When we think of Ancient Greek sculptural production, what comes to mind are the beautiful white marble friezes or the immaculate grand statues of gods and goddesses. Although it is broadly commonplace to think that all Ancient Greek, and later Roman, production was created colourless, the myth of whiteness is actually a Renaissance invention.
Classical Statues and Renaissance
At that time many ancient statues were excavated and most of them had lost their original pigmentation due to the very long exposure to the elements. Renaissance artists crafted their own work following Greek and Roman classical examples, which they thought to have been completely colourless. This artistic trend was further carried out during the Neoclassical Period in the 18th century, when more and more ancient pieces were uncovered during various archaeological missions.
Neoclassicism and Winckelmann
Although many samples had substantial traces of pigmentation, the idolization of whiteness pervaded the work of many artists and art critics, such as Johann Joachim Winckelmann, considered the father of art history. He wrote: “The whiter the body is, the more beautiful it is as well. Colour contributes to beauty, but it is not beauty. Colour should have a minor part in the consideration of beauty, because it is not (colour) but structure that constitutes its essence.”
Polychromy on Statuary and Pottery Production
Interestingly, not only marble statuary production but also pottery statuettes were painted. A number of materials were used in antiquity to obtain the different pigments. Most of them were natural, like pink madder, obtained from a plant’s root and used since Ancient Egyptian times combined with chalk to create a pale pink colour. Others were more complex to create, like Egyptian blue, named so in the 19th century and extensively employed until the end of the Roman Empire. This type of blue was the first synthetic colour created by men through a mixture of silica, lime, copper and an alkali. Colour was applied to the surface of the statues after firing and then glossed with a layer of beeswax that was applied as the finishing touch to seal the colours on the statues. Some statues were also extensively gilded though the application of gold leaf.