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Colors of antiquity
August 21, 2010 7:49 PM   Subscribe

Richard Meier [...] once declared that “white is the most wonderful color of all, because within it one can find every color of the rainbow.”
"We think of white marble figures as aesthetic monuments ... frozen in a museum installation."
Most scholars haven't paid much attention to the light traces of pigment that remained on the surface of marble statues, but a flood of recent exhibitions has set out to put their color back.
Listen to Helen of Troy, in the Euripides play that bears her name:
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.
It is a wonder how it took us as long as it did to realize the colorful truth behind some of Man's oldest artistic relics. [previously] [via]
posted by Joe in Australia (41 comments total) 34 users marked this as a favorite

 
They look like they were colored the same way old comic books were, bright, garish and simplistic. Which might actually be close to the truth.
posted by nomadicink at 8:04 PM on August 21, 2010


it's no wonder why it took so long. why would a white man question the color of a white statue?
posted by kitchenrat at 8:07 PM on August 21, 2010 [3 favorites]


Does that mean that the logical next step is to combine classical themes with hyperrealist techniques?
posted by Anything at 8:12 PM on August 21, 2010 [5 favorites]


They knew that in Philadelphia in 1933. This isn't exactly new news :)
posted by Peach at 8:17 PM on August 21, 2010 [6 favorites]


Somehow I doubt those elegant statues originally looked like they were colored with the MS paint bucket tool.
posted by The Hamms Bear at 8:17 PM on August 21, 2010 [4 favorites]


This is odd -- I've known, or at least, I'm been convinced I've known -- that Greek statuary was always brightly colored, the white color was a result of age. I know that they've seen this in the Elgin Marbles.

Being able to plausibly reconstruct the actual coloration is pretty wifty, though.
posted by eriko at 8:20 PM on August 21, 2010


I think that this is one of those discoveries that the public keeps rediscovering, as this article from 1944 (PDF) makes quite clear. It was quite the hot topic in the nineteenth century; Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema exploits it in a famous painting, "Phidias Showing the Frieze of the Parthenon to His Friends" (1868).
posted by thomas j wise at 8:28 PM on August 21, 2010 [14 favorites]


White pigment (white paint) was only created in the 19th century, prior to that there was no white paint. They used whitewash and I guess white marble. The colonial era houses with painted walls were everything but white (there was some off white paint but not very white).
posted by stbalbach at 8:31 PM on August 21, 2010 [1 favorite]


it's no wonder why it took so long. why would a white man question the color of a white statue?

huh?
posted by chimaera at 8:35 PM on August 21, 2010 [7 favorites]


It seems like they have very little physical evidence to work with and are having to do a pretty fair amount of extrapolation. I don't dismiss that the Greeks may have painted their statues, but we'll never know what the original finishes actually looked like.

I'm not sure if I like the fill-in-the-blanks aesthetic any more than I like just having what there is left over, despite its missing elements. I know a lot of archaeology is filling in the blanks, but some of this seems like fanciful guesswork based on suppositions. Is there scholarly push-back to any large degree, or is this widely accepted in the antiquities field?
posted by Devils Rancher at 8:51 PM on August 21, 2010 [1 favorite]


Does that mean that the logical next step is to combine classical themes with hyperrealist techniques?

Wow, those are pretty amazing.
posted by Devils Rancher at 8:55 PM on August 21, 2010


Given the marvelous sophistication of the forms, I doubt the colours would have been applied in such an ungraceful manner.

But that could be just me -- I'm one who thinks they've got the restorations at the Sistine wrong, too.

Time has added a gravitas to these works, and part of what it's done is remove the colour. But it's still important and fascinating to know, and think about, how they looked in "life," so to speak.
posted by Trochanter at 9:18 PM on August 21, 2010 [1 favorite]


A lot of the fine details of a painting are built up, layer by layer, and even those are often deliberately obscured by glazes to get the desired result. I think if you tried to reconstruct the Mona Lisa from a blank canvas you'd end up with something that looks like one of these reconstructions: large splotches of unnatural color. On the other hand, the coloration of these statues are consistent with funereal paintings and mosaics of the period, so perhaps it really is how they saw people.
posted by Joe in Australia at 9:27 PM on August 21, 2010 [3 favorites]


Also, given the panache, and vigour of the colours in, say this work, where the colour survives, I think we could expect the pigment on the busts to be more artistic, as well.

(The main one I'm speaking of is the Caligula bust. But if you look at other works from early A.D. Rome, such as these of Pompey, Brutus, and Caesar, you also see the mastery.)
posted by Trochanter at 9:37 PM on August 21, 2010


This is awesome. Thank you.
posted by Ahab at 9:46 PM on August 21, 2010


built up, layer by layer

True, so maybe were seeing only a reconstruction of the base coat.
posted by Trochanter at 9:48 PM on August 21, 2010 [1 favorite]


When I was a kid, my family would have Tibetan Buddhist llamas staying with us all the time. One of them, in particular, was quite domineering and controlling about what his students did. At one point, my parents bought a gray stone meditating Buddha statue, which my mother really loved. When the Tibetan teacher saw it, he thought that it was absurd that it wasn't painted, and him and a number of monks proceeded to paint it in color palettes not too dissimilar from what we see with the Greek reconstructions. My mom, being raised with a very Western aesthetic, hated that they turned a "beautiful" gray statue into a garishly colored icon, but one has to wonder how much of our plain stone aesthetic comes from the fact that the Greek statues lost their pigment over time.
posted by outlandishmarxist at 9:51 PM on August 21, 2010 [13 favorites]


Medieval monumental effigies were also painted in bright colors, but like the classical statuary, the color is generally gone on the originals. I'd love to see some of these techniques applied to them as well.
posted by immlass at 10:04 PM on August 21, 2010 [1 favorite]


The HBO series Rome had just about everything painted in very bright colors. The background information they put out about the project talked a lot about how statues and columns and such were painted in ancient Rome and have simply been bleached white over the years. That was more than a few years ago when they did that. It's interesting that the concept is only just now starting to really hit mainstream awareness.
posted by hippybear at 10:36 PM on August 21, 2010 [1 favorite]


Reminds of me old comic books: Good line work obscured by god-awful colouring.
posted by Gin and Comics at 10:37 PM on August 21, 2010 [5 favorites]


it's no wonder why it took so long. why would a white man question the color of a white statue?
posted by kitchenrat at 8:07 PM on August 21 [2 favorites +] [!]


Ugh. Let's try not to make this about race.
posted by Malice at 10:50 PM on August 21, 2010 [2 favorites]


eerily, and without evidence from verse, this makes me imagine there having been human skin stretched over the the forms.
posted by ioesf at 11:01 PM on August 21, 2010 [2 favorites]


Discovery of ancient cave paintings in Petra stuns art scholars: Exquisite artworks hidden under 2,000 years of soot and grime in a Jordanian cave have been restored by experts from the Courtauld Institute in London
posted by homunculus at 12:58 AM on August 22, 2010 [2 favorites]


White pigment (white paint) was only created in the 19th century...

White lead-based pigments have been in use since antiquity. Pliny the Elder describes the manufacture of Psimithium in his Natural History (book 34, ch. 54).
posted by misteraitch at 2:23 AM on August 22, 2010 [7 favorites]


I don't dismiss that the Greeks may have painted their statues, but we'll never know what the original finishes actually looked like.

Well, there were probably a vast number of original finishes, as the ancient statues and columns were usually repainted annually. A coat of paint just doesn't last on an ancient statue left exposed to the elements.

For me, anything would be better than pretending that the ancient world was full of white marble statues. The convention of keeping them white was really solidified during the Renaissance because it was easier to sell forgeries if they didn't have to match a paint job. The classical world was full of color and life, not a staid world of marble. Gladiator was totally wrong; Rome was pretty damn spot on.
posted by graymouser at 3:29 AM on August 22, 2010


My high school Latin teacher told us this...circa 1960.
posted by Carol Anne at 4:32 AM on August 22, 2010 [1 favorite]


This is really fucking cool. For me the coloring reveals the lushness of the ancient world, and fires the imagination of those times in a new way. Maybe this discovery is not so surprising? Sculpture and art served more as a conduit for official propaganda and state-religious belief in those days. Meaning the statues had to be impressive to all, including the common folk. Coloring them would have served that purpose.
posted by telstar at 4:34 AM on August 22, 2010


They knew that in Philadelphia in 1933. This isn't exactly new news :)

Quite true - in fact, this coincided with the world itself turning color.
posted by kcds at 5:00 AM on August 22, 2010 [1 favorite]


The Duke University Museum of Art has a 3,000 year old Egyptian relief that still has pigment in it. It's stunning.
posted by zzazazz at 6:15 AM on August 22, 2010


If you're ever in Turkey, you can see the Alexander Sarcophagus (from the third link) at the Istanbul Archeological Museum- since it was buried for so long, it still has many visible traces of pigment. Aside from being (in my view) the best extant example of Greek sculpture (yes, better than the Elgin Marbles and the Pergamon Altar), being able to see the hints of the colors is breathtaking.
posted by foxy_hedgehog at 6:30 AM on August 22, 2010


I think Americans as a whole aren't familiar with this because they like to think they invented kitsch.
posted by kozad at 6:53 AM on August 22, 2010 [1 favorite]


Good post (although the first and fourth links go to the same article). Of course the fact has been known for a long time, as most of the links make clear; the point is that it hasn't been taken on board by the general public. Maybe now with popularizations like Rome it will be.

One point for those who think the reconstructions look garish (although of course that impression is almost inevitable when we're used to seeing them in white): it will doubtless take a lot of experimentation to get a convincing look. Compare the "original instrument" movement in music—at first you had a lot of clunky, awkward, unmusical performances whose main virtue was the presence of an oboe d'amore or clavichord or whatever. (And don't get me started on the early modern countertenors.) Now such performances are usually completely convincing. Patience!
When Lord Duveen put up the money for a new wing of the British Museum in the 1930s, he forced the restorers to clean the surfaces of the Elgin Marbles with copper chisels, abrasives, and iron brushes. They knew perfectly well that this was wrong, but as the ostentatious patron of the arts he was, Duveen insisted that his showcase look "classically" pristine.
Christ, what an asshole.

Speaking of which, can we keep bullshit about "a white man" and "Americans" out of this? Thanks!
posted by languagehat at 7:11 AM on August 22, 2010 [5 favorites]


White lead-based pigments have been in use since antiquity.

Oh, thank goodness you tracked down a source for that. For a terrifying moment there I thought the flake white had quite literally gone to my head and I'd hallucinated all that coursework I had to take on Renaissance technique and conservation.

Zinc oxide didn't come into use until the 19th century, and titanium dioxide (the most commonly-used white pigment today) didn't until the early 20th, but white lead is seriously old news.

Just for fun, here's a nice overview of pigment use through history (starting with the whites).
posted by wreckingball at 9:57 AM on August 22, 2010 [4 favorites]


Next you are going to tell me that the Parthenon was done in tie-dye...
posted by gjc at 10:32 AM on August 22, 2010 [1 favorite]


> It seems like they have very little physical evidence to work with and are having to do a pretty fair amount of extrapolation.
> I don't dismiss that the Greeks may have painted their statues, but we'll never know what the original finishes actually looked like.

Quite a number of Classical-era Roman wall paintings have survived with their colors intact--at Pompeii and elsewhere. (People are shown as people-colored, leaves are green, etc., so the colors have not changed enormously just due to their age.) Many of these paintings depict... painted statues.

That's not direct eyeball evidence of what statuary looked like in pre-Roman Greece but it's a lot closer than we are now, and it provides something for folks doing the pigment-trace analysis to compare their results to for confirmation.
posted by jfuller at 10:33 AM on August 22, 2010


Quite a number of Classical-era Roman wall paintings have survived with their colors intact--at Pompeii and elsewhere. (People are shown as people-colored, leaves are green, etc., so the colors have not changed enormously just due to their age.) Many of these paintings depict... painted statues.

Good point. I was sort of looking for something along those lines in the linked articles, and din't see much about what they were really doing to seriously analyze how these would have been painted, exactly. I'd love to read some in-depth stuff about just how much evidence they have, and how much extrapolation goes on, and the actual lab work. The linked articles don't go too much beyond "Hey, we figured out that these things had probably been painted, so we painted some up to show what they probably looked like." I want to see more about how they got to "probably," and I'm genuinely curious as to whether this is a disciplinary backwater, or if it's universally accepted amongst those who know such things.

I'm just some guy with an internet connection, but I find these things intensely interesting, though I've learned over the years to retain a little skepticism with single-sourced stuff, and was hopping for some support or refutation, since I'm literally in the dark. I'm hoping my first comment didn't come off as an attack - it's not. It's actually a desire for deeper understanding of the subject.
posted by Devils Rancher at 10:54 AM on August 22, 2010


Maybe I'm culturally brainwashed, but these repainted sculptures are really damn ugly.
posted by aesacus at 1:06 PM on August 22, 2010


> Maybe I'm culturally brainwashed, but these repainted sculptures are really damn ugly.
> posted by aesacus at 4:06 PM on August 22 [+] [!]

As is so often the case, we in the present look at what they did back in the day and realize that we know better now. Just gimme a wall by Banksy and a bucket of whitewash and I'll demonstrate. Trust me, you'll like it.
posted by jfuller at 3:07 PM on August 22, 2010



Next you are going to tell me that the Parthenon was done in tie-dye...

Well, no, but it was painted, too.
posted by Herodios at 6:44 PM on August 22, 2010


True, so maybe were seeing only a reconstruction of the base coat.

Are there any known descriptions of the painting process in ancient literature that would give us a better hint of what the sculptures might have originally have looked like?

Considering how seriously the subtleties of human and animal form were taken, I'll count myself among the skeptics on this kitschy texture hypothesis.
posted by Anything at 9:07 PM on August 22, 2010


What a fascinating subject! It may not be news in a general sense, but it's news to most of us here, and will probably be news to our descendants as this colour hypothesis is rediscovered over and over, down the ages. The idea that classical antiquity was full of bright circus coloured statues and bronzes is something that probably just won't "stick" in popular consciousness, since it goes against our aesthetic conceptions. And they're not going to repaint all the original statues in the museums, so every new generation is going to grow up with the bleached white look.

Devils Rancher and Joe In Australia are probably on to something with the notion that there may have been finishes and glazes applied after painting that leave no trace today. It's really hard to look a statue like the Augustus of Prima Porta and accept that it was supposed to look like that originally. But on the other hand, it makes total sense that small pieces set way up high on the walls of temples and public buildings would be painted in a way that made them easy to see. So some of these reconstructions are probably more accurate than others.
posted by Kevin Street at 1:45 PM on August 23, 2010


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