Painted Greek Sculptures

These comments were originally posted on the Harry Binswanger List in 2003, in response to a discussion on whether Greek sculptures were esthetically inferior because they were painted. I’ve added the first three paragraphs and the illustrations.

Enough paint has survived through 2,500 years to show that marble sculptures in Greece were  often (always?) painted. For recent reconstructions of polychromy based on ultraviolet light photos of sculptures, see this Smithsonian Magazine article. More photos: this Harvard Magazine article and this Hyperallergic article. Leica’s site has close-up pics of remaining pigments taken with a digital microscope. I assume the photos are copyright, so I’m including below only a few images that appear on Wikipedia.

The Peplos Kore has added color that’s visible even without a digital microscope. It dates to ca. 530 B.C., the Archaic period.

Left: Peplos Kore, ca. 530 B.C. Athens, Acropolis Museum. Right and center: two later reconstruction of what the original color might have looked like. Photos: Marsyas / Wikipedia

This is a reconstruction of what one corner of the Parthenon (447-432 B.C.) might have looked like.

Reconstruction of a corner of the Parthenon (447-432 B.C.) done in 1883. Image: Wikipedia

There are 2 issues here: why the Greeks painted statues, and whether added color is good or bad.

Why added color?

Although some Greeks made tremendous strides toward a rational philosophy, most Greeks remained religious. Much Greek sculpture was made for religious reasons, hence for didactic purposes. The more “real” or “lifelike” or just plain bright such sculpture is, the better it fulfills its function of reminding the viewer of the supernatural world he can’t actually perceive. Think of those dreadful medieval pietas, where Christ drips with gore. Added color contributes to the purpose of religious sculpture – although it’s a purpose that Objectivists don’t recognize as valid.

Also: the Greeks often placed sculptures outdoors. If you’ve visited Athens in the summer, you know the combination of heat and sun on the (now) stark white marble ruins of the Acropolis is enough to fry your eyeballs. Added color made the sculptures easier to look at in the setting for which they were designed.

I don’t recall any extant Greek writing that discusses the nature of sculpture or whether adding color detracted from it. Given the writings that do survive, I doubt the Greeks ever got to an esthetic issue this abstract.

Good or bad?

On the question of whether a sculpture with added color is worse than one without it: I agree that form and texture are the essentials of sculpture, and that color is a distraction. I often notice more about a sculpture’s texture and form when I’m looking at a black-and-white photo.

On the other hand, there are quite a few worse things in a sculpture than added color. J. Seward Johnson, Jr., who does very naturalistic sculptures, routinely adds colored patinas to shirts, ties, hair, etc.

J. Seward Johnson, Uninvited Advice, 1992. Bronze sculpture. Image: Art Anderson / Wikipedia

I don’t love Johnson’s work, but I’ll take it any day over a George Segal sculpture. If you’ve passed through the Port Authority Bus Terminal in New York City, you may have winced at his “Commuters” there. Segal’s schtick was to swathe a live model – usually a slouched, out-of-shape model – in fast-setting plaster bandages. Then he made casts of the bandages, cast them in bronze, and applied a white patina to the scabby-textured bronze. His works are representational, monochrome, and utterly revolting.

In short, keep this issue in perspective: the type of figure, texture and details included in a sculpture are at least as important as whether color is added.


  • Speaking of added color: Greek sculptures in bronze routinely had inset eyes of a different color (most have fallen out) and rosy lips. See, for example, the head of one of the Riace Warriors; description here, more pics here.

    Head of one of the two Riace Warriors, ca. 460-450 B.C. Museo Nazionale della Magna Grecia, Reggio Calabria, Italy. Photo: Effems / Wikipedia
  • Want wonderful art delivered weekly to your inbox? Members of my free Sunday Recommendations list (email receive three art-related suggestions every week: check out my favorites from last year’s recommendations. For more goodies, check out my Patreon page.
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About Dianne L. Durante

I constantly seek out art that's inspiring, thought-provoking, skillfully executed, and/or beautiful so I can share it (in jargon-free language) with others who need and enjoy such art, but don't have time to search for it themselves. As an independent scholar, writer, and lecturer, I focus on art history and history, with forays into food, history, politics, and publishing. My most recent projects are three volumes on Alexander Hamilton, From Portraits to Puddles, Central Park: The Early Years, Innovators in Sculpture (a survey of 5,000 years of art in 2 hours), and videoguide apps by Guides Who Know. Click on the Books & Essays tab for a list of all books. For upcoming projects, see my Patreon page.

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