BMCR 2009.04.55

The Color of Life: Polychromy in Sculpture from Antiquity to the Present

, , , The Color of Life: Polychromy in Sculpture from Antiquity to the Present. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum: The Getty Research Institute, 2008. xiv, 186. ISBN 9780892369188. $49.95 (pb).

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

The first decade of the twenty-first century represents the latest phase in a long series of periodic attempts by classical art historians stretching back to the late eighteenth century to convince the world that Greek and Roman marble sculpture was, on the whole, originally coloured. Since 2003, high-profile exhibitions of painted Greek and Roman casts, painstakingly studied and reconstructed by experts from across Europe, have made their rounds across more than ten international venues, attracting extensive media coverage and sparking a renewed interest in sculptural polychromy in both popular and academic circles.1 This truly international initiative has been the first major exhibition of the subject in over a century, setting the scene for a number of important projects addressing the archaeological identification and reconstruction of pigments, as well as the art-historical importance of colour on ancient sculpture.2 This is not to say that sculptural polychromy has had the last word: the provocative exhibitions have met with some stubborn resistance, and the exhibits themselves attest as much to the limitations of our knowledge and understanding about sculptural polychromy as they do to the fact that colour on sculpture completely transforms the artifact on artistic, iconographic and psychological grounds.3

The present volume, produced to accompany a homonymous exhibition at the J. Paul Getty Museum in 2008, represents the most successful and compelling effort yet to put sculptural polychromy on the map. Unlike the other exhibitions, ‘The Color of Life’ juxtaposed many of the painted classical reconstructions to a wide variety of medieval and modern polychrome sculptures, and so integrated different strands of art-historical research that had previously, on the whole, been kept separate. Panzanelli’s volume is an extraordinary tour de force of colour in western sculpture from Old Kingdom Egypt, ancient Greece and Rome, through to medieval Europe and the modern world. Typically of Getty publications, it is beautifully illustrated with nearly two hundred illustrations (mostly in colour), providing – at a very reasonable price – some of the best images publicly available for the study of polychrome sculpture. It comprises five comprehensive essays on different periods and aspects of polychrome sculpture written by experts from various fields, followed by a catalogue of forty artifacts displayed in the exhibition, representing the full range of sculpture types and materials and spanning more than 2,500 years of sculptural polychromy in western art. The essays and catalogue entries are written by individuals from a range of backgrounds, principally curatorial staff, as well as some distinguished academic names (Mary Beard, Paolo Liverani, Alex Potts). The volume also contains a comprehensive index and a useful selected bibliography. The Color of Life, then, is an outstanding piece of work both for its art-historical scope and its detail, and ought to be a first port of call for students and scholars alike approaching the aesthetics of colour in western sculpture.

The volume opens with a substantial introduction by the editor addressing the general contribution of sculptural polychromy to western art. This is a wide-ranging essay which, although it moves around rather freely among ancient, medieval and modern sculpture and offers a largely ahistorical picture of artistic developments, identifies a number of important patterns, regarding both the principal functions of polychromy (vivacity/ heroicism/ artistic impact, mimesis, legibility) and aesthetic responses to colour. Panzanelli, Senior Research Specialist at the Getty, is particularly shrewd in her analysis of the modern reception of polychrome sculpture and the aesthetic role of monochromy in Renaissance and neo-classical art: for example, her notion of the effect of time and weathering on ancient sculpture for providing a ‘topcoat of “good taste”‘ (p. 7) is neatly connected to a modern aesthetic preference for incomplete, sullied and monochrome art, and she does a competent job of outlining the Renaissance disjunction between sculpture and painting which contributed to the growing distaste for sculptural polychromy. She also points to a number of important themes that are picked up later in the volume: artistic collaboration between sculptors and painters; the difference between natural and applied colour in sculpture; the role of colour in physiognomical accuracy; intentional partial polychromy versus full polychromy with partial losses; and Winckelmann’s aesthetic of pure unadulterated whiteness.

V. Brinkmann, the author of the second contribution, is one of the leading pioneers in the study of ancient sculptural polychromy and has done more than any other individual in recent history to advance research into the identification and reconstruction of pigments on classical sculpture. His essay on the polychromy of ancient Greek sculpture provides an excellent summary of the history of scholarship on the subject and begins judiciously with a cautionary note about the limitations of our knowledge, a theme which is reiterated several times in the volume. There follows an outline of the various scientific methods of identifying and analysing pigment traces, a set of processes to which Brinkmann has devoted more than twenty years of research, and a compelling statement about the importance of experimental reconstruction. Less well developed is his interpretation of the function of colour on Greek sculpture, which focuses principally on realism and legibility: ‘the goal of the artist was to give life to his work’ (p. 24). This is all fair and good, but has limitations as an approach: it ignores the ideas explored in B. Ridgway’s important essay ‘How: the role of color’ in her Prayers in stone: Greek architectural sculpture ca. 600 – 100 B.C. (Berkeley, 1999) – surprisingly not referenced by Brinkmann – about unrealistic uses of colour on Archaic statuary and the fundamental differences between legible colours and realistic colours. Brinkmann also fails to engage with some of the most pivotal recent studies of classical sculpture which stress the importance of the ambiguity inherent to the relationship between art and life, particularly in the domain of religious imagery and the representation of ‘super-natural’ figures; recent work on the deployment of colour on Greco-Roman sculpture could make an important contribution to this approach.4 Nonetheless, this essay is useful for its introduction to the palettes of polychrome sculpture, painting techniques, patterns of colour usage, as well as the use of metal attachments (which, quite rightly, should be integrated under the same heading). Significantly, Brinkmann argues against the usual line that earlier sculpture was painted in simple and underdeveloped ways, and that sculptural polychromy became more sophisticated over time. This has to be right: the idea of an evolutionary development of artistic techniques is over-simplistic – although I suspect that Brinkmann could have developed a rather stronger case for the patterns of archaic sculptural polychromy than simply connecting it (as he does) to the general tropes of Homeric ekphrasis. There follows a concise and interesting summary of developments in later Classical and Hellenistic periods and an excellent discussion of polychromy on the Alexander Sarcophagus, although – and this is an endemic shortcoming of recent scholarship on the subject – the author (p. 36) is dismissive of the capacity for the underlying stone to enhance and enrich the visual effects of the pigments.5 Brinkmann ends by pointing to the continuity between Hellenistic and Roman techniques and patterns, so providing a useful bridge with the paper that follows.

J. Østergaard’s essay is an engaging and thoughtful overview of the history, archaeology and aesthetics of Roman polychrome sculpture, and provides an original and much-needed discussion of a period of ancient sculptural polychromy that is comparatively neglected. Østergaard begins with an astute and sensitive discussion of the reception of polychrome sculpture in art-historical and archaeological circles across the last two hundred years, and offers a useful état de recherche on the study of Roman sculpture, pointing to the limitations of Reuterswärd’s classic 1960 monograph. He discusses continuities not only from Greek and Hellenistic patterns, but also from the rich polychromy of Etruscan terracotta sculpture. One of this essay’s particular strengths is its engagement with the bigger questions and issues that concern the volume as a whole: the limitations of our knowledge and understanding; the importance of experimental reconstructions; modern resistance to polychromy; the erosion and decomposition of pigments and restoration. The essay then considers the significance of Campanian wall-paintings as sources of information about painted sculpture, although not taking advantage of P. Stewart’s sensitive discussion of the same examples in his splendid Statues in Roman society: representation and response (2003), where ambiguity is at the centre of sculptural representations, and colour is critical to the complex interface between art and life. Like Brinkmann, Østergaard touches upon the problematic relationship between the innate colour/ texture of the stone and coloured coatings (e.g. at pp. 46-47 he discusses the painting of the Parian marble Venus Lovatelli at Pompeii), but does not really explore the possibilities available to the painter to exploit the crystalline structure of the marble. Østergaard goes on to discuss the shifting aesthetics of Roman marble copies of Greek bronze originals, as well as the corruption of pigments and surfaces over time and the important question of how polychromy might be restored. On bronzes, the author might have made use of two excellent discussions of artistic mimesis in variegated bronze statues and ancient ekphrasis by S. Descamps-Lequime and M. Muller-Dufeu in A. Rouveret’s 2006 volume Couleurs et matières dans l’antiquité: texts, techniques et pratiques (Paris), which demonstrate that ancient bronze polychromy may have been rather more complex and sophisticated than we might expect. Østergaard goes on to consider the effect of the architectural setting on polychrome sculpture and discusses artistic developments in Rome in the middle and late-imperial periods, and finishes by pointing to the need for further research, particularly for the Roman material. In this respect, the significance of his own project on sculptural polychromy in the Copenhagen Glyptotek, currently underway, is not to be underestimated.

The fourth essay by M. Collareta on sculpture in the Middle Ages and Early Modern times is a wide-ranging diachronic study of evidence for polychromy on wood, terracotta, wax and marble church sculpture, and, through a discussion of the increasing disunion of painting and sculpture, offers a useful background to Renaissance preferences for monochrome sculpture. It is a shame that the editor was unable to incorporate into the volume an essay on colour in Byzantine art (on which some seminal work has been done by L. James, though not specifically focused on sculpture), as it would have been useful to consider the nature of developments in this intervening period, which must be critical to understanding the continuity of artistic practice. Nonetheless, by surveying both visual and literary evidence, Collareta offers an interesting analysis of the relationship between intellectual thought and sculptural practice in the period he examines, interpreting artistic preferences as the product of various political and religious developments in Europe. Of particular interest is the author’s discussion of the relationship between colour and holiness (an idea that chimes with work on Byzantine art), as well as the increasing use of precious materials for sculpture which contributed to aesthetic preferences for the materiality of sculpture rather than just its capacity to imitate life. This growing preoccupation with sculptural materiality, Collareta argues, alongside Renaissance rediscoveries of classical pieces devoid of colour, contributed greatly to the movement towards sculptural monochromy.

A. Potts’s ‘Colors of Sculpture’, which focuses on modern polychrome sculpture, is a well-written and engaging closing piece, and presents some of the most pertinent and sophisticated theoretical considerations in the volume. Potts begins with the important observation that ‘all sculpture is colored, in a literal sense’ (p. 78), and offers a compelling interpretation of the role of monochrome sculpture in modern art. He argues that the plasticity and monochromy that characterise modern sculpture are a result of the differentiation of painting and sculpture, an aesthetic that appeals as much to the tactile senses as to the visual. Potts then makes a number of important observations about modern resistance to polychrome sculpture and the subversive character of recent coloured (i.e. non-white) sculpture that challenges conventional boundaries between art, life and materiality. He goes on to discuss three historical phases when issues of colour particularly came to the fore in modern western sculptural practice: neoclassicism in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century when colour first became an aesthetic principle rather than a matter of practice or convention (with polychromy expressly rejected by thinkers such as Herdel, Hegel and Joshua Reynolds); the reaction against the classicizing aesthetic at the turn of the nineteenth century, where neoclassical ‘purism’ was challenged by bold, experimental artists such as Canova, John Gibson and Jean-Léon Gérôme, in part responding to new archaeological discoveries of ancient polychrome sculptures; and the breakdown of traditions surrounding sculptural art between the 1960s and 1980s, marked by a deliberate confusion of painting and sculpture and bold experimentation with unorthodox sculptural materials and colours. Throughout all three phases, Potts emphasizes the guiding significance of individual protagonists and his account of artistic developments is therefore predominantly prosopographical. Nonetheless, Potts puts his finger on a number of broader cultural and aesthetic trends, and offers a compelling interpretation of the relationship between sculpture and colour in the modern world. He ends (p. 95) with the claim that ‘we live in a world where both possibilities [monochrome and polychrome sculpture] are a distinct reality, and no particular virtue any longer attaches to either alternative’. While there has certainly been a recent shift in modern sensibilities about sculptural polychromy, the passionate responses still sometimes elicited by exhibitions of painted classical casts, and the continued stubbornness of classical art historians to approach sculptures such as the Prima Porta Augustus (however aesthetically unpleasing its painted reconstruction might be) as polychrome artifacts, suggest that Potts’s claim — at least in classical circles — is an optimistic one.

The splendidly illustrated catalogue of forty artifacts that concludes the volume is no less worthy of note than the essays themselves. As in the exhibition itself, these are not presented in strict chronological sequence; instead, ancient, medieval and modern are loosely interspersed. As Panzanelli points out, this was deliberate, so as to ‘probe aspects of the more universal urge to create sculpture that more closely imitates life’ (p. 14). This idea (virtuous as it is) of exploring a common universal approach to sculpture is not as well developed in the volume as it might be, and readers may feel as I did that a chronological ordering would have better helped to identify historical shifts and developments in the deployment of sculptural polychromy, to complement the emphasis of the essays. Nonetheless, the catalogue does present the full range of sculpture types, periods, materials and subjects that are discussed throughout the volume, and is complemented by brief insightful descriptive and analytical entries on each artifact written by a team of twenty experts from a range of different backgrounds.

Significant themes raised by the catalogue include: the erosion and distortion of surviving pigments (esp. catalogue entries 1, 7-10, 12-13, 18, 34); limitations of knowledge about original location (1, 10, 24); use of colour for realism (1, 6, 12-13, 25, 28-29, 36, 38-39); use of colour for surrealism (20, 40); use of colour for idealization/ stylization (2, 5, 7, 10, 19, 37); use of colour for visibility/ legibility/ differentiation (12-13, 23); association of polychromy with precious materials (5-6, 27, 31); precious materials as a rationale for monochrome/ unpainted sculpture (23, 26, 32); experimental nature of reconstructive work (8, 9, 10, 14-16, 18, 22); use of binders/ patinas (8, 10); use of complementary attachments (10, 12-14); periodic restoration (10, 27); sophistication of polychrome art (9, 11, 27); and the artifact’s provocative reception (14, 25, 28, 30, 33, 38). A digest of themes along these lines might have assisted the editor in justifying the particular order and juxtaposition of artifacts chosen, as well as fleshing out some of the more universal issues and tropes that characterise polychrome sculpture.

Entries of particular note in the catalogue include the two painted replicas of the head of Caligula from the Glyptotek at Copenhagen (catalogue 8-9), which expose the limitations of our understanding of ancient painting techniques and the possibilities offered by experimental reconstruction. Then there is the painted cast of the Peplos Kore in the Museum of Classical Archaeology at Cambridge (catalogue 14), whose creative and provocative polychrome reconstruction in the 1970s, M. Beard tells us, already occupies an important and complex position in the history of museum display and reception. Another fascinating piece is the early sixteenth-century Venetian chalcedony Madonna and Child with an Angel (catalogue 24; cf. 26), where the artist took advantage of natural colours and impurities within the stone to render polychrome effects; the sophisticated use of polychrome marbles in antiquity for similar purposes is, unfortunately, not explored in this volume. El Greco’s painted wood Epimetheus and Pandora (c. 1600; catalogue 25) elicit the suggestion that polychromy in early modern Spanish sculpture may sometimes have been used provocatively to allude to pagan ideals. Another notable piece is the eighteenth-century interactive wax Anatomical Venus (catalogue 30), one of the most spectacular and sophisticated exhibits in the Museo di Storia Naturale at Florence, which is a splendid example of the hyperrealistic potential of particular types of polychrome sculpture, as well as the significance of collaboration between experts in the production of sculpture (in this case, anatomists and waxmakers). The astonishing prevalence of sculptural polychromy in post-Renaissance Portugal, Spain and the Spanish colonies that features so prominently in this catalogue merits particular attention, as does the proliferation of hyperrealistic uses of polychrome wax in Florence from the seventeenth century onwards (catalogue 28, 30). For what historical reasons, one may well ask, did certain parts of Europe maintain continuity of practice with the past, while others developed new modes of sculptural expression? This would certainly be a fertile area for further research.

One particularly striking example of recent polychrome sculpture in the catalogue is J. De Andrea’s rendering of the Dying Gaul (1984; catalogue 38), a reinterpretation of the classical marble piece using polyvinyl with oil pigment and acrylic hair that is so lifelike that viewers could mistake it for a living man. Are we to imagine that the original Dying Gaul, when painted, was so realistic? Is this what the professional sculptors of antiquity aspired to in creating their colourful ‘breathing images’ ( spirantia signa), as the Romans sometimes described them? ‘Probably not’ is surely the answer, and one may reasonably argue that the original piece needed to look like a work of art; this said, we should not trick ourselves into thinking that the Prima Porta Augustus looked like the unsightly painted Vatican reconstruction (catalogue 10) either. By considering polychrome sculpture from different periods side-by-side, Panzanelli’s volume forces us, quite rightly, to consider a full range of possibilities concerning the appearance, function and reception of ancient polychrome sculpture.

Finally, then, what is missing? The volume discusses an impressive range of material and manages to integrate the different artifacts and sculpture types very well under the umbrella of western polychrome sculpture. In this respect, it makes an outstanding and original contribution to the study of sculptural polychromy. It is perhaps a shame that there is no consideration of non-western polychromy (with the exception of Egypt – although its cultural status in this respect is contentious). Some important work in recent years has been carried out into near-Eastern, Indian and Chinese polychrome sculpture (take for example the 8,099 painted figures of the terracotta army buried with the Chinese emperor Qin Shi Huang), as well as Mayan painted stucco sculptures and ceramics and other examples from even farther afield. This begs some important questions with which the volume does not directly engage: is the development of sculptural polychromy in western art the result of the dissemination of ideas and cultural influences across the Mediterranean world, or part of a much broader anthropological development in the history of art? Is the use of colour on sculpture an integral part of a universal dogma about artistic ‘realism’? Do all societies and cultures employ ‘hyper-realistic’ colours to render the sacred and the divine? Are some artistic systems more inclined to monochrome sculpture than others? And do they all evaluate and respond to sculptural polychromy in the same way? Although Panzanelli’s volume provides an excellent platform for addressing these questions, these are some of the principal lines of enquiry, I suspect, that need to concern scholars engaging in research in this area in the future.

CONTENTS c. 1. Roberta Panzanelli, ‘Beyond the pale: polychromy and western art’, pp. 2-17
c. 2. Vinzenz Brinkmann, ‘The polychromy of ancient Greek sculpture’, pp. 18-39
c. 3. Jan Stubbe Østergaard, ‘Emerging colors: Roman sculptural polychromy revived’, pp. 40-61
c. 4. Marco Collareta, ‘From color to black and white, and back again: the Middle Ages and Early Modern times’, pp. 62-77
c. 5. Alex Potts, ‘Colors of sculpture’, pp. 78-97
Catalogue, pp. 98-177


1. The initial exhibitions of painted casts were: Bunte Götter, Munich (2003-2004); I colori del bianco, Rome (2004); ClassiColor, Copenhagen (2004). Versions of the display have also been exhibited in Basel, Amsterdam, Istanbul, Athens, Hamburg and Frankfurt, and in America as Gods in Color (Arthur M. Sackler Museum, 2007-8) and part of The Color of Life exhibition (J. Paul Getty Museum, 2008). All the above exhibitions released an accompanying catalogue, which included (by and large) the same essays translated into the appropriate language, with the exception of The Color of Life, whose catalogue is the subject of this review. An important symposium, ‘Rediscovering color: new perspectives on polychrome sculpture’ was held at the J. Paul Getty Museum at Malibu in May 2008.

2. The leading pioneer of this research, and a key mover behind the exhibitions, is Vinzenz Brinkmann, whose seminal Die Polychromie der archaischen und frühklassischen Skulpturen (Munich) was published in 2003. Jan Østergaard (Curator of Ancient Art, Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek) has established the interdisciplinary ‘Copenhagen Polychromy Network Project’ (2008-10) in order to analyse a representative selection of classical sculptures in the Glyptotek with a view to identifying pigment traces and attempting reconstructive work, and similar work is being carried out by the British Museum, the Louvre and researchers in the US. My article ‘The importance of colour on ancient marble sculpture’ ( Art History 32(3), June 2009) provides a comprehensive overview of the state of this research, and attempts to identify the contribution made by colour to the interpretation of Greco-Roman sculpture.

3. See, for example, M. Beard’s sceptical blog post ‘Were ancient statues painted?’ (December 2007), and the responses it elicited.

4. See esp. Gordon, R. (1979) ‘The real and the imaginary: production and religion in the Graeco-Roman world’, Art History 2: 5-34; Tanner, J. (2001) ‘Nature, culture and the body in Classical Greek religious art’, World Archaeology 33 (‘Archaeology and Aesthetics’): 257-76. I have test-run some of these approaches for the study of sculptural polychromy in my article ‘The importance of colour on ancient marble sculpture’ ( Art History 32, 2009).

5. There remains, unfortunately, little constructive collaboration between scholarship on coloured marbles and scholarship on sculptural paint. On the choice, colour and associations of marbles for ancient sculpture, see Schneider, R. (1986) Bunte Barbaren (Worms); De Nuccio, M. & Ungaro, L. (2002, eds.) I marmi colorati della Roma imperiale (Exhibition Catalogue) (Rome). I have discussed some of the possibilities in my article ‘Colour and marble in early imperial Rome’, Proceedings of the Cambridge Philological Society 52 (2006): 1-22.