A Spitting Image

Like Life: Sculpture, Color, and the Body (1300–Now)

an exhibition at the Met Breuer, New York City, March 21–July 22, 2018
Catalog of the exhibition by Luke Syson, Sheena Wagstaff, Emerson Bowyer, Brinda Kumar, and others
Metropolitan Museum of Art, 300 pp., $65.00 (distributed by Yale University Press)
Metropolitan Museum of Art
Tip Toland: The Whistlers, 2005

In 1868 the Dutch-born English painter Lawrence Alma-Tadema completed his Phidias and the Frieze of the Parthenon, Athens, in which he imagined a sort of varnishing day at the Acropolis. The good citizens of Athens, husbands and wives, have turned out for the occasion, climbed the somewhat rickety-looking wooden scaffolding, and are now admiring the work later known, in its ruined state, as the Elgin Marbles.

Phidias himself stands with a quiet pride in front of his roped-off frieze, which—this is the talking point of the painting—has been cheerfully colored in: the flesh parts of the figures in the reliefs are shown as a rich earthy red, their hair is black, the background a grayish blue. Cloaks and tunics and some of the horses are white, but the total effect is one of a bold polychromy—set off by ornamental borders richly gilded and a painted beamed ceiling that would not have looked out of place in Alma-Tadema’s own beautiful London home—or indeed in one of the “artistic houses” of New York, where stencils and ornament and rich colors enjoyed their vogue in the 1890s, and where a frieze for the parlor or any other grand room might be conjured up on the basis of the Parthenon marbles, the Bayeux Tapestry, or a collage of Japanese woodblock prints. It is not, however, the coloring of Phidias’s work that immediately strikes us as anachronistic. It is the vision of husbands and wives on seemingly equal terms attending a cultural event, rather as, in Alma-Tadema’s day, patrons and the public began making Sunday visits to artists’ studios in places like St. John’s Wood.

Nevertheless, the thickly colored Phidian frieze is a puzzle. If this is indeed what Greek polychromed marble looked like, one wonders what on earth was the point of seeking out the purest white marble from Paros, which, according to Pliny, was not so much quarried as mined by lamplight (a dreadful task, surely) to be transported across the sea in specially constructed ships. Why did the famous sculptors of the period ignore other colored or veined marbles (which might perhaps have taken paint just as well)? And why does Pliny, who was familiar with Greek statuary, much of which had been looted and brought to Rome, make no reference to its having been painted?

Among the first scholars to suggest that the Greeks had colored their statues was Quatremère de Quincy in 1814. He thought that the ancients “separated much less in their works than one imagines the pleasure of the eyes from that of the spirit; that is to say that richness, variety and beauty of materials…were for them more intimately linked than one thinks to intrinsic beauty.” Variety here stands in opposition to purity of color and form. Advocates of polychromy in sculpture brought the same…

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