Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The Painted Sculptures of the Ancient Greeks

Winkelmann was an art historian in the 18th century who helped to shape our current ideas of art and “good taste”.  He thought that art should be “pure and simple” like the Greeks and that “pure” white marble was the ideal for beauty.  Color according to Winkelmann, was to be used sparingly and “ought to have a minor consideration in the role of beauty”.  Wouldn’t he be surprised to know that the Greeks actually painted some of their marble sculptures?  Scholars have been able to use visual and scientific analysis and modern day tools and technology to study the traces of paintings that remain on the Greek sculpture.

            I think that Winkelmann’s idea of Greek art has portrayed an incorrect image of Greek art and sculpture.  By promoting the idea that Greek art is the ideal for beauty and “good taste” because of its simplicity and use of white, it is ignoring all the other works of art that the Greeks created that were painted or colorful.  It has created misrepresentation and caused a bias away from painted sculpture and favoritism for pure white marble sculptures.  I think it has affected modern day art.  When we look at the Neo Classical period when there was a revitalization of Greek art, the sculptures were made to look white and weren’t painted.  Although it can be said that they were just representing what they could see, why is it then that there aren’t more reconstructions of painted sculpture?  Even most marble statues made today are not painted.  There seems to be this idea that once it has been sculpted and polished that it is the end of the process, the finished product, and that there is no need to go further. 

                        I was surprised when I first saw the reproductions of the “Archer” from the Temple of Aphaia and the “Peplos Kore”.  I had been under the impression, as well, that Greek sculptors had meant for their works of art to be viewed as the plain white marble that we see today.  The paintings seem so bright at first and out of place.  The musculature isn’t as visible and we lose the monotone value of the statue.  From the findings of different scholars, an analysis of the “Archer” reveals that the Greeks actually favored bright colors, such as yellows and reds, made from different minerals and materials.  The artists also painted complicated patterns, such as the diamond pattern, that can be seen on the arms and legs of the archer.  The lines of the patterns draw attention to the legs and the arms, which are both poised in a moment of action.  The left arm is holding a bow and arrow and the left leg is extended out part way to brace the archer while he draws the bow back.  Upon closer inspection of the pattern on the left leg, the viewer will notice that the pattern changes according to where it is on the position of the leg.  It widens at the bulge of the thigh muscle, narrows at the knee, widens again at the bulge of the calf, and narrows again at the ankle.  It is an accurate representation to show how the pattern on a stretchy material would change according to how much stretching was put on the material. 

According to ancient authors, the Greeks painted their sculptures to make them more life like and naturalistic.  The Greeks were interested in naturalism, but they didn’t make their art completely realistic as can be seen with the archaic smile found on the dying warriors from the Temple of Aphaia.  The attempt at naturalism with the painting on the “Archer” shows how much Greek sculptures paid attention to detail.  By just seeing the Greek sculptures without any painting, we can admire the form, and the details in musculature, which are not as noticeable when painted, but we are only seeing a partly finished piece.  We are missing out on the naturalistic detail and artwork and knowledge that can be gained from the paintings.  From the paintings we could get a better idea of what colors the ancient Greeks favored and what style of clothing they may have worn.  I still appreciate and like the white unpainted Greek sculpture, but I also like the detail and the attempt at naturalism of the painted sculpture and the potential information that can be gained from the paintings.  I now think of them as beautiful works of art that are just missing their “clothing”. 


  1. Very interesting point of view on this subject, I really enjoyed reading it! I especially agree with what you said about the archer sculpture, it is crazy to think that thousands of years ago it was that colorful! It’s hard to imagine any of the Greek marbles as colorful, when we see them as white today. I though it very interesting that all because of Winkelmann the perception of pure and beautiful art is seem as white and without color. I like the statues as they are today because they show the true human form without distraction. Great post, thanks!

  2. I really enjoyed your post. I also love the white Greek sculptures that have no paint on them, it makes you appreciate all the details and curves carved out on them. Adding paint will cover all that we can see on the unfinished sculptures, but at the same time, paint will brighten them and make them more attractive and highlight other beautiful points that might not have been there before the paint was applied.

  3. Your statement, " The paintings seem so bright at first and out of place." summed up my first impressions when I learned about the Greeks painting their statues. I was not too happy at first to see the examples they seemed so out of place and I am still left to wonder if I like this in the human form. However I think that it could grow on the viewer even scare them.
    That in of itself could cause an extreme belief that naturalistic is about how something really looks. A true image of both man and beast.
    I think that your argument that Winkelmann's influence in changing how we think about the Grecian peoples sense of naturalism could be very true. There is when we stand before these works to want to view them in the stones natural color. We are changing the form of the stone and leaving the palette blank. There is the assumption that this form of sculpture should be as virginal as possible. Thank you for helping me see stone sculpture in different light.

  4. I was also very surprised to learn that the Greeks painted their statues. I always thought that they meant them to be white, perhaps to show that they were not human and could never be. But to learn that they were colorfully painted, I can now understand their humanism movement better. It also helps me understand the myth of Pygmalion better. I always thought the statue was pure white, and I found that very strange that he would fall in love with something like that, but if the statues were colorfully painted, then why not!?