Chroma: Ancient Sculpture in Color, The Metropolitan Museum of Art: Fifth Avenue, New York, NY. Temporary exhibition. July 5, 2022 – March 26, 2023. Max Hollein, museum director; The Metropolitan Museum of Art and Liebieghaus Sculpture Collection, co-exhibition organizers.
There are numerous certainties in life that we come to find out are not so definitive. These are the best-kept secrets that are not even secrets. Dinosaurs are not so scaly after all, and many of them possessed feathery coats.1 The first peopling of the Americas occurred through the Pacific Coast well before the opening of the Bering Land Bridge, and, believe it or not, many Greek and Roman sculptures possessed a bright, varying array of color long before eroding to the white marble adored today.2 There remain few subjects in ancient art that cause such heated and prolonged debate as painted marble.3 Dating back to the Renaissance, artists imitated what they believed to be white Greek and Roman statuary, leaving the marble without color.4 Chroma: Ancient Sculpture in Color brought color to the misnomer.
The falsehoods of white, non-painted statues in art history dates to the eighteenth-century German art historian Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717 – 1768) who wrote numerous texts that shaped art history into the discipline it is today.5 Winkelmann’s Geschichte der Kunst des Alterthums (1763) is often credited with propagating the white marble misnomer, especially the instance where he calls the Apollo Belvedere (Roman, 2nd century C.E.) the epitome of beauty.6 His writings influenced art history, philosophy, classical studies, and archaeology for long thereafter until the views on his contributions shifted between the World Wars. He was a known Euro-centrist who initially attributed polychromy in antiquity to “non-Western” cultures.7 For nearly a century following Winckelmann’s writings, art historians believed the ancient Greeks were too refined to color their statuary.8 In actuality, early preservation and restoration practices, burials, and the Mediterranean climate all influenced the reduction and elimination of polychromy on Greek and Roman statuary to the naked eye.9
Polychromy means “many colors” in Greek, and a plethora of colors resonate throughout the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s (the Met) Chroma: Ancient Sculpture in Color exhibition (Chroma).10 The exhibition (on view from July 5, 2022 – March 26, 2023) dispersed seventeen reconstructions from Vinzenz Brinkmann and Ulrike Koch-Brinkmann–leaders in the field of ancient polychromy studies–along with sixty-three artifacts from the Met’s collection throughout the Greek and Roman Art Galleries (Galleries 150-165), culminating in a dedicated presentation in Gallery 172.11 The exhibition arrived shortly after the Making the Met: 1870–2020 (August 29, 2020 – January 3, 2021) retrospective explored the 150-year history of the museum.12 Chroma built upon that through a historiography of the institution’s color investigations on ancient Greek and Roman statuary.
The Met’s collection includes early Attic (c. 600 – 300 B.C.E.) gravestones, several of which possess minute remnants of their original color.13 These gravestones provided the Met with enough evidence to publish Gisela M. A. Richter and Lindsley F. Hall’s findings in the 1940s to some contention, as many scholars hesitated in believing the Greeks would paint over the entire surface of marble, particularly the nude statues.14 Richter and Hall concluded that artists painted seemingly untouched nude statues with a thin wash that did not obscure the marbling underneath and weatherproofed the wash with a wax coating.15 Chroma built upon this early research and presented innovative techniques used in discovering surviving ancient color on Greek and Roman sculptures.16 Specifically, the exhibition highlighted the scientific processes used to identify ancient colors and examined how color aided the transmission of meaning in antiquity, influencing the history of ancient polychromy in later periods.17 For the first time, the Met showcased the statuary reconstructed in color to the public. Exhibition impressions and visitor reactions epitomize how conditioned monochrome statues are in society and how important confronting the misnomer can be in reshaping worldviews.
Visualizing Ancient Greek and Roman Statuary: from monochrome to polychrome
Viewable from the Great Hall, Reconstruction of the marble funerary stele of Phrasikleia (2010/2019) welcomed museumgoers to the galleries alongside an introductory statement on Chroma. The introductory statement subtly resided off to the side of the gallery, suggesting that the focus remained on the permanent collection although the exhibition organizers scattered reconstructions and exhibition-specific object labels throughout the galleries. After first introducing readers to ancient polychromy, the statement read:
Chroma highlights ancient polychromy on works of art in The Met collection and reveals new discoveries of surviving color identified through cutting-edge scientific analyses and in-depth research by the Museum’s curatorial, conservation, scientific research, and imaging staff. The exhibition features a series of striking color reconstructions of major sculptures . . . that convey the brilliance of scope and ancient polychromy. Juxtaposed with original Greek and Roman works depicting similar subjects, the reconstructions are based on the results of advanced photographic and spectroscopic techniques and comparative research of ancient works of art.
The statement suggests that visitors focus more on the scientific discoveries and aesthetics associated with the marble stucco on PMMA18 and plaster reconstructions rather than engage in intellectual conversations surrounding the long-held belief of non-painted statuary within the exhibition. The object label associated with the reconstructed stele primed viewers for what to expect—the science behind how the Met discovered the stele’s true color.
Located in Gallery 154, Reconstruction of marble finial in the form of a sphinx (2022) sat atop a pedestal nearby the original sphinx and funerary stele (530 B.C.E., from Kataphygi in Attica). The reconstructed sphinx juxtaposed a relatively subdued room of monochrome marble. The sphinx was the only occurrence of a conversation between an original and a reconstruction throughout the exhibition, and it built upon the historical reports from the Met that first acknowledged the polychromy of the original object.19
The reconstructed sphinx’s object label walked readers through the scientific processes employed by the Brinkmanns in bringing color to the reconstruction, whereas the nearby focus text praised the “cutting-edge research” undertaken by the Met’s curatorial, conservation, imaging, and scientific research teams in collaboration with the Brinkmanns. The paint adorning the sphinx included reds from cinnabar, blues from Egyptian blue and azurite, a carbon-based black, yellow and brown ochers, as well as gilded tin and copper. The focus text stated that the Met employed noninvasive and minimally invasive techniques built upon digital microscope examinations and multiband imaging in determining the original color scheme. The text concluded by emphasizing aesthetics: “Overall, the striking colors accentuated the sphinx’s looming figure, and the vibrant patterning emphasized its composite parts and key features.”
Residing in Gallery 156, viewers encountered the gold-painted torso of the Reconstruction of the so-called Cuirassed Torso from the Athenian Acropolis, Variant B (2005) as well as the Reconstructions of Bronze Riace Warrior A and B (2015 and 2016), a Roman bronze torso of a youth (first half of the 5th century B.C.E.), and a pair of eyes from a statue (Greek, 5th century B.C.E. or later). The painting process was described in the reconstructed torso’s label. The artist painted the torso gold to resemble armor while adding touches of red and blue to replicate the appearance of clothing. With the original located at the Acropolis Museum, the various texts failed to engage with the idea of a painted Acropolis. The research suggests the statuary ornamenting the Acropolis was painted yet the Met omits tying the reconstruction into the larger conversation. Nearby was an original bronze torso. The accompanying Chroma label mentioned that bronze statues were commonly inlaid with copper alloy nipples and silver teeth along with elaborately fabricated eye inlays much like those nearby. Centered in the room were the two bronze reconstructions representing two Classical Greek bronze statues found near Riace, Italy. Their label reiterated the copper and silver inlays in addition to stating that “sulphur [sic] residue in the corrosion layers shows that an artificial bronze patina was used to indicate skin color.” The text fails to further discuss the representation of skin tones on statuary.
Among the various other reconstructions and objects in subsequent galleries, visitors may have wandered upon another reconstruction, an archer located in the shadows of the Sardis Column and titled Reconstruction of a marble archer in the costume of a horseman of the neighboring peoples to the north and east of Greece, from the west pediment of Temple of Aphaia, Variant C (2019). The object label reiterated much of the same—mentions of the research completed to reconstruct the colors—along with conjecture that the archer may represent the mythical Trojan prince Paris.
Hidden on the mezzanine level and behind the elevator shaft sits Gallery 172, the small mezzanine gallery dedicated to Chroma. The space included two projected videos, three Brinkmann reconstructions, various pedestal cases with ceramics, two original statues, and a painting. A section text inside the entryway provided the first mention of the long-held misnomer of non-painted statuary, contextualizing this belief in its nineteenth-century origins. This gallery “highlight[ed] the history of this field of study, the role of reconstructions for understanding and presenting manifestations of ancient color, the interplay of color and medium in polychrome sculpture, and the influence of ancient polychromy in later periods.”
The documentary, Chasing Color, which played on a loop in the gallery, drew the attention of museumgoers who may have otherwise passed by without entering the gallery. The documentary focused on the research conducted on the sphinx through the lens of the Brinkmanns as well as turning what they uncovered into the completed reconstruction. A nearby focus text provided background information on the Brinkmanns, mentioning that over twenty museums exhibited their reconstructions and research in the last two decades, significantly correcting misconceptions of monochrome statuary. Much like the physical reconstructions, Chasing Color was aesthetically inviting and informative on the Brinkmanns’ scientific discoveries while avoiding discussions of historical misunderstandings of white marble.
In the middle of the gallery, a small bronze statue and two terracotta vases resided within a vitrine focused on color, material, and representations of Black Africans in Greek art. A gray placard detailed that:
Color and material were often used to define cultural identities through particular costumes . . . and physical characteristics such as skin tone and hairstyles. In the Greek world, geography, language, and religion structured shared identities; unlike modern conceptions of race, skin color did not serve as a singular means of definition. . . .
Black African people appear in a range of roles in Greek art, including as archers, warriors, artists, and attendants. . . . [By the fourth century B.C.E.] Black Africans were living in Greek settlements around the Mediterranean, and their representations became prevalent in Greek art.
The Terracotta column-crater (bowl for mixing wine) (Greek, South Italian, Apulian, Late Classical, c. 360 – 35 B.C.E.) depicted an artist painting a marble statue of Herakles in Zeus and Herakles’s presence. The statue appeared white with golden hair as the painter applied pigment and wax to Herakles’s lion skin. Nearby, a young assistant attended to a fire. The label notes: “Although the assistant’s skin color is not differentiated, certain physical characteristics such as his hair may have meant to indicate that he is of Black African heritage.” The dedicated discussion on race and African ancestry within ancient Greece was a welcomed addition, albeit it still avoided extending beyond visual descriptions.
The gallery’s remaining works highlighted the history of reconstructions. Study 1 of the color scheme of the so-called Treu Head, (2014/2020) was the reconstruction of a marble head named after German archaeologist George Treu who published his investigations of the head’s preserved color in 1889. Nearby focus texts noted that although the Brinkmanns now produce 3D reconstructions, late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century historians depicted reconstructions in watercolor on paper. Another focus text outlined the history of ancient polychromy at the Met, highlighting its work at the forefront of these discussions and depictions beginning in the early 1890s and culminating in Gisela M. A. Richter’s research on the grave markers in the collection.20 Close by, the watercolor on paper titled Reproduction of The Introduction of Herakles into Olympos (1919) demonstrated early depictions of polychrome statuary. The Met deserves to be credited for investigating polychromy, however, the institution should move beyond self-adulation to discuss the historical and common-held beliefs of Greek and Roman statuary.
Throughout my two visits to Chroma and Gallery 172, most individuals peered their heads in and continued elsewhere, while few entered the room. That being said, those who entered the gallery engaged with the various texts, videos, and objects. The prolonged engagement with the materials within the room highlights the interest in polychromy studies and how this influences our understanding of Greek and Roman statuary. Throughout the rest of the galleries, viewers gazed at the reconstructions but spent no more time examining them than the other objects in each room. Anyone who failed to read the introductory wall text at the wing’s entrance may not have realized the reconstructions or the objects with the accompanying gray object labels were part of an exhibition and may have overlooked the tucked-away Gallery 172 as they made their way to the next wing.
Discussion: praising the scientific achievement and bypassing the audience
Chroma provided visitors with aesthetically striking reconstructions of Greek and Roman statuary, leaving viewers in awe of just how bright and color-contrasting the statues of the past once were. Accompanying the reconstruction, the Met dispersed objects within their permanent collection along with exhibition-specific labels highlighting their connection to color. Those most interested in the exhibition would take the time to read the accompanying wall texts and object labels to learn how the Brinkmanns brought the monochrome statues back to their true forms. Some visitors, including myself on my first visit, may overlook the other objects and Chroma labels that do add substance and contextualize the reconstructions within ancient Greek and Roman statuary production. A small logo synonymous with Chroma may have more effectively indicated the non-reconstruction objects in the exhibition than the subtle gray labels.
What visitors, including myself, may be left wondering is why a polychromy exhibition took so long to come to an institution that touted being forerunners in polychromy studies and reproductions throughout the various focus texts. Why was there so much pushback in history that Greek and Roman statues might have once been painted and not left white? Why does it feel so wrong to view these statues in color? Are our cultural values and worldviews inhibiting our ability to accept polychrome statues? Unfortunately, the Met chose to bypass engaging with visitors, their perceptions and biases, and the contentious history surrounding the whitewashing of art history to provide an exhibition praising the scientific achievements of the Brinkmanns and the institution itself. These reconstructions are more than works of art but the fixation on aesthetics resonated throughout the galleries as well as museumgoers’ reactions to them.
Other than the sphinx, the reconstructions largely remain isolated from the objects in the permanent galleries. The Met instead focused attention on the colors of the statuary at the most basic of levels. A majority of the visitors viewing the reconstructions failed to read wall texts and could be overheard with the occasional “Wow, this is a bit bright” or “Not what I would expect.”
The base-level fixation on aesthetics and reconstructions as art harkens back to the Met-signed “Declaration on the Importance and Value of Universal Museums” (2002).21 Over fifteen universal museums signed the Declaration, documenting their stance on the importance of retaining and exhibiting cultural heritage acquired long before the ethical and legal standards of modernity.22 In doing so, the Declaration illustrated the signatories’ obsession with cultural heritage as “art” and the influence universal museums have on Greek sculpture through their long-term display throughout these institutions.23 Therefore, it came as little surprise that the institution emphasized the aesthetic, fine art qualities of the original statuaries and scientific discoveries resulting in their painted reconstructions. This decision was detrimental to the museumgoers grappling with the uprooting of their cultural conditioning after witnessing polychrome Greek and Roman statuary, many of them for the first time.
Chroma would have benefited from engaging audiences through interactives on perception, cultural worldviews, and perhaps even cultural relativism, especially relating to the historical whitewashing perpetuated by Winckelmann’s eighteenth-century studies. The Declaration even suggested such when discussing the sculptures of classical Greece—“The distinctly Greek aesthetic of these works appears all the more strongly as the result of their being seen and studied in direct proximity to products of other great civilizations.”24 Case in point, many individuals understand Egyptian statuary to be colored as they retained their colors due to the drier air. Comparative art history goes a long way in reshaping worldviews, and the power of Chroma would have been heightened by viewing the reconstructions as more than just reproductions of ancient art. The reproductions would work most effectively in more direct conversation with well-understood painted statuary (e.g., Egyptian) and as commentary to Winckelmann and many others’ prejudiced ideas of beauty and monochrome statuary. The Met ongoingly explores the topic through Color the Temple, an augmented reality tool projecting light to digitally restore the colors of The Temple of Dendur (Egyptian [Roman Period], completed by 10 B.C.E.).25 Whiteness was not the default nor the norm in Greek and Roman statuary, and even now this long-held belief sets a false standard in which many subsequent peoples aspire to achieve. Engaging with that conversation was worth pursuing yet Chroma sidestepped the opportunity.
Chroma was what it claimed to be. The exhibition investigated color through the lens of scientific research and highlighted the Met’s contributions to the study of ancient polychromy. That may be more than enough to pique the interest of some museumgoers. The approach taken left me, as well as many others who are familiar with the whitewashed art historical past, disappointed. Impactful curation engages in discussion and addresses contentious issues of the past and present. Perhaps the next institution exhibiting the Brinkmanns’ reconstructions will engage with, rather than tell us, the history of polychromy.
1. Xing Xu, Xiaoting Zheng, and Hailu You, “ Exceptional dinosaur fossils show ontogenetic development of early feathers,” Nature 464 (2010), 1338-41. Pascal Godefroit et al., “A Jurassic ornithischian dinosaur from Siberia with both feathers and scales,” Science 345 (2014), 451-55.
2. Jon M. Erlandson et al., “The Kelp Highway Hypothesis: Marine Ecology, the Coastal Migration Theory, and the Peopling of the Americas,” Journal of Island and Coastal Archaeology 2 (2007), 161-74. Nelson J. R. Fagundes et al., “Mitochondrial Population Genomics Supports a Single Pre-Clovis Origin with a Coastal Route for the Peopling of the Americas,” American Journal of Human Genetics 82 (2008), 582-93. Bente Kiilerich, “Towards a ‘Polychrome History’ of Greek and Roman Sculpture,” Journal of Art Historiography 15 (2016), 1-18. Gisela M. A. Richter and Lindsley F. Hall, “Polychromy in Greek Sculpture,” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 2 (1944), 233-40.
3. Richter and Hall, “Polychromy in Greek Sculpture,” 233.
4. Richter and Hall, “Polychromy in Greek Sculpture,” 233.
5. Sarah Bond, “Whitewashing Ancient Statues: Whiteness, Racism and Color in The Ancient World,” Forbes (April 27, 2017).
6. Johann Joachim Winckelmann, “Geschichte der Kunst des Alterthums,” 1763, passim. Bond, “Whitewashing Ancient Statues.”
7. Neil Irvin Painter, “The History of White People,” (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2010), passim. Bond, “Whitewashing Ancient Statues.”
8. Painter, “The History of White People,” passim. Bond, “Whitewashing Ancient Statues.”
9. Mark B. Abbe, “Polychromy of Roman Marble Statuary,” Metropolitan Museum of Art Essays (April 2007).
10. Chroma: Ancient Sculpture in Color, The Metropolitan Museum of Art: Fifth Avenue, New York, NY. Temporary exhibition. July 5, 2022 – March 26, 2023. Max Hollein, museum director; The Metropolitan Museum of Art and Liebieghaus Sculpture Collection, co-exhibition organizers.
11. Chroma: Ancient Sculpture in Color.
12. Making The Met: 1870–2020, The Metropolitan Museum of Art: Fifth Avenue, New York, NY.
13. Richter and Hall, “Polychromy in Greek Sculpture,” 233-34.
14. Richter was the Met’s former Curator of Greek and Roman Art. Hall was the Met’s former Senior Research Fellow within the Department of Egyptian Art. Richter and Hall, “Polychromy in Greek Sculpture,” 235.
15. Richter and Hall, “Polychromy in Greek Sculpture,” 236.
16. Chroma: Ancient Sculpture in Color.
17. Chroma: Ancient Sculpture in Color.
18. Poly(methyl methacrylate) is the common name for acrylics such as Plexiglas.
19. Richter and Hall, “Polychromy in Greek Sculpture,” passim.
20. Richter and Hall, “Polychromy in Greek Sculpture,” passim.
21. Declaration on the Importance and Value of Universal Museums (December 10, 2002). The Declaration was reprinted in Lyndel V. Prott, ed., “Declaration on the Importance and Value of Universal Museums 2002,” in Witnesses to History, (Paris: UNESCO, 2009), 116-17.
22. Declaration on the Importance and Value of Universal Museums.
23. Neil G. W. Curtis, “Universal museums, museum objects and repatriation: The tangled stories of things,” Museum Management and Curatorship 21 (2006), 119-20.
24. Declaration on the Importance and Value of Universal Museums.
25. Matt Felsen and Erin Peters, “Color The Temple: Using Projected Light to Restore Color,” Metropolitan Museum of Art Blogs (December 24, 2015).