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April 20, 2008

Painted Classical Sculpture

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Yes, those Greek and Roman marble statues were (often? usually?) painted to look more lifelike. We know this because tiny traces of the paint can be detected.

For some reason or another probably having to do with the fact that I'm a paint 'n' brush guy, I don't get worked up over classical sculpture. Not to the point that I've carefully studied such objects or read much in detail about them. So I didn't know that there have been attempts to recreate some statues, paint and all.

Fortunately, the Getty Villa, where Pacific Palisades meets Malibu, currently has an exhibit titled "The Color of Life" which deals with colored sculpture over the years. I visited the Villa a week ago.

Examples were brought in from such museums as the Munich Stiftung Archaeologie and Staatliche Antikensammlungen und Glyptothek and Copenhagen's Ny Carlsberg Gryptotek.

Besides examination of original pieces for information about pigments used, it was necessary to produce copies of the originals to use for reconstruction attempts. This article explains how the sculpted head of Emperor Caligula was reproduced.

Below are some examples.


The Peplos Kore - Greek, c.530 B.C.
These are reproduction versions of a pre-Golden Age work (note alternative left arms, feet). I wonder if the original colors were really as intense as shown.

Original sculpted head of Caligula

Original with copy

Attempted reconstruction of paint application
The Getty had this head along with a second reconstruction. The one done a few years after the first try seemed more realistic, but still too stark and hard-edged to me. Sorry to say, I've already forgotten whether the head above is the first or second attempt.

The results strike me as being too garish, but I wasn't around at the time and ought to defer to the experts. Still, I would expect better of the Greeks and Romans. On the other hand, from surviving evidence, the Romans seemed to be better sculptors than painters. This is odd, because lifelike sculpting requires good knowledge of human anatomy. If sculptors were highly knowledgeable, why weren't many painters?



posted by Donald at April 20, 2008


I took my girlfriend on a date to this exhibit in the Netherlands in '06. Pretty cool stuff, even if the actual painting might not be accurate or of similar quality as the original, it transforms the way you look at the old sculptures.

Posted by: a young curmudgeon on April 20, 2008 6:35 PM

A few thoughts:

(1) The painting job on the head of Caligula could be fairly easily improved. My suspicion is that the Classical sculpture-painters would have done far better. Based on how sophisticated some of the Roman-era tomb portraits were (some are as good as about any portrait I've seen), it certainly appears that the knowledge was around to enable a skilled worker to do it. I don't see how the level of sophistication in the modeling and coloration can be judged by archaeologists at this point, so how can we really know?

(2) I doubt the 'Roman' paintings you refer to having seen (I assume you're referring to the paintings at Pompeii or a few fragments preserved in some museum or other) represent anything like the height of Classical painting. As far as I know, none of the really good stuff (Apelles, etc.) survived. However, based on the draftsmanship evident in, say, the processional frieze of the Parthenon (which is about as impressive as draftsmanship gets) I'm guessing top flight Classical painting might have knocked your socks off. Granted, it would have been fresco rather than oil paint, but it worked pretty well for Michelangelo and Raphael.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on April 20, 2008 7:04 PM

Well, it may well be that they were far better sculptors than painters, but it's my understanding that so very little Roman painting survives, compared to hardy marble sculpture, that it's very difficult to say. Even frescoes are not immune to milennia, and I do recall reading that Romans did create and display paintings on papyri, -not very sturdy stuff. Especially when you were a Visigoth and the fire needed kindling later!

It is odd to think of the statues being painted so garishly- I much prefer the somber patina of age! But perhaps because they were meant to be public focal points on a pedestal, it's not so different than a stage performer's outfit and makeup- garish closeup, but vivid from afar. That's why the Queen wears bright, almost acid colors in public engagements- she's meant to be seen by the crowds. Just musing..

Posted by: Arundel on April 20, 2008 8:08 PM

Friedrich -- Yes, we don't really know how good classical painters were. And that's too bad, because I really wish I could see their best stuff. Indeed, most of what I've seen is Pompeii murals and portrait works from Roman Egypt.

A few Pompeii items I've seen in books are nicely done, but most aren't so hot. Why? One would expect that most artists are not artistic geniuses, and that would account for some of the failings. Secondly, Pompeii hosted upscale Romans, but it nevertheless wasn't Rome -- where presumably the best painters practiced their trade. Third, painting on walls usually is harder than on canvas with the aid of an easel, so this too might be a factor.

The Egypto-Roman art might be too much influenced by Egypt and not enough by Rome. Or so I wonder. I find it not hard to think that the lost stuff was better than what's left.

As I noted in the post, one would expect the painting to be about on par with the sculpting. (An aside: painting and sculpting seemed to be roughly on par -- i.e., not so hot -- during the Middle Ages if memory serves. Not my period of expertise, though. Roughly the same might be said for the Renaissance. Interesting matter.)

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on April 20, 2008 9:06 PM


Another argument for higher quality Roman painting, now lost, was a mosaic I saw in the museum at Tunis. Although most Roman mosaics are somewhat crude in detail (although striking graphically), this was a face that was done with painstaking subtlety. The realism of modeling, albeit in a earth-toned monochromatic form, was just about unbelievable. As was the sheer amount of work necessary to replicate such subtle effects in mosaic!

But I can't believe that such an effect would be possible, or demanded by a patron, if it had not been demonstrated already by painters. And if a mosaic copy of this quality is possible, I suspect the greatest masters of the Classical world (who were, I assume, Greeks or, in Imperial Roman times, possibly Greek slaves) must have have possessed about as much technique as Renaissance painters.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on April 20, 2008 9:25 PM

As a young back-packer on Crete in the early seventies, I remember being appalled by the on-site 're-creations' of the murals. A youthful archeologist who gave me a lift to another site assured me that I was not alone in re-acting this way to Arthur Evans' handiwork.

Back in Heraclion, I was able to see many fragments of original paintwork. Lovely stuff.

Maybe we're only meant to guess tantalisingly at how certain things were. I mean, lacking the originals, could you re-produce the Purgatorio or Sonatorrek from a translation?

Posted by: Robert Townshend on April 20, 2008 9:36 PM

On the thought that they're bright and garish, I remember that when they were restoring the ceiling of the Sistine chapel many people were shocked at the colors Michelangelo used, such as bright pink. It doesn't seem outside the realm of probability that ancient statues were painted as brightly as possible.

Posted by: B. Durbin on April 20, 2008 11:41 PM

I had a shot at this one not long ago when I saw an article in Harvard Magazine. I was interested in the concept of using colour in contemporary work. See here

Posted by: Robert Mileham on April 21, 2008 5:17 AM

Here is a painting by Alma-Tadema depicting the creation of the friezes on the Parthenon. Probably fairly accurate...

And this is how the Parthenon itself may have appeared on the extrerior according to best guesses...

These images are at variance with the public's perception of ancient temples. If Roman temples and statuary was indeed brightly painted, ancient Rome must truly have been dazzling to the eye.

Posted by: Charlton Griffin on April 21, 2008 9:01 AM

The statue of Pallas Athena in the Parthenon was apparently pretty garish, what with its gold and ivory splendor (and coiled snake). From various reconstructions of it I've seen, it looks almost Hindu, like Kali Durga, even if admittedly more "classical", more serene. So maybe the kore aren't too far off.

The Caligula, though, is an atrocity. It looks like a papier-mache head, or part of a cheap animatronics exhibit. The Romans must have done much, much better than that...thing. My God, the eyes!

Posted by: PatrickH on April 21, 2008 9:19 AM

has anyone thought to compare the (better painted) Spanish polychrome sculptures -there is still something 'off putting' about them..a bit 'creepy' - sometimes for example the eyelashes are 'real' but my guess was that the level of craft of the best roman sculpture painters was closer to this..

Just remember that in Roman times, as our art galleries remind us today - there are lots of bad/mediocre artists out there.

Posted by: malcolm on April 21, 2008 11:34 AM

As I recall from reading Suetonius, Caligula had blonde hair, (albeit balding), and blue eyes. Someone correct me if I'm wrong.

Posted by: Charlton Griffin on April 21, 2008 8:45 PM

That's neat. I would love to see the temples painted as well.

Posted by: irina on April 23, 2008 11:54 PM

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