True Colours: The Myth of Whiteness in Greek and Roman Sculpture

When you think of Greek and Roman sculpture, what comes to mind? If your first thoughts are of chiselled white bodies carved from marble and sculpted in plaster, you’re not alone. After all, we all know that smooth white perfection is a staple of classical sculpture. Or is it?

When you think of classical sculpture, you probably imagine a piece like Passionate Kiss

Whiteness in classical sculpture has been thought of as the norm since the Renaissance when early archeologists first began to excavate Ancient Greek and Roman cities. But these ancient cultures imagined their gods and heroes in living colour, and contrary to popular belief, portrayed them that way in their statues too. So how did we come to believe otherwise? A large amount of it simply comes down to old age. Over the thousands of years since the fall of the ancient societies, sculptures were exposed to the elements and many simply lost their colour due to erosion.

Pieces that were buried underground retained more colour, but it was covered by dirt and mineral buildup, and often brushed off during cleaning after it was excavated. Over time, though, scholars began to argue that the Ancient Greeks and Romans had left their statues bare on purpose. They believed that the artists had chosen the white forms as a statement of their superior artistry — that their sculptures were so technically perfect that colour would only detract from it. This theory was made all the more believable by the discovery of colourful Egyptian art from the same period. Its vivid colour had been preserved by the dry desert climate, but in spite of this, Renaissance historians felt that the presence of colour in Egypt meant that the Mediterranean works could not have faded, and must have been left white intentionally.

“That the ancients disdained bright colour is the most common misconception about Western aesthetics in the history of Western art. It is a lie we all hold dear.”

— Mark Abbe

Originally, Greco-Roman sculptures would have had realistic skin and hair tones, and detailing in vivid colour, like Lladró’s Nude with Shawl

Of course, the discovery of coloured sculpture during massive excavations in the 18th and 19th centuries should have proven that these theories were untrue, But by that time, the myth had taken on a life of its own. Artists and historians intent on maintaining the idea not only claimed that the coloured sculptures had been created by earlier, less civilised peoples, but some denied that the coloured pieces even existed at all! It was only around the 1960s that art historians began to admit that the original Greek and Roman sculptures would have been painted in bright hues, and only in the last 20 years that they have been able to analyse and recreate these pigments. But in contrast to the smooth white marble that we’ve become accustomed to seeing in classical art, these colourful recreations can be seen as harsh and gaudy by many viewers. So why do so many people feel that way?

Art is subjective — people are entitled to have different preferences about the way they prefer the art they view to look. And, of course, white sculptures can be incredibly beautiful. The lack of colour allows us to view the piece without distraction, capturing shadow and enabling the viewer to appreciate the finest details, like the powerful muscles of Lladró’s Atlas sculpture. But it is important that we consider why there is a preference for either white or coloured sculpture. Do we appreciate the aesthetic beauty and intricacy of the work? Or are we more preoccupied with the connotations attached to it? Coloured sculptures are associated with modernity and realism, and often use colour to capture attention or convey mood and meaning, while white sculptures are often held up as the pinnacle of art and beauty, coming with connotations of purity, supremacy, idealisation of the human body, and even moral virtue. But of course, it is impossible to understand we hold these assumptions without considering the Eurocentric standards of beauty on which our society and its art are founded.

All white sculptures are beautiful, but the Ancient Greeks and Romans were fond of touches of gold to decorate their statues too, like this Atlas with 24kt gold lustre

The original myth of white classical sculpture was designed to separate the ‘superior’ artistry of Ancient European artists from the work of artists in Egypt, West Asia, and the ‘New World’ of the East. That same sense of superiority is a view that has been held by many of the artists and historians who have been most vocal about preserving the theory of whiteness in Greco-Roman art. And, when combined with the fact that the homogenous whiteness of the sculptures themselves has essentially erased any representation of the rich diversity of these two civilisations, it is easy to see why the whole situation is a little more complex than it may first have seemed. Of course, this is not the fault of the viewer, many of us have never been exposed to the other ancient forms of art that existed before the whitewashing of sculpture. But never-the-less, by admitting that the myth of whiteness is just that — a myth — we are forced to confront the uncomfortable truth of where that idea came from and how it continues to influence our ideas surrounding art and beauty even today.

White and colourful sculptures can both be beautiful in their own right, and there is no right or wrong on which you prefer. But the next time you are admiring an ancient Greco-Roman statue in a museum, challenge yourself to imagine what it would have looked like when it was created - alive with vivid colour - and reflect on how its colour, or lack thereof, might have challenged your perception.

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