In Full Color, Ancient Sculpture Reimagined

At the exhibit “Chroma: Ancient Sculpture in Color” at The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Additional resources

More about the exhibit at The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Jan Stubbe Østergaard, “Polychromy, sculptural, Greek and Roman,” Oxford Classical Dictionary (2018).


Smarthistory images for teaching and learning:

[flickr_tags user_id=”82032880@N00″ tags=”chroma,”]

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Elizabeth Macaulay: [0:04] When we think of the ancient world, I think of Pompeiian wall paintings that are brightly colored, of mosaics from the Greek world that are full of different colors. It was a world of technicolor.

[0:16] So what did sculpture look like in antiquity? Because when we walk through the hallowed halls of museums, we see all this white sculpture that looks somehow pristine, where in fact marble sculptures and bronze sculptures in the classical world, that is in the Greek and Roman world, and of course also in the Assyrian world, also in the Egyptian world, were brightly colored.

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:35] As it turns out, antiquity has a lot to teach us about our own values and who we’ve excluded from art history.

Dr. Macaulay: [0:43] This idea that ancient sculpture was not painted started in the Renaissance, and there were some challenges to that as people started to pull sculpture up in the 18th and 19th century, but there were very important art historians, one in particular, Johann Winckelmann, who’s often considered to be almost the founder of art history as a discipline.

[1:00] Johann Winckelmann liked his sculpture white and pure.

Dr. Harris: [1:03] In fact, Winckelmann wrote, “The whiter the body is, the more beautiful it is,” and so we have the development of this connection between whiteness and ideas of purity, of nobility, and an association of those things specifically with Western culture.

Dr. Macaulay: [1:20] This is where we are so fortunate to have modern science and technology and the working together of archaeologists with conservationists and other types of material scientists to study the marble, to look for traces of paint, because we know when sculpture was pulled up from the ground that in fact painting survived on many of these sculptures.

[1:40] And so one of the statues we’re looking at is a reconstruction of the so-called “Small Herculaneum Woman” from the island of Delos. She was excavated in the late 19th century, and we actually have descriptions of how colorful she was when she came out of the ground.

Dr. Harris: [1:53] The first thing we should say is, we could never reconstruct these sculptures with absolute certainty.

Dr. Macaulay: [1:59] We absolutely know it was painted. How exactly the colors looked? There’s always a little bit of guesswork.

Dr. Harris: [2:03] One of the things that the color does is it allows us to really understand her clothing.

Dr. Macaulay: [2:07] What we can see clearly is that she’s wearing silk. The silk is crinkling, as you can see down by her feet, and she has this lovely mantle wrapped around her.

[2:16] She is the so-called Small Herculaneum Woman type because a statue almost identical to this was found at Herculaneum in about 1706.

Dr. Harris: [2:24] This type of sculpture was very popular among the ancient Romans, who adopted so much of Greek culture as their own.

Dr. Macaulay: [2:31] I believe there are 160 examples of this portrait type, both from the ancient Greek world and the ancient Roman world. In the ancient Roman world, you’d purchase the body and you’d have a separate head or portrait done and that head would be put into the statue.

Dr. Harris: [2:43] So, now we’re looking at a sculpture of a sphinx. What’s so wonderful is that in this gallery we can compare it to the sculpture as it looks today, and a plaster cast of it, showing us how it would have looked on the original stele.

Dr. Macaulay: [2:57] This is an Archaic stele. Stele is a grave marker. That means this monument marked the grave of an individual. In all likelihood, the youth that it’s depicted and possibly his younger sister who stands next to him.

[3:08] One of the things that’s so remarkable things about the stele is the preservation of color in both the stele and in the original sphinx that stood on top of it. There is a lot of color surviving that is visible still to the naked eye.

[3:21] In the case of the stele, we can see a lot of red, but [if] we go up and look at the sphinx closely, we can see that on the sphinx’s breast, there was a very detailed pattern that almost looks like scales, as if she was a bird or having feathers. We can even also start to see that pattern and decorating on her wing. It is clear that she was polychrome.

Dr. Harris: [3:39] In this reconstruction, we see oranges and yellows and golds and blues, and not seeing the stone itself feels shocking.

Dr. Macaulay: [3:48] If you think about this stele being erected in a graveyard, all those steles are competing for your attention. Having something bright, shining, and gold meant that people walking by would look at your grave, look at your stele, and remember you.

Dr. Harris: [4:02] We may not be looking at exactly what this sculpture looked like in antiquity, but in a way, art history is an attempt to understand these objects the way that they were originally intended to be seen. We can only do that imperfectly.

Dr. Macaulay: [4:17] What we do have to acknowledge is that the aesthetic that we often abscribe to works of art, as objects in museums, their audience would have seen them in antiquity in a different way and interacted with them in a different way. That is a world that, by using science and technology, we understand is part of the “Western tradition.”

[4:35] We are a part of this larger conversation about art and color. We need to embrace those changes and rethink the way we look at art.

[4:42] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Elizabeth Macaulay and Dr. Beth Harris, "In Full Color, Ancient Sculpture Reimagined," in Smarthistory, November 18, 2022, accessed June 10, 2024,