Why Do People Still Think That Classical Sculptures Were Meant to Be White?
- The widespread desire for “aesthetic purity”—and our current mental image of the pristinely white ancient statue—has its origins in the mid-14th century, when relics from the Classical world were first excavated from the terrain of central Italy. White, unembellished, and exquisitely carved, these ancient masterpieces that were hiding for thousands of years were taken by the Italians at face value, mistakenly believing they had always lacked color.
- Not only did this initial misunderstanding transform into a new artistic ideal that partially sparked the Renaissance, it also led to the development of several theories that remained gospel in art circles for centuries.
- For one, the definition of artistic refinement was essentially rewritten after the discovery of these white statues. Italians had thought the Greeks and Romans—whose achievements in subjects like philosophy and political theory were well known—left their marbles bare on purpose, and perceived this approach as yet another intellectual accomplishment from the Classical era.
- Suddenly, “high art” had to be smart, and a sculpture was only considered as such if it was colorless. Indeed, from around the 15th century on, painted statues were rarely welcome outside of churches—where the Catholic public used them in prayer—and private homes, where they functioned as decorative trinkets. As Met curator Luke Syson has written, “Polychrome sculpture [was] judged too easy and too popular to be good art, high art, or even art at all.”
- The initial misunderstanding of ancient sculpture also raised the question of skill. What mattered most to Renaissance viewers wasn’t the superficial coloring of a work’s surface, but the way in which its maker transformed a block of stone into a stunning vision of humanity, using hammer and chisel alone. Painting a statue was, thus, viewed as a form of cheating. Why would a sculptor need to add color if his work could be beautiful without it?
- This tied into paragone, the popular Renaissance debate that pitted painting and sculpture against one another. While it was never settled, art lovers, including Leonardo da Vinci, agreed that the two media should remain separate—paint had no place on marble. “The power and virtue of the sculptor lie in the effects of the chisel,” asserted artist and collector Vincenzo Borghini in 1584. “If some clumsy oaf in this field uses colors, it denies the very nature of that art.”
- The intellectual German elite demonstrated a particular fondness for the unpainted marble statue, as well, including the 19th-century philosopher G.W.F. Hegel, whose famous writings on aesthetics often referenced the white ancient marble. Hegel’s own views were shaped by those of art historian Johann Winckelmann, who influenced both artistic practices and popular tastes of 18th-century Germany and beyond with his consistent praise for ancient Greek sculpture, which he viewed as the pinnacle of beauty.
- Winckelmann based his theories of unpainted marble’s aesthetic superiority on what he considered physical proof. As he wrote in 1764, “White is the color that reflects the most rays of light, and thus is most easily perceived.” Because of this, he believed, “a beautiful body will be all the more beautiful the whiter it is.” Though seemingly based in science, this problematic statement is mostly a reflection of how white Europeans generally viewed themselves versus people of color—and an early indication of the ancient white ideal’s inherent racism.
- Long before the Classical ideal was so blatantly associated with such prejudice, its racist tendencies were already evident, particularly in sculptures that originated in Italy in the 17th and 18th centuries. Cheap, kitschy painted statues of dark-skinned figures known as “Blackamoors” were popularly utilized as furniture, such as tables being “held up” by African servants. Unlike white marble statues, which were universally considered high art, these low-brow works—along with colored sculptures in general—were merely viewed as frivolous objects.
- The myth of the white sculptures of antiquity remained uninterrupted for centuries—until around 1800, when excavators began noticing leftover specks of pigment on the surfaces of some marbles. Yet even when faced with contradicting proof, its believers remained faithful. Hegel accepted the evidence that Classical sculptors actually used paint, but dismissed the practice as stemming from a prior, “primitive” era. Neoclassical artists, who had based their entire practices on the illusion, also pushed back: “Marble, by its whiteness, has something pure [and] celestial…[while] colors are terrestrial,” wrote French sculptor David d’Anger. “Sculpture bears the image of eternity. The more brilliant the colors of a flower, the less it lasts.”
- As one French critic described the work after its first exhibition, “The terrible realism of this statuette makes the public distinctly uneasy, [as] all its ideas about sculpture, about cold lifeless whiteness…are demolished.”
- Over the last decade, an ongoing campaign for polychrome justice has developed within the art world, with eye-catching museum exhibitions(and research-heavy artistic projects by the likes of Francesco Vezzoli) increasingly colorizing the Classical era. Yet even with our increased awareness of its vibrant reality, the myth of the all-white ancient sculpture remains so ingrained in the cultural imagination that it’ll probably never be forgotten