The Metropolitan Museum of Art Restores the Original Colors to Ancient Statues

The idea that the human species can be neat­ly brack­et­ed into racial groups based on super­fi­cial char­ac­ter­is­tics like skin, hair, and eye col­or only devel­oped in the 18th cen­tu­ry, and main­ly took root as a pseu­do-sci­en­tif­ic jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for slav­ery and colo­nial­ism. Cen­tral to that idea was the Clas­si­cal Ide­al of Beau­ty, a stan­dard sup­pos­ed­ly set by Greek and Roman stat­u­ary from antiq­ui­ty. As beliefs in region­al suprema­cy in West­ern Europe trans­formed in the mod­ern era into “White” suprema­cy, the stark white­ness of antique stat­u­ary became a spe­cif­ic point of pride. But ancient peo­ple did not think in terms of race, and ancient sculp­tors nev­er intend­ed their cre­ations to stand around in pub­lic with­out col­or. “For the ancient Greeks and Romans,” Elaine Velie writes at Hyper­al­ler­gic, “white mar­ble was not con­sid­ered the final prod­uct, but rather a blank can­vas.”

As Met­ro­pol­i­tan Muse­um of Art cura­tor Seán Hem­ing­way says, “White suprema­cists have latched onto this idea of white sculp­ture — it’s not true but it serves their pur­pos­es.” Art his­to­ri­ans and con­ser­va­tors have known for decades that stat­ues from antiq­ui­ty were once cov­ered in paint, sil­ver and gild­ing, a process known as poly­chromy. Over time, the col­ors dulled, fad­ed, then dis­ap­peared, leav­ing behind only the faintest traces.

Hus­band-and-wife research team Vinzenz Brinkmann and Ulrich Koch-Brinkmann have spent over 40 years study­ing poly­chromy and recon­struct­ing ancient sculp­tures as they would have appeared to their first view­ers. “Their Gods in Col­or exhi­bi­tion has been tour­ing since 2003,” Velie writes, “and their repli­cas have been includ­ed in muse­ums around the world.”

Now four­teen of those recon­struc­tions, as well as a cou­ple dozen more cre­at­ed by Met con­ser­va­tors, sci­en­tists, and cura­tors, are scat­tered through­out the Met’s sculp­ture halls, with a small upstairs gallery ded­i­cat­ed to an exhib­it. The exhi­bi­tion explains how researchers deter­mined the stat­ues’ col­ors, “the result of a wide array of ana­lyt­i­cal tech­niques, includ­ing 3D imag­ing and rig­or­ous art his­tor­i­cal research,” writes the Met. As Art­net notes, the “rich­ly col­ored ver­sion of the Met’s Archa­ic-peri­od Sphinx finial,” which you can see at the top of the post, “serves as the cen­ter­piece of the show” – one of the only pieces placed adja­cent to its orig­i­nal so that vis­i­tors can com­pare the two (using an Aug­ment­ed Real­i­ty app to do so; see video above).

Chro­ma: Ancient Sculp­ture in Col­or, which opened on July 5th, dis­abus­es us of old ideas about the blank white­ness of antiq­ui­ty, but that’s hard­ly its only intent. As it does today, col­or “helped con­vey mean­ing in antiq­ui­ty.” The col­ors of ancient stat­ues were not sim­ply dec­o­ra­tive sur­faces – they were inte­gral to the pre­sen­ta­tion of these works. Now, col­or can again be part of how we under­stand and appre­ci­ate clas­si­cal stat­u­ary. And the full accep­tance of poly­chromy in major col­lec­tions like the Met can begin to put to rest false notions about a clas­si­cal devo­tion to white­ness as some ide­al of per­fec­tion. Learn more about the 40 recon­struc­tions in the exhi­bi­tion at the Met here, and learn more about poly­chromy and ancient uses of col­or at the links below.

via Hyper­al­ler­gic

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Roman Stat­ues Weren’t White; They Were Once Paint­ed in Vivid, Bright Col­ors

How Ancient Greek Stat­ues Real­ly Looked: Research Reveals Their Bold, Bright Col­ors and Pat­terns

The Met Dig­i­tal­ly Restores the Col­ors of an Ancient Egypt­ian Tem­ple, Using Pro­jec­tion Map­ping Tech­nol­o­gy

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (9)
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  • ALAN SAVAGE says:

    Inter­est­ing art colour restora­tion research, a pity about the total codswal­lop of cur­rent day woke re-inter­pre­ta­tion of his­to­ry.

  • Michael Sayre says:

    Agreed, Alan. The notion of puri­ty of unpaint­ed mar­ble is that we are able to see and appre­ci­ate unadul­ter­at­ed form. It has noth­ing what­ev­er to do with “white suprema­cy,” not even the white­ness of the mar­ble as such, but rather its blank­ness as stage for the pure inter­play of light and shad­ow to describe form.

  • Uwe-Christian Schröter says:

    The researchers are Vinzenz Brinkmann and Ulrike (not Ulrich) Koch-Brinkmann

  • baz says:

    By “woke” do you mean folk who are against racism? Does meant “anti woke agen­da” mean you are pro racism? If so, what’s your favourite kind of racism? Do you pre­fer Vic­to­ri­an Colo­nial Racism, mod­ern Trumpian, or just a good ol Nazi?

  • Michael Paraskos says:

    Those deny­ing a link between the white­ness of sculp­tures and con­cepts of white suprema­cy in their com­ments have just not read the doc­u­ments and lit­er­a­ture. Parad­ing their igno­rance about the con­nec­tion is unfor­tu­nate, to say the least.

    One point I do take issue with is that it is only in the last few decades that art his­to­ri­ans, and indeed artists, have known that antique sculp­ture was coloured. The British sculp­tor John Gib­son coloured his ver­sion of Venus in the 1850s.

    Peo­ple might also want to see what they are doing at Can­ter­bury Cathe­dral, where parts of the medi­ae­val cathe­dral are being returned to the full poly­chromy that would have been famil­iar to our medi­ae­val ances­tors.

  • Michael Scherer says:

    Oh Christ!

  • maryct says:

    OK do any of you nay-say­ers actu­al­ly know any­thing about the Nazis?? 😬 You real­ly need to learn about his­to­ry. Nowa­days, say­ing the word “woke” is a great way to dis­tract from the actu­al sub­ject being dis­cussed. This is how the sculp­tures were orig­i­nal­ly intend­ed to be seen. The con­cept of White Puri­ty is cer­tain­ly rel­a­tive­ly modern,and more to do with the kind of peo­ple who are leav­ing remarks like yours.

  • maryct says:

    Exact­ly my point. And yes, pri­or to the 16th cen­tu­ry, the paint­ing of stat­u­ary was the norm.

  • maryct says:

    This is the post I was respond­ing to in my 2nd com­ment.

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