There are newcomers among the ancients. The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s exhibition “Chroma: Ancient Sculpture in Color” introduces seventeen reconstructed sculptures into the museum’s halls of Greek and Roman art.1 The exhibition argues for an updated vision of the ancient world, one bright with ochre, orpiment, and Egyptian blue.
The idea behind the show has a long history. A pair of German archaeologists, Vinzenz Brinkmann and Ulrike Koch-Brinkmann, has worked on recreating sculptures from antiquity for four decades and have exhibited them worldwide since 2008. The Brinkmann team collaborates with museums that own sculptures with traces of ancient polychromy to reconstruct them in their original colors. The archaeologists use material analysis to hunt down specks of pigment, filling in the gaps by way of art-historical comparison to similar sculptures. Their methods include such techniques as ultra-violet visible absorption spectroscopy and photomicrography to determine a sculpture’s chromatic composition. (Wall labels opt for the shorthand “scientific analyses” at least nine times.)
The first object in color we see is a marble statue known as the Phrasikleia Kore, which was used by a wealthy Attic family for funerary rites. The original sculpture, permanently housed in the National Archaeological Museum of Athens, is a natural candidate for a polychrome reconstruction. Like many of the objects chosen by the Brinkmanns, evidence that it was painted is still visible to the naked eye. Photographs show faded red paint still tingeing the original after millennia. In the Met’s reconstruction, we see a brown-haired young woman standing stiffly on a white plinth, gripping her red patterned dress in one hand and a lotus bud in the other. Thin, curved eyebrows frame a pair of eyes with blank, black irises. Silver and gold details are the only relief from the lifeless texture of synthetic marble, her peach-colored skin too shiny and all else too matte.
Still, the Met’s exhibition provides visitors plenty of persuasive reasons to buy into the thesis of a polychrome past. One is differential weathering. A label on a faceless marble figure points out a pair of eyes with faint coloring as an example: “‘ghost’ images like this result when painted and unpainted areas of the marble weather differently over millennia.” The placement of the exhibition among the Met’s halls of illustrated Greek urns, beautiful Roman wall paintings, and varicolored glass vases certainly helps the argument of polychromatic antiquity. The Met’s permanent collection also includes several sculptures of its own, similar to the Phrasikleia Kore, on which remnant coloration is still obvious.
One of these is a sphinx finial, a type of ornament that crowned buildings. Its colorful replica served as the exhibition’s most prominent promotional image and is one of the few reconstructions we’re able to scrutinize alongside the original. The reproduction’s face and hair bear a remarkable resemblance to the Phrasikleia Kore’s, with the happy addition of delicately blushed cheeks and brown irises. She wears simple gilded jewelry and a headdress with a curling gold and red protrusion on top. Below her collarbone, a proud torso checkered with red and blue feathers gives way to curving, gilded wings. A blue-tipped tail curls around her ochre leonine haunches. The original sphinx sits nearby, wearing a weathered but obvious checkerboard on its chest.
It is no coincidence that the Met’s collection includes sculptures so ripe for colorful reconstruction—the museum has a history of exploring polychromy in antiquity. The erstwhile director Edward Robinson and curator Gisela M. A. Richter published papers on ancient polychromy in 1892 and 1944, respectively. Richter accompanied hers with illustrated color reconstructions, two-dimensional precursors to “Chroma.” Her sketch of the sphinx finial, reproduced for the exhibition, resembles the Brinkmanns’ reconstruction, red and blue feathers included. Though many expected a political motivation to be apparent in the exhibition’s discussion of color, “Chroma” pleasantly sticks to the art history and the science behind it.
But the Met makes a claim beyond that of polychromy’s ubiquity in the ancient world. Without color, “Chroma” argues, “ancient sculpture loses its original animation and full range of meaning.” For example, on one relief sculpture, a flat background that was “presumably” painted would have added “to the work’s illusionistic effect.” (No polychrome copy evinces this effect.) The reconstructions, however, are on the whole no more illusionistic than their models, and sometimes the all-too-clean artificial marble renders them less so. The exhibition is, in essence, an installation of museum-approved counterfeits, products of research for springboarding imagination about what the ancient world may have looked like. But most of the reconstructions feel brand-new—unweathered and therefore unreal. They serve as components of an art-historical argument, rather than as art per se.
Still, some of the reproductions remain artistically compelling. The Terme Boxer and Terme Ruler form a striking pair of bronze Hellenistic sculptures. The sitting boxer’s eyes plead in pain, and a swollen ear and beads of blood on his face and body hint that we’ve arrived in medias res. The ruler, leaning against a staff, looks down at the boxer in some combination of sympathy, recognition, and disgust. Against the bronze as a de facto underpainting, golds, umber, ruby red, and white closely resemble skin, hair, blood, and cloth. On imitation marble, they might have ended up looking like a skillful paint-by-numbers. One other pair of bronze reconstructions joins the exhibition: the Riace Warriors, which we learn had a “naturalistic effect . . . so strong in ancient times that many visitors to the sanctuaries” in which they were housed “believed them to be alive.”
One intriguing caveat hides in “Chroma”: the colors of some sculptures may have been contingent. “Widely replicated” pieces, like the Artemis from Pompeii, have been found by archaeologists painted in different sets of colors. The exhibition speculates that painters or patrons made their own color choices for popular subjects, casting doubt upon its assertion that colors necessarily made meaning in ancient sculpture. Does the significance of the Artemis sculpture, here adorned with cheery pink, blue, and orange, change if a wealthy patron wanted a copy to match their sculpture collection of brown, green, and gold?
Such a question reminds me of what we post-ancients have loved about ancient sculpture. Its sensitivity to three-dimensional form gets at the essence of sculpture as an art; to the unaccustomed eye of the present, color appears to be a mere distraction. The varying colorways of Artemis suggest that—maybe—the ancient world saw color as superficial to some sculptures, too.
The research of “Chroma” is convincing, well explained, and shown to be more than academic fashion by its centuries of advocates, yet there is nothing to match the original hand of the sculptor or time-pocked marble. Still, the reconstructions prove adequate proponents of the Brinkmanns’ thesis that the ancient world was not austere and monochromatic, but full of life, play, and color. Well, there’s plenty of evidence for that.