Greek Statues Were Painted

(Extracts from an article by Matthew Gurewitsch published in the Smithsonian magazine in July 2008)

“My life and fortunes are a monstrosity,” moans Helen of Troy in a play by Euripides:
“Partly because of Hera, partly because of my beauty.
If only I could shed my beauty and assume an uglier aspect
The way you would wipe color off a statue.

“That last point is so unexpected,” says Gurewitsch, “that one might almost miss it: to strip a statue of its color is actually to disfigure it.”

“Colored statues? To us, classical antiquity means white marble. Not so to the Greeks, who thought of their gods in living color and portrayed them that way too. The temples that housed them were in color, also, like mighty stage sets. Time and weather have stripped most of the hues away. And for centuries people who should have known better pretended that color scarcely mattered.

“[Now] German archaeologist Vinzenz Brinkmann is on a mission. Armed with high-intensity lamps, ultraviolet light, cameras, plaster casts and jars of costly powdered minerals, he has spent the past quarter century trying to revive the peacock glory that was Greece. He has dramatized his scholarly findings by creating full-scale plaster or marble copies hand-painted in the same mineral and organic pigments used by the ancients: green from malachite, blue from azurite, yellow and ocher from arsenic compounds, red from cinnabar, black from burned bone and vine.

The Alexander Sarcophagus in Istanbul in its present state

The Alexander Sarcophagus reconstituted by Brinkmann

“Call them gaudy, call them garish, his scrupulous color reconstructions made their debut in 2003 at the Glyptothek museum in Munich, which is devoted to Greek and Roman statuary. Displayed side by side with the placid antiquities of that fabled collection, the replicas shocked and dazzled those who came to see them. As Time magazine summed up the response, ‘The exhibition forces you to look at ancient sculpture in a totally new way.’”

Gurewitsch gives a short history of our misconception of Greek statues and buildings.

“White marble has been the norm ever since the Renaissance, when classical antiquities first began to emerge from the earth…..Knowing no better, artists in the 16th century took the bare stone at face value. Michelangelo and others emulated what they believed to be the ancient aesthetic, leaving the stone of most of their statues its natural color. Thus they helped pave the way for neo-Classicism, the lily-white style that to this day remains our paradigm for Greek art.

“By the early 19th century, the systematic excavation of ancient Greek and Roman sites was bringing forth great numbers of statues, and there were scholars on hand to document the scattered traces of their multicolored surfaces. Some of these traces are still visible to the naked eye even today, though much of the remaining color faded, or disappeared entirely, once the statues were again exposed to light and air.
Some of the pigment was scrubbed off by restorers whose acts, while well intentioned, were tantamount to vandalism. In the 18th century, the pioneering archaeologist and art historian Johann Joachim Winckelmann chose to view the bare stone figures as pure—if you will, Platonic—forms, all the loftier for their austerity. “The whiter the body is, the more beautiful it is as well,” he wrote. “Color contributes to beauty, but it is not beauty. Color should have a minor part in the consideration of beauty, because it is not [color] but structure that constitutes its essence.” Against growing evidence to the contrary, Winckelmann’s view prevailed.”

A comment by Gregory Meeker at the end of the article reads:
“It’s reasonable to assume that the painting on the figures was at least as sophisticated as the figures themselves. By the time of the Alexander Sarcophagus the subtlety of the sculpture has far outstripped the colors identified and applied by Brinkmann. This does not mean that Brinkmann has left the path of accurate reconstruction; it may mean that his ultimate goal is impossibly distant. The colors he has identified on later pieces are clearly just underpainting for a far more realistic final finish. This was the process used in Renaissance oil paintings of equivalent visual sophistication. The assumption that the painting was as sophisticated as the figures is an extremely conservative one. The artistic and manual skills required for realistic sculpting are far greater than those required for life-like painting of a finished figure. And the painting task was a relaxed one, far more amenable to messing around until the artist got it right. So painting was easier, less risky and, because of weathering, constantly in demand. It is reasonable to conclude that until sculpting reached its zenith, painting of figures was substantially more sophisticated than the figures themselves. With luck, Brinkmann will eventually find a piece with all the layers intact.

The full article by Gurewitsch is here.

More pictures of Brinkmann’s reconstructed (painted) statues can be seen on the same page.


This entry was posted in aesthetics, art, art history, great artists, sculpture and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to Greek Statues Were Painted

  1. wrjones says:

    Very interesting – I would suppose some of the statues would seem gaudy an some, painted more naturally, would be fabulous to behold.

  2. 100swallows says:

    Bill: It’s hard to believe that the good sculptors, so sensitive to beauty in their work, would have let the painters spoil their statues with gaudy colors. My guess is that the paint-job was on a level, like the polychrome figures of Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque time–not the garish, uniform colors Brinkmann shows. Maybe, as the comment suggests, these loud colors of his on the Alexander figure were undercoats and were toned down and unified with vellatures.

  3. I never heard about this….I learn so many interesting things from reading your blogs!

    Dedicated Elementary Teacher Overseas (in the Middle East)

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  7. Brian Foley says:

    Amazingly on Alexander’s Sarcophagus the men all had Red Hair, lending credence that the Macedonians and Thracians were a Red Haired people.

  8. Thekla says:

    We all Greeks know that the statues was painted with bright colors since we were at kindergarten, the ancient Greek even dress the nude statues and put them jewelry. We Know that way before archaeologist do all of those research for finding color in them, they said that the statues was white because they could not accept that, and the Ancient Greeks could n possibly ruin the masterpiece sculptures adding to them colors. The Ancient Greek sculptures finished their work by giving bright color to statues temples houses and pottery. The painters work was just popular and artistic just as the sculptures works. Till today there is not a museum in Greece that i have not been to see with bear eyes some of the paint in those statues that last for all of those years. It is stupid someone think that they were just white, even for all those archeologist that wont accept the colors since many of them survive till today. We have always look at white marbles, clean white, but if you add color they really fit.

    • 100swallows says:

      Thekla: Thanks a lot. It’s good to hear a Greek on this. I don’t know what Michelangelo would think if he knew that many of the statues he admired white were colored. I myself don’t know what to do with this bit of “news”. Great theories of aesthetics were based on the error and centuries of statues were created by artists educated in it. The colors now suggested by the archaeologists seem to wreck the serenity and subtlety of the figures. Their supreme “tastefulness” has fallen to near “kitschy-ness”. It seems that old stone sculpture was only made as a support for the garish colors. Did the error already start with the Romans?

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  10. Valter Lellis Siqueira says:

    Well, it seem that ancient Greeks were not “that Greek”!!!! Their painted statues should look like scarecrows! We have to be grateful to the Renaissance.

    • 100swallows says:

      Valter: Yes. What would Lessing say now? And could those great Greek sculptors really have come up with such beautiful statues only as surfaces to paint?

  11. Sometimes truth is a hard pill to swallow for us all. What else will there be for us to
    Swallow. Que sera, sera. Black and white movies?

  12. Nora Dennis says:

    I was not in the least surprised to find out that the Greeks colored their statues and temples. The Egyptians did so did the Minoans. Why not the Greeks too? Just stands to reason that they would color not only the statues but their buildings as well. I can only imagine how much more magnificent the Greek temples ans statues would have looked in all their painted glory!

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