sent me this article in an email this morning. It discusses how ultraviolet light is used to reveal the original paint on Greek statues.

  • Rebekah says:

    I keep imagining the average Greco/Roman time-traveller being either moved or outraged (because of the clothes) by mannequins in every store front window, and being dismissive of how we revere "blank" sculpture…

  • Kiersten says:

    That's funny, I saw a replica of the Augustus of Primaporta today at the Spurlock Museum (on U of I campus). The whole gallery there is filled with life-sized plaster replicas of famous classical sculptures that were made around 1910. The entire ancient exhibit is like a tribute to the canon, which makes it kind of fun from a historiographical point of view.

    I've always been familiar with the idea of painted sculptures because I was taught early on that they were painted. However, neoclassicism as we know it would be extremely different. As an Americanist, I'm thinking about how this knowledge would have affected the "white city" concept for the Chicago World's Colombian Exposition in the 1890s.

  • heidenkind says:

    It makes sense that they would paint the sculptures, since their goal was to make them as realistic (or hyper-realistic) as possible. But as modern viewers we're so used to the white marble or plaster sculpture that they look seriously fakey. 🙂

  • e says:

    Wow! I had no idea! That is so fascinating — both to know that sculpture was originally painted back in the "classical" days and to also think about how we've been influenced to think of classic sculpture as not painted.

    Honestly, I'm so blown away by this revelation (since I had no idea otherwise). It's so odd to think of all these famous, old sculptures as painted. It's like relearning how sculpture can be found beautiful. Our idea of tacky was their idea of beautiful. Interesting …

  • M says:

    Ha! I like thinking about the Greeks being outraged at clothed mannequins, Rebekah. That's funny.

    Kiersten, how funny that you saw a replica in the Spurlock Museum. I noticed the classical sculptures in the background of your photograph (on your family blog). And I think that you've brought up an interesting idea about the "white city" for the Chicago World's Columbian Exposition! I wonder what the Greeks would have thought about all that classical/stucco architecture in brilliant white.

    heidenkind, I like that you mentioned how the paint was intended to make the sculptures look realistic (at least, from the Greek point of view). I should have emphasized that in my post. You're right: the paint doesn't seem realistic to us at all, but I think our eyes have been trained to recognize the sign for "realism" with different color palettes/schemes.

    e, I'm glad that I could introduce you to another new topic! I think a lot of people don't realize that classical sculptures were painted. Yeah, it opens up a whole new way of looking at classical art (and the reasons why we have revered/imitated classical art).

  • Elle says:

    I can't seem to take sculpture seriously when it's painted like that. Vivid colour and classical sculpture looks very odd. But you like you said, all down to the modern canon…great post! 🙂

  • Author says:

    Personally, I think unpainted reveals much more the work's intention perhaps…but with the subtle color of Egyptian work – maybe. Could you find any examples with a light wash of color anywhere?

  • Hels says:

    I love unpainted marble, in particular. But only partially because that is what we are so used to.

    Mostly marble is so sexy, to touchable, so perfect.. that painting its surface would take away the glorious tactile qualities that separate sculpture from other art forms.

  • M says:

    Elle, Author and Hels: thanks for the comments!

    Author, that's an interesting question. So far I have not seen a classical replica that uses a "light wash." It seems like the bright, saturated look has been determined from the elements that were used to make Greek paintings. I read here that German archaeologist Vinzenz Brinkmann hand-painted replicas "in the same mineral and organic pigments used by the ancients: green from malachite, blue from azurite, yellow and ocher from arsenic compounds, red from cinnabar, black from burned bone and vine." That being said, though, J.L. Benson noted an instance where blue was mixed with white (to create a pastel effect) on some architecture sculpture (see .PDF file here, p. 88). Although that doesn't constitute a "light wash," it does suggest that that the Greeks did use some colors with lower saturation.

    Hels, I like your comment about the tactile qualities of marble. I also think it's interesting about how you mentioned that sculpture is separate from the other art forms (e.g. painting). It seems like today we find more distinction between the various mediums, especially painting and sculpture. Even though the ancients painted their sculpture, I feel like many artists today still keep painting and sculpture relatively separate (which isn't a criticism by any means, just an observation).

  • Jaime says:

    I know I'm a few days late in commenting, but I was really excited to see this post because it reminded me of something I read in one of my historiography classes. The 19th-c. historian T. B. Macaulay used the example of unpainted sculpture in his metaphor of how history should be written:

    "No picture, then, and no history, can present us with the whole truth: but those are the best pictures and the best histories which exhibit such parts of the truth as most nearly produce the effect of the whole. He who is deficient in the art of selection may, by showing nothing but the truth, produce all the effect of the grossest falsehood. It perpetually happens that one writer tells less truth than another, merely because he tells more truths. In the imitative arts we constantly see this….A bust of white marble may give an excellent idea of a blooming face. Colour the lips and cheeks of the bust, leaving the hair and eyes unaltered, and the similarity, instead of being more striking, will be less so."

    Anyway, I had fun digging out the quote, and I just thought I'd share to show just how much leaving sculptures unpainted has influenced our western definitions of perfection and truth in areas even outside of art.

  • M says:

    Jaime, I love this quote! I'm so glad that you found it and included it here. I'm planning on using this quote in a future class, especially because we'll be discussing historiography right before we discuss the Western canon). Thanks for sharing it!

    I ended up looking up the reference to this quote. If anyone is interested, it is from The Miscellaneous Writings and Speeches of Lord Macaulay, Popular Edition, London, Longmans, Green & Co., 1889, p. 138; originally published in Edinburgh Review, XLVII, 1828. It can be found online here.

  • ixoj says:

    I think it's weird! I'm sure I'd get used to it eventually, and it's interesting to see/think about what they considered beautiful reminds me of a plastic toy, but I like the simplicity of cold hard rock.

  • Alberti's Window says:

    Here is a great article by the Metropolian Museum of Art, discussing polychromy of Roman marble sculptures. I especially like this quote:

    “Depictions of statuary in Roman wall paintings (03.14.13) provide an indication of their diverse appearances in antiquity. Some marble sculptures were completely painted and gilded, effectively obscuring the marble surface; others had more limited, selective polychromy used to emphasize details such as the hair, eyes, and lips and accompanying attributes.”

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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.