Exposing classical art’s true colors

Special to The Times

Contrary to popular belief, the sculpture of the ancient world was intensely colorful, with statues, friezes and decorative objects regularly covered in brilliant pigments intended to enhance their lifelike qualities.

But as curator Roberta Panzanelli explains in the fascinating catalog for “The Color of Life: Polychromy in Sculpture From Antiquity to the Present,” now at the Getty Villa, it was the Renaissance and the Neoclassical era -- the two major periods of classical revival -- that shaped our understanding of ancient sculpture, and neither was particularly disposed to color.

In the Renaissance, ideological rivalries between painters and sculptors compelled each camp to define itself in opposition to the other, leading sculptors to eschew pigment in favor of pure form. “The sculptor needs only consider body, figure, position, motion, rest,” Leonardo da Vinci wrote, and “need not consider color.”

The Neoclassicists, for their part, driven by a Platonic aversion to the visceral, found the immediacy and realism of color in poor taste. From the middle of the 18th century until far into the 19th, Panzanelli observes, “color itself seemed the opponent of pure art.”


What’s more, by the time most ancient sculptures resurfaced in the Renaissance, any pigment they might have borne had generally faded, worn away or been washed off. In the absence of today’s high-tech methods of analysis, it was easy to presume that that was how they had always been.

The ubiquity of classical polychromy was thus overlooked for centuries, until mounting evidence and a flurry of scholarship forced the issue to light in the 1800s. Yet the disregard persisted. Even in recent decades, several of the catalog’s essayists suggest, scholars have tended simply to look the other way -- with, as Panzanelli puts it, “bewildering scholarly results.”

Clearly, polychromy has not been an easy sell. But with this show, Panzanelli and her fellow curators, Eike Schmidt and Kenneth Lapatin, make a valiant -- and persuasive -- case for it, combining scholarship and accessibility in typical Getty fashion.

The show is not as large as you might expect, given the time span. (The earliest piece -- a portrait of an Egyptian official and his family -- dates to the 3rd century BC; the most recent is a 2002 Stephan Balkenhol sculpture.) The selection is so conscientious, however, and the objects so exquisite, that one hardly notices.


The first gallery contains the ancient works, displayed alongside a number of painted reconstructions illustrating what scholars today believe their original state was. It’s a startling juxtaposition and one that few viewers are likely to consider an improvement -- part of the reason, no doubt, that the idea is such a hard sell.

The colors are bright, flat and slightly garish -- more suited to a child’s playroom, it would seem, than the hallowed quarters of a fine art museum. There is a romance to the notion of antiquities as chipped, faded, time-worn objects -- mysterious objects -- that is difficult to let go of, whatever the facts. (And no one, for the record, is suggesting that the objects be returned to their original state, even if scholars could agree on what that would be. The intention is more historical than aesthetic.)

That said, the colors the original objects retain are thrilling enough to make one muse about a career as an archaeologist or conservator: vivid smudges of blue tangled in the corkscrew curls of a 4th century BC terra cotta head; gold gleaming on the face of Mithras in a 3rd century AD relief; faint black eyelashes circling the ghost of a pupil on a bust of Caligula.

The remaining galleries are devoted to the next two millenniums and present a rich sampling of polychromatic tendencies in nearly every traditional material. Most are quite beautiful, a few quite strange.


The strangest, without a doubt, is an 18th century wax figure known as the “Anatomical Venus”: a comely young woman, life-sized and nude, lying prostrate on a pink silk cushion in what looks to be a state of sensual rapture, her torso flayed and all her glistening organs -- including a womb containing a tiny fetus -- revealed. Her long brown hair is real, her eyes are open and unfocused, and the cloth of her pillow is crumpled -- she might as well be writhing. The product of one sculptor’s clearly intimate experience with cadavers, she suggests an Enlightenment-era St. Teresa ravished by communion with the invisible forces of science.

Among the other highlights are several touchingly human 16th and 17th century painted wood busts; a pair of small, nude, painted wood figures attributed, rather surprisingly, to the painter El Greco; a lovely Venetian Madonna and Child carved from a quartz-like stone called chalcedony; a charming, Martinique-era bronze bust by Paul Gauguin; and -- especially spectacular -- a pair of female busts by 19th century French sculptor Charles-Henri-Joseph Cordier that achieve their dramatic tonal varieties through an intricate interplay of bronze, marble, inlay and stones.

The show’s creepy finale -- Duane Hanson’s hyper-realistic “Old Couple on a Bench” -- may be the embodiment of everything polychromy’s detractors throughout history have feared: color that transforms bronze into what looks like genuine, meat-and-potatoes-fed Middle American flesh. It makes the already uncanny presence of the sculpted body just a little too real.



‘The Color of Life’

Where: Getty Villa, 17985 Pacific Coast Highway, Pacific Palisades

When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursday through Monday

Ends: June 23


Price: Free, but reservations are required and parking is $8, cash only

Contact: (310) 440-7300 or