In Euripides’ telling of the tragedy of Helen of Troy, the Greek queen bemoans how her looks rendered her “life and fortunes … a monstrosity.” Meditating on her role in sparking the Trojan War, she muses, “If only I could shed my beauty and assume an uglier aspect / The way you would wipe color off a statue."
Helen’s words reflect a common misconception about the colors (or lack thereof) of classical sculptures. While ancient statues standing in museums today are overwhelmingly white, their marble features were once awash in bright hues—a technique known as polychromy, or “many colors” in Greek.
“In many ways,” Marco Leona, chief scientist at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, told CBS News’ Martha Teichner last year, this myth of whiteness is “an accident of time and nature” that traces its origins to the Renaissance, when European artists rediscovered the majesty of Greco-Roman sculpture.
Starting next week, a new exhibition at the Met will offer visitors a sense of what ancient masterpieces might have looked like in their original, vibrantly painted form. Titled “Chroma: Ancient Sculpture in Color,” the show features 40 artworks from the Manhattan museum’s collections and 14 full-size reconstructions created by polychromy experts Vinzenz Brinkmann and Ulrike Koch-Brinkmann. (A companion gallery on the Met’s mezzanine level showcases 22 original artworks and 3 reconstructions.)
Per a statement, “Chroma” explores four central themes: the scientific and art historical tools used to identify the colors that once adorned ancient sculptures, the reconstruction of these colors, the meaning of polychromy in the Greco-Roman world, and the interpretation of polychromy by later societies. Highlights of the exhibition include reconstructions of a sixth-century B.C.E. marble sphinx finial, whose wings feature red-and-blue feathers and gilded embellishments, and a fifth-century B.C.E. archer’s torso wrapped in gold foil.
“This innovative exhibition will activate the Met’s displays of ancient Greek and Roman art like never before by displaying colorful reconstructions of ancient sculptures throughout the galleries,” says museum director Max Hollein in the statement. “It is truly an exhibition that brings history to life through rigorous research and scientific investigation.”
Most of the reconstructions on view are juxtaposed with comparable sculptures from the Met’s collections rather than their direct ancient counterparts, which are housed at other museums around the world. (The sphinx filial—reconstructed in partnership with the Met—is a notable exception.)
Brinkmann, head of the antiquities department at the Liebieghaus Sculpture Collection in Germany, and his wife Koch-Brinkmann, an archaeologist and art historian, created the colorful artworks after conducting painstaking examinations of the original sculptures. The pair use infrared and ultraviolet light techniques, among other innovative technologies, to identify traces of pigments on statues’ surfaces, as the Liebieghaus explains on the website for “Gods in Color,” a separate traveling exhibition. They then paint plaster casts or 3-D–printed replicas with period-authentic materials, including earth pigments, minerals, tempera and linseed oil.
Previous generations, most prominently the Victorians, painted reproductions “based mostly on fantasy and personal taste,” wrote Matthew Gurewitsch for Smithsonian magazine in 2008. But today, reconstructions are informed by scientific analysis, with areas lacking pigment evidence left white and experts creating multiple copies with contrasting colors “to illustrate the existing evidence and how it has been interpreted.”
As Renee Dreyfus, a curator of “Gods in Color,” told CNN’s Jacopo Prisco in 2019, “It’s not at all clear if this is the way [the sculptures] actually looked, but there’s no question that we know exactly where the pigments were, and that’s a great step forward.”
The whitewashing of classical sculpture dates back to the Renaissance, when people in Italy started unearthing long-buried ancient artworks. Time and the elements took their toll on these sculptures, erasing many traces of their once-vibrant colors. Pigments that survived the centuries quickly faded “due to cleaning and contact with air and sunlight,” per the “Gods in Color” portal. Taking their cue from these seemingly unpainted marbles, artists like Michelangelo left their Renaissance sculptures similarly unadorned.
Eighteenth-century art historian Johann Joachim Winckelmann further cemented the association between whiteness and classical values, writing, “The whiter the body is, the more beautiful it is as well. Color contributes to beauty, but it is not beauty. Color should have a minor part in the consideration of beauty, because it is not [color] but structure that constitutes its essence.”
In truth, Brinkmann told Smithsonian, “Vitality is what the Greeks were after, that, and the charge of the erotic. They always found ways to emphasize the power and beauty of the naked body. Dressing this torso and giving it color was a way to make the body sexier.”
Still, Winckelmann’s view dominated the field of art history for more than a century, with color in sculpture being perceived as “barbarism, for [observers] assumed that the lofty ancient Greeks were too sophisticated to color their art,” explained historian Nell Irvin Painter in the 2010 book The History of White People. The association between whiteness and beauty persists today in white supremacists’ rhetoric, as Hyperallergic’s Sarah E. Bond argued in 2017.
Despite evidence to the contrary—namely, the continued discovery of traces of pigments on ancient sculptures—the art world embraced the falsehood of white classical sculpture well into the 20th century. Restorers and museums engaged in “an enduring Renaissance conspiracy [to] eradicate traces of paint,” classicist Mark Bradley told the New Yorker’s Margaret Talbot in 2018, only acknowledging the full range of Greco-Roman art’s color around the 1980s.
Today, polychrome reproductions remain a point of contention among art lovers.
“It turns out that vision is heavily subjective,” said Brinkmann to the New Yorker. “You need to transform your eye into an objective tool in order to overcome this powerful imprint”—a tendency, in Talbot’s words, “to equate whiteness with beauty, taste and classical ideals, and to see color as alien, sensual and garish.”
“Chroma: Ancient Sculpture in Color” is on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City from July 5, 2022, to March 26, 2023.