Classicism in Color: Artistic Inspiration from the Polychromatic Ancient World

The history of western classical art has, by and large, preserved the narrative of the monochrome. At first glance, the proof for this feels overwhelming- one need only look to glance into the Greek and Roman halls at any major museum to support that assumption. Renaissance artists and architects cemented into the western artistic consciousness the presumed lack of color of the ancient world, immeasurably impacting art from the 16th century to today. However, from the 18th century onwards, scholars and artists alike knew that antiquity was much more colorful. While the true vibrant aesthetic of ancient art never overtook the dominance of classically inspired white design, artists have been continuously inspired by the pigmentation of antiquity and have utilized it within their own works. As we trace artistic inspiration from polychromy in the 19th century and compare it to contemporary artists employing it today, we can see how polychromy has been an object of fascination for both generations of artists. Across eras, polychromy has been used by both to respond to the interests and ideas of their respective viewers. However, where 19th century artists considered polychromy to be a fascinatingly novel artistic choice that would delight their audiences, contemporary artists now use it to actively counteract the narrative of racial whiteness in classical art.

The Establishment of the Monochrome Ideal: How color got “lost” from antiquity

The erasure of color from this narrative was at first mostly accidental as unearthed examples of classical sculpture and architecture which sparked the Renaissance had long lost their pigments to age and weather. Organic binders like wax and egg tempera that held natural pigment to stone had degraded over time, revealing the remaining white marble underneath. These bare works thus outwardly confirmed the artists’ assumption that their ancient references were indeed designed with the white surfaces that they now possessed. By the height of the Renaissance, the idea of the classical as defined by its lack of color was so intrinsic to the era’s visual thinking that when artists like Netherlandish sculptor Willem Danielsz van Tetrode created polychromatic works like his 1568-75 sculpture of Hercules, the work was considered counter to the ideals of Roman classicism and its aesthetics.

While the original misconception of colorless classicism impacting the Renaissance was accidental, the implantation of the ideal of monochrome into western art historical scholarship canon in the centuries that followed was anything but. Examples of polychrome sculpture were discovered as early as 1730s in the excavations of Pompeii and Herculaneum which unearthed notable examples of sculpture that had retained some of their original hues. Johann Joachim Winckelmann, notable 18th century art historian and author of a formative text on Ancient Art, Geschichte der Kunst des Alterthums (1764), was well aware of this discovery. He even saw multiple pigmented examples from the ancient cities on a trip to Naples, yet despite his awareness, he wrote prolifically about the ideal whiteness of monochrome sculpture, stating, “the whiter the body is, the more beautiful it is,” an idea that impacted not just scholarship but aesthetic taste for centuries to follow. Dubbed the father of art history, Winckelmann’s highly influential statements on the aesthetic preferability of whiteness have persisted to this day, leaving behind a legacy of the racist presumption of whiteness possessing an inherent beauty.

For an Eager Audience: 19th Century Artistic Explorations of Polychromy

While the narrative of a monochromatic ancient world has remained the dominant influence on Western art, artists particularly in the 19th century increasingly drew inspiration from polychromy as more examples of sculpture with original pigments were unearthed. Their works, while engaging with and imagining the ancient world, moreso reflected the 19th century fascination with antiquity and their ideas about the art world, beauty, and race.

A major discovery in December 1870 at the site Tanagra in modern day Greece made a particular impact in the French art world. The large group of colorful Hellenistic funerary statuary was brought to Paris in 1878 and put on display at the Exposition Universelle, where they captured the attention of the public. Jean-Léon Gérôme was one of the many captivated by these colorful works. In 1891, he created his own polychrome version of one of the Tanagra sculptures, The Hoop Dancer, to sell through his dealer Adolphe Goupil, capitalizing on the voracious audience entranced by the works in the Exposition. Hoop Dancer did not garner the praise of the Academy as it was counter to the colorless aesthetic widely favored, yet it remained popular in the public market. Gérôme’s exploration of Tanagra and polychromy continued in his work Painting Breathes Life into Sculpture from 1893. In the scene, he imagines the activity within the Tanagra workshops, with a young female artist delicately applying vibrant color to the surface of a small sculpture surrounded by a row of completed multicolored copies of The Hoop Dancer. His imagination of the ancient roots of polychromy serves as historicizing justification for his own polychromatic engagements disapproved of by the Academy. A figure with her back to the audience stands at a sales window, indicating clearly that the multiples are for sale, acting in effect as a product placement for Gérôme’s own work.

Tanagra, Jean-Léon Gérôme, 1890, Polychromic Marble, Musée d'Orsay. This detail from Gérôme's sculpture was also remade in multiple polychromy plaster versions sold to the public.

Painting Breathes Life into Sculpture, Jean-Léon Gérôme, 1893, oil on canvas, Art Gallery of Ontario

Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, a 19th century British Academic, was similarly impacted by the aesthetics of the classical world, both its perceived colorless appearance and its newly discovered vibrant polychromy. Examining Alma-Tadema’s œuvre reveals his lifelong pursuit of archaeological accuracy in his depictions of ancient architecture. His precision in capturing the specifics of the classical landmarks he depicted originated from in person studies the artist conducted on trips to Italy. He travelled to Pomepii in 1863 on his honeymoon and conducted scores of measured sketches of the archaeological sites, documented in photographs showing the artist measuring the Stabian baths that would later feature in his painted works.

Alma-Tadema’s personal interest in capturing the accurate archaeological record within his works is also reflected in his painting from 1868, Pheidias and the Frieze of the Parthenon. Not only are the sculptural details of the Parthenon meticulously documented due to Alma-Tadema’s close study of the Elgin Marbles in The British Museum, but he additionally portrayed the Parthenon’s sculptural program in the polychromatic schematic it would have originally sported. Despite his attention to historical detail, Alma-Tadema much like Gérôme created a historical fiction in the work that caters to the desires of his audience. By depicting Pheidias and a collection of other Athenian elites on scaffolding viewing the Parthenon Frieze from the same vantage that the British public now had access to in The British Museum, he allows the 19th century viewer to draw an appealing parallel between themselves and the classical masters and connoisseurs of ancient times.

Phidias Showing the Frieze of the Parthenon to his Friends, Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, 1868, oil on canvas, Birmingham Museums Trust

It was not just historical narratives that became the fodder for artistic imagination, but the materials of polychromy were similarly impactful on sculptors. Gérôme himself was intrigued by the application of color to three dimensional works, as demonstrated not just in his colorful Hoop Dancer, but also in a larger sculptural work, Corinth. As with his works based on Tanagra, Corinth similarly melds Gérôme’s classical interests with the current trends and aesthetics of the contemporary art world at the time. The fully realized palette and decorative details he uses to paint the statue reflects his pervasive interest in classical polychromy, while the jewels, posture, and strong gaze of the figure emulates the depictions of women seen within Symbolist painting of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Corinth, Jean-Léon Gérôme, 1903-1904, Polychrome plaster, colored wax and metallic wire, Musée d'Orsay

Other artists, like 1883 Prix de Rome winner Henri-Édouard Lombard looked to examples of classical artists using the natural hues of colorful marbles in his work 1885 Helen of Troy. Looking back to natural polychrome examples of ancient artists imbuing their works with coloristic dimension through the use of these colored marbles, Lombard and the master marble worker Jules Cantini used green and yellow marbles in addition to other semi-precious stones like malachite to create the clothing, hair, jewelry, and eyes of the figure. The work is a paramount example of both Cantini’s masterful abilities as well as Lombard’s command over the classic aesthetics favored by the Academy.

Helena, Henri Lombard and Jules Cantini, 1885, Carrara white marble, antique green marble, yellow Siena marble, alabaster, malachite, enamelled metal, stone, Musée d'Orsay

In both Corinth and Helen of Troy, Gérôme and Lombard engage with the pigmentation of polychromy in its most literal sense, yet they do not deviate from the racial whiteness perceived of the classical world. Helen of Troy’s skin is left in un-pigmented white marble, whereas Gérôme has opted for a very pale skin tone in his depiction of Corinth, confirming their perception of classical sculpture as racially white. Even when using color, the artists adhered to the aesthetic pronouncements and valuations of whiteness that stemmed from Winckelmann’s writings that dominated the artistic consciousness of their time.

The sculptor Charles Cordier notably employed a similar approach to polychromy as Gérôme and Lombard by using multicolored marbles, while also playing off the supposition of whiteness of classical sculpture by depicting his North African subjects in dark toned bronzes rather than marble. These depictions, exemplified by his 1861 sculpture Woman from the French Colonies, are inextricably tied in with the complex history of France’s colonial history at the time, as well as 19th century conceptions of race steeped in bias and ideas of racial hierarchy. Cordier’s portrayal of non-white subjects was born largely out of his interests in ethnography and the racist consideration of people of African descent as subjects of ethnographic study. These works were immensely popular to the French elite, as they catered to the desires of its audience for polychromatic work depicting people they considered “other” and delighted viewers through the subversion of their suppositions of the whiteness they viewed as inherent to classical art. Under Cordier’s handling, the dual meaning of whiteness as an artistic choice and as a racial descriptor are fully intertwined, and laid bare for the 19th century viewer’s pleasure.

Woman from the French Colonies, Charles Cordier, 1861, Algerian onyx-marble, bronze and gilt bronze, enamel, amethyst; white marble socle, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Recontextualizing Classical Whiteness- 21st Century Artistic Engagements with Polychromy

21st century artists are no less inspired by polychromy than their 19th century counterparts, and similarly reimagine and recreate an image of the ancient world in its original vibrant palette. However, artists of today consider much more acutely the problematic legacies of whiteness that have persisted from 19th century imaginations of the polychromy of the ancient world.

No discussion of polychromy in contemporary art would be complete without beginning with the work of Vinzenz Brinkmann. Brinkmann, a classicist who realized the lack of understanding of polychromy’s appearance, created casts of sculptures decorated with the most vibrant colors in partnership with his wife Ulrike Koch-Brinkmann. They recreated as closely as possible the original intended appearance of the work based on scientific research into residual surface pigments. Their work was the subject of a blockbuster traveling exhibition, “Gods In Color”, touring since 2003, and has both captivated viewers and prompted the highly precinct conversation about the ubiquity of whiteness in the western conception of classical art and its legacies.

Experimental Color Reconstruction of the goddess Artemis, the so-called Winckelmann Artemis, Variant A, Vinzenz Brinkmann and Ulrike Koch-Brinkmann, 2010, Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität

Following Brinkmann, other artists have created work that complicate the assumptions and social concepts that underlay 19th century engagements with polychromy. Sculptor Duane Hanson creates hyper-realistic figurative sculptures, capturing every detail down to the precise color and nuances of their skin. These feel particularly reminiscent of Gérôme’s Corinth in how animated these life-like figures feel. Hanson’s sculpture, Housepainter II draws directly from the classical tradition that Gérôme’s similarly looked towards, with the posture of Hanson’s subject emulating Polykleitos’s Spear Bearer. Yet Hanson prompts the viewer to confront the perpetuated assumption of whiteness in classical art, depicting a Black man in the canonical pose holding a foam roller as he paints the wall behind him white. He lays bare the whitewashing of antiquity with a literal interpretation of the phenomenon. The resonance of Hanson’s piece was highlighted in a 2018 exhibition at The MET Breuer, where it was prominently juxtaposed with Polkleitos’s Hermes in a section titled “The Presumption of White.” A New York Times review of the exhibition describes how the juxtaposition lays bare that “the whiteness of Classical art is a pernicious, exclusionary fiction that has ‘colored’ the Western view of perfection.”

Housepainter II, Duane Hanson, 1984, bronze and polychrome

Contemporary art has posed critical responses particularly to Charles Cordier’s version of polychromy. A poignant comparison can be made between Woman from the French Colonies and Kehinde Wiley’s Rumors of War sculpture from 2019. Here Wiley depicts a young Black man in the classical equestrian sculpture format, portraying him as full of the archetype’s regal power and pride. While its choice of materials is a reclamation from Cordier’s work, Rumors of War primarily responds to the proliferation of confederate monuments blanketing the United States, which have drawn from the presumed whiteness of classical sculpture for their supremacist messaging.

Rumors of War, Kehinde Wiley, 2019, Bronze, Photo by Travis Fullerton © Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

The ICAA’s own Cast Hall collection, which is filled with 19th century white plaster casts of ancient sculptures, has also served as inspiration for a contemporary artist’s reinterpretation. Australian digital artist, curator, and educator Gary Carlsey has created the project Chromophilia, a series of digital animations and videos that imagine the ICAA’s casts coming to life, flashing with bright colors as they awaken from their whitewashed states. The casts communicate with the viewer, asking how they came to be so mischaracterized, how their true vibrancy has been lost, and how their whiteness has been manipulated to support narratives of oppression. This digital exhibition can be viewed now on the ICAA’s website.

As demonstrated in this look back at the loss of polychromy, 19th century artistic interpretations of its rediscovery, and contemporary artists’ revisitations, the artistic impact of polychromy is undeniable. It has been an object of fascination for centuries, even as scholars have misunderstood and dismissed it. Notable is the evolution in the ways in which artists have understood the resonance that polychromy and the color that it bestows. The contemporary artists mentioned here are just the beginning of the exploration and complication of the narratives of whiteness perpetuated in 19th century ideas about polychromy and classical art. Our artistic community needs to highlight their voices.

Researched and written by Mollie Wohlforth, Peter Pennoyer Cast Hall Fellow, 2020