“Noble simplicity and quiet grandeur” were the ideals proclaimed by J. J. Winkelmann as the beauty gospel of Greek art in his first publication on the subject in 1755.
Today, however, it is generally accepted that sculpture in ancient Greece, and even in ancient Rome, was not quite as “simple” as first supposed. Sculptures were commonly painted in bold colors, even though it often did not last sufficiently long.
The painting was sometimes limited to clothing and hair, while the skin was left in the natural color of the stone. Yet, it could also cover sculptures in their entirety. The painting of the art works was not only a mere addition, but could be a masterpiece in its own. For example, it has been demonstrated that sculptures in the temple of Aphaia on Aegina were painted with very ornate forms representing, among others, patterned clothing.
Polychromy of stone statues was achieved not only by colors but also by the use of different materials to distinguish eyes, skin or clothing. Bronzes were embellished by using different metals to represent lips or nipples.
An early example of polychrome decoration is found in the Parthenon on the Acropolis of Athens. The terracottas of the Dresden collection of antiquities and ancient funerary urns are also found in colorful versions.
Tanagra figure, Dresden, Collection of Classical Antiquities
Tanagra figures are ancient female figures molded and fired from terracotta in a sitting or standing posture, 15 to 35 cm high, from the Boeotian city of Tanagra in central Greece. The coroplastics served as grave goods and lucky charms. After cooling, the figures received a white primer coat, which, after drying, allowed their elaborate painting.
Nevertheless, the classical beauty of antiquity remains monochromatic in our memory. By the time European antiquity came around in the 18th century, the paint on ancient structures had weathered away. The first impression – and the one that lingers today – was therefore that classical beauty was expressed only through form and composition, without color. This impression characterized all neoclassical architecture. It was only much later that classicists such as Jacques Ignace Hittorff discovered the traces of color on genuine classical buildings and sculptures.
Today, polychromy is often possible by examining tiny traces of paint with microscopic and other means. Whether this will change our opinion and perspective is doubtful. For modern people, the Venus de Milo will probably remain monochrome forever.