I know! Let's politicize polychromy!

Polychromy is the ancient practice of painting statues (and furniture). Apparently, we moderns need to realize that painted statuary isn’t gauche, but a fact of life.

And so, we have another essay on the subject, and this one brings a revolutionary zealotry to the issue. Better academia through trolling?



Thanks for linking the article. I’d come across it before but hadn’t bothered reading it. Now that I have, I 'm not sure I get what your issue with it is.

Is it a major problem if museums try to show what statues, etc. would actually have looked like?

I mean I know that most of these things were painted but you couldn’t tell from 90% of museum exhibits. Maybe a bit of ‘revolutionary zealotry’ wouldn’t be amiss?


I can think of absolutely no cogent argument against better presentation of color information where it is available(especially now that ‘scan 3d model, apply texture based on reconstructed color; display on computer, VR, or print as situation dictates’ isn’t exactly sci-fi anymore).

I suspect that Team Conservation has some arguments in favor of not getting paint on the originals.

And, honestly, some of the color is pretty garish. You don’t need some sort of ethnic affinity to classical albinos with eerie pupil-less marble eyes to think that some of the classical artists had a better grasp of form than of color(and, aside from mere matters of taste, we’ve all been spoiled by the vast pallette of rather well behaved paint options, a situation not enjoyed by basically anyone prior to fairly contemporary chemistry.) Just ignoring the color data is a waste; but sometimes axing the chroma just saved the situation(ask any photographer!)


This debate seems to have going on for years, quietly. I do think it’s a case of “interesting, but garish.” The article seems to be a little feisty for my taste.

Fair enough.

I thought this was going to involve relationships with multiple partners of varying hues. Or perhaps they would all be bald. Either way, I feel that I have been led on…



Well, I agree with that (and I don’t think anyone was suggesting putting paint back on the originals, just maybe actually telling people that they would have been painted and showing them what they might have looked like).

On the other hand, people regularly “restore” paintings…

That kind of just makes the article’s point in different words. We think of classical art in a particular way, which actually turns out to be rubbish.

All those (by our generally accepted standards of taste) lovely classical statues were probably actually slathered in ‘garish’ (again by our standards) colours.

Why do we think those colours are garish? At least in part because we are conditioned to think of ‘classical’ art as being the height of beauty and taste and to think of ‘classical’ art as being pale marble, etc.

We therefore think of ‘garish’ colours as not being tasteful and think less of art that uses those colours because it doesn’t fit the ‘classical’ tastes. Which turns out to be arrant hypocrisy because all those classical dudes in the togas were living it up in the brightest colours they could get their hands on.

I don’t know whether I agree with the whole ‘and that leads directly to racism, Trump and the End Times’ argument but I can see some merit to it.

Whether one does agree with it or not, I think that by not showing the best representation we can of what we think the objects would actually have looked like, we distort our view of the past.

I guess I don’t really understand why there’s a debate (if there actually is one).

I really appreciate the places that show you the original object (which is of course often itself cobbled together from what a layman would call ‘a few bits of rubble’) along with a representation of some sort (even just a sketch) of what current learning indicates it probably looked like when new (ideally with a series of them so we get to laugh about how the Victorians thought it looked and the beetle-people get to laugh at our equally stupid ideas in their turn).


One could do worse…


I too wonder what your problem is with this article, and also, why you won’t spell it out, aside from a broad charge of “revolutionary zealotry.” You bothered to make a post here that lambasts the article; why not explain what about it in particular gets up your nose so much, and then offer your own rebuttals?

I ask because the whole article makes great sense to me, and I appreciate the link to it. I find this claim, for example, entirely convincing and well supported (and familiar):

Too often today, we fail to acknowledge and confront the incredible amount of racism that has shaped the ideas of scholars we cite in the field of ancient history.

Seems to me that there clearly is a lot of “virulent racism built into the foundation of the Classics field,” and into its current practices (as the author also explains), just as there is in so many other academic disciplines. Why not root out that racism as we keep moving on, hopefully in more honest, better directions?

I also find Sarah Bond’s recommendations far from those of a revolutionary zealot:

I’m not suggesting that we go, with a bucket in hand, and attempt to repaint every white marble statue across the country. However, I believe that tactics such as better museum signage, the presentation of 3D reconstructions alongside originals, and the use of computerized light projections can help produce a contextual framework for understanding classical sculpture as it truly was.


I remember seeing a Time Team “special” (i.e, no real digging) on Dover Castle, The furniture was polychrome. It looked garish-- almost the sort of color scheme we associate with cheap plastic. Perhaps this is why polychrome seems like a poor alternative to staining (and bringing out the “grain” of the wood.(

This has been around for a very long time. Slaveholders defended their practices by pointing out that the Romans had slaves,…

Um, yes, “this” has indeed been around for a very long time. As I just repeated from the article, it’s also built into the very foundations of the Classics field (and many others).

So why do you think (if I’m understanding your continued reticence correctly) that pointing that out more extensively, instead of continuing to valorize whitened, exclusionary aesthetic standards, is a bad idea?


I refer the hon. gentleman to the answer I gave a few moments ago…:slight_smile:[quote=“L0ki, post:8, topic:102767”]
Why do we think those colours are garish? At least in part because we are conditioned to think of ‘classical’ art as being the height of beauty and taste and to think of ‘classical’ art as being pale marble, etc.



Sounds to me like this subject would be an exciting theme for a traveling museum exhibit. I’d go just to have my perceptions of marble statues altered or to see red Mayan temples.

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Consider two mediums.

Monochromatic sculpture–the expressiveness of the work depends on the skill of the artist with a chisel, and to a minor extent, on the quality of her tools
Polychromatic sculpture-- the expressiveness of the work depends on a large part on her ability to secure the appropriate pigments-- some of which may be very expensive. Some of the techniques that admirers associate with monochrome sculpture are obscured by the use of paint. (and I have the feeling that some use of color was intended as an extravagance more than anything else.)

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I wouldn’t describe Washington as grey and colorless. Quite a few buildings are shiny and white. (Of course, such effects are hugely dependent on the weather.)

Polychromatic architecture was once fashionable in Russia.


Sorry, I still don’t get the point you are making.

If you’re saying that an unpainted statue and a painted one are different things and should be judged according to different criteria, no one disputes that.

But what does it have to do with the question of whether when displaying statues and other objects which were in fact originally painted one should provide some indication that they were painted?

I mean I can understand saying that you don’t think much of colours the Ancients liked or had to use (your point about the pigments that were available is a good one) but no one is saying you have to like it.

There are however some people who would like to point out how these things actually looked. That doesn’t mean you can’t create your masterpiece in bare marble or stained wood or whatever you choose.

This isn’t a debate about aesthetics, it’s a debate about the presentation of history.

Like @milliefink, I don’t understand what it is about the article you linked to that caused you to ‘wax wroth’.