Classics in Color

A Video Essay by Sabra Dye

View Sabra’s video below.

Read a transcript of Sabra’s video below:

What do you think of when you imagine statues from ancient Greece and Rome, also known as the classical era? Most people imagine an incredibly lifelike, polished, gleaming white figure. Whether it be displayed in a movie, video game, or museum, we have come to recognize the iconic style of classical art. However, this is a very inaccurate portrayal of what statues made in ancient Greece and Rome actually looked like. The white marble we see in classical statues wasn’t the finished product; it was simply the canvas. Yep, classical art was originally painted with bright colors and beautiful designs. Surprised? Most people are, despite over three hundred years of evidence that supports this theory. We’re going to unpack the history, the racism, and the future of monochrome classical art to understand art history’s best-kept secret.

The white marble aesthetic of classical art was born out of the renaissance period when classical art was first becoming known. The statues were originally painted, but their paint wore off and their pigment became hidden under hundreds of years worth of dirt and calcite. While visiting the Acropolis in Athens in the 1880s, American art critic Russel Sturgis described what was happening to the statues shortly after they were  dug up: “the color of all these soon began to fall and vanish. The beautiful statue first described lay on a table in the museum on the Acropolis in May 1883, and already some of its colors had been shaken off; for as it lay it was surrounded by a little deposit of green, red and black powder which had fallen from it.”

Alright, so what’s the problem? Over 100 years ago, people said that the paint simply fell off due to the statues being so old, so why don’t we know about it? Well, remember how classical art started to get discovered in the renaissance? People quickly became amazed by the statues’ incredible realism but lack of color. Soon, artists began to copy that style and placed emphasis on form, rather than color, in order to pay homage to classical art. Over time, this style of art wasseen as an “elite” Western form of art. Soon, scholars were promoting the idea that there was a connection between whiteness and humanism, civilization progress, and moral purity. Johan Winckelmann, often considered the father of art history, made his racist remarks on classical art saying, “The whiter the body is, the more beautiful it is.” In an exhibition of Pompeii, Winckelmann actually discovered a polychrome statue of Artemis that had been preserved in the ash. However, he continued to dismiss the statue’s origins and claimed that it was not Greek but rather Etruscan, a civilization in Italy that thrived centuries before the founding of Rome. The refusal of polychrome in classical art within the art history community only grew with Johann Wolfgang von Gothe, a renowned classical poet, who stated “savage nations, uneducated people, and children have a great predilection for vivid colors” and “people of refinement avoid vivid colors in their dress and the objects that are about them.” Throughout the 1900s, multiple excavations showed again and again that there was color viable to the naked eye on classical statues. However, the stance remained the same in the face of countless pieces of evidence showing that classical art was originally polychrome. Historians and collectors went so far as to continuously scrub and bleach classical art to maintain the aesthetic of whiteness, including the Parthenon marbles in the British Museum, which were permanently damaged by this process in the 1930s.

It is no coincidence that classical art continues to be inaccurately presented. Through the centuries, classical art has been used to spread white-centric ideas and is continuously used to spread alt-right propaganda. The Apollo of the Belvedere, in particular, became a tool to justify racist practices. The proportions of the statue were measured and used to create the cephalic index, which ranked and categorized people based on the width and length of their features. However, as anthropologists continued to measure people, they quickly found little merit to this theory and would then actively mismeasure people and simply state their racist prejudice as fact. This practice not only led to a false idea of whiteness within the classical world, but also led to racist rhetoric used to dehumanize BIPOC. The obsession with whiteness in classical statues has led to multiple links between classical art and white supremacy. During the founding of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Ralph Cram, a founder of the museum, argued while discussing what should count as classical art: “ forget the archaeology of Babylonia, Crete, and Egypt. Realize that the great sequence is from Greece to Rome.”

America has always aligned itself closely with ancient Greece and has projected whiteness onto classical art to maintain a false idea of race in Western civilization. This alignment with ancient Greece has been used over and over as a pathetic attempt to justify oppression in American society, including slavery. After the civil war, there was a rise in neo-classical statues to commemorate Confederate generals. The purpose of using the neo-classical style was to create another connection between America and ancient Greece, which has constantly been presented as a homogenous society. It’s not just America that clings to the classical era; Western Europe is also seen aligning itself with the idea of power and racial homogeny. In fact, the BBC recently looked at how ancient Greece was used in Nazi Germany and said, “Without the classical tradition, the Nazi visual ideology would have been rather different. “The perfect Aryan body, the white color [of the marble], the beautiful, ideal white male: to put it very bluntly, it became a kind of image of the Herrenrasse or ‘master race’—that’s what the Nazis called themselves and the Germans.” And we still see classical art being used to justify racism. Take Identity Evropa, an American white supremacist group, that consistently uses classical art to align themselves with ancient Greece and promote neo-nazi propaganda. While not all consequences are as prevalent as fascist movements, there are still racist consequences to inaccurately presenting classical statues. For instance, the lack of color in statues heavily contributes to the idea that ancient Greece and Rome were racially homogeneous societies, despite the fact that these societies ranged from Northern Africa to the Mediterranean. In all likelihood, many of the people depicted in these classical statues were not white. Yet, there is still a practice of gatekeeping the classics field. A A study in 2018 found that 98% of the scholars within the classics field are white. By continuing to present classical statues out of context, we are actively pushing an inaccurate and highly racist narrative.

The best way for people to start understanding classical statues is to see them as they were intended to be seen. Using technology, scholars have been able to determine the color of surviving microscopic pigments left on the statues. They have then been able to use design programs to retroactively create what they believe to be an accurate copy of the polychrome statue. A fascinating example of this is the Temple of Augustian Peace, located in Italy. There, they programmed 3D goggles to show the temple in the original color. This proved to be a massive success and caused no harm to the priceless artifacts. Now, is it realistic that every museum hires multiple designers and programmers to create exhibits such as this? No. But there are definitely some big-name museums, such as The Museum of Fine Arts, that definitely have the resources to do this. Smaller museums could simply use 3D printers to create smaller versions of the statues in their original colors, as well as host events that bring speakers in to educate the community. The Metropolitan Museum of Art actually has an exhibit where you can see copies of painted status mixed with the original statues. While this is a great exhibit, it’s only running in the Met from July 5, 2022, to March 26, 2023— after those nine months the Met will be right back where it started. These exhibits need to be permanent installments for the public to learn from, instead of simply money makers.

Now, will seeing classical art in color fix all of the racism that surrounds classical art and is intertwined with the field as a whole? No, it is simply a proposed step to help start the process of dismantling racism in classical art. It gives people the context needed to lead greater discussions about the interaction between art and race, particularly in terms of how color, or the lack thereof, affects our interpretations of art, and who has power over what is presented and why it matters.

The accurate presentation of classical art truly benefits so many people outside of the art history world;everyone should be part of the conversation, not just classical scholars and curators. One of the best ways to get involved is by contacting your local museums with questions, concerns, or ideas on how they can better present their classical art. A good museum is there to educate the public, so if we put pressure on them, they’ll have to start listening. If you are interested in learning more about polychrome in classical art, I would highly recommend visiting the Gods in Color exhibit online. There, you can go into an even deeper dive into the history of classical art and see the process of identifying and repainting the pigment in these statues.

Author Interview – Sabra Dye

Q: Please introduce yourself: What is your preferred name, pronouns, and major(s)/minor(s)? 

A: Hi, I’m Sabra Dye, and I use she/her pronouns. I am double majoring in Professional Writing and Rhetoric and Classical Studies with a minor in Museum Studies.

Q: What inspired you to write about classics in color?

A: In the fall of my freshman year, I took an Intro to Museums and Public Culture class where we briefly discussed how classical art used to be colorful, which surprised me because I had only seen classical art that consisted of white marble statues. Throughout the year, I would mention that fact to friends and family, who were all surprised to learn that classical art used to be painted brightly. In the spring, I took ENG1100 where we had to pick a topic to base our final project around. I immediately knew I wanted to dive deeper into the history of polychrome in classical art because I thought the topic was super interesting.

Q: What would you like Phoenix Rhetorix readers to remember about your piece after watching it?

A: I would like readers to remember that our perceptions of history are rather dependent on systems that have benefited from oppressing cultures and nations that are not predominantly white. While an inaccurate perception of the classical era may not seem particularly harmful, it is still used as a weapon to dehumanize and terrorize people of color today. We only benefit from history if we are willing to learn the consequences of our failings.

Q: How do you see your piece contributing to Elon’s ongoing conversations regarding diversity, equity, and inclusion?

A: This piece contributes to Elon’s ongoing DEI conversations because it explores the failures of classical studies in terms of diversity. The gatekeeping of classical studies has led to the exclusion of countless voices and this video essay suggests a step that we can take to create a more inclusive field of study.

Q: What writing and/or research skills did you develop in completing this piece?

A: In developing this piece,  I learned the importance of organizing research. I would go down interesting rabbit holes without keeping track of what articles I was reading, which made finding quotes and recalling information extremely frustrating. Conducting hours of research became much easier once I created a system where I could track where I was getting each piece of information.

Q:What advice would you give to students who are currently enrolled in ENG 1100, might want to complete a similar project, or are interested in publishing in Phoenix Rhetorix?

A: I would advise students to take the time to find a topic that really excites them. If you find yourself talking your friends’ and families’ ears off about your topic, you’re doing it right.

ENG1100 Faculty Interview – Mason Hayes

A: ​I think what was immediately striking to me was Sabra’s investment in the topic. I hope all of my students write and research topics they truly care about, and Sabra’s motivation was apparent early on in her writing for this assignment. The topic itself resonated very deeply with me and my other students.. Classical art is embedded into many of our experiences in the US educational system, and so learning about the influences of white supremacy that worked to conceal the true nature of classical sculpture was impactful.

Q: How did this piece evolve as Sabra completed this course assignment?

A: Classics In Color is the culmination of a project my English 1100 students spent most of the semester working on, so I had the opportunity to watch the project begin as an annotated bibliography and a short literature review. All of the research, from scholarly and mainstream sources, was compiled before students even chose the medium they wanted to use to get their research out there. Sabra’s final iteration of Classics in Color, a video essay, stood out as a great example of adapting to the expectations of genre and medium.

Q: Did Sabra face any particular challenges with this assignment? If so, how did you help them navigate those challenges, and/or how did they work to overcome them?

A: Sabra’s work on Classics In Color was independent, though we did work together when Sabra was coming up with the topic idea. Even in its final iteration, Classics In Color tackles an issue with a broad scope and plenty of roots in academic disciplines like art history and classics– which can be somewhat obscure to outsiders. In the end, though, I think Sabra dealt with this by paying attention to the video essay genre, and how writers use that form to communicate complex topics with clear, accessible language.

Q: What was the most rewarding part of working with Sabra on this project?

A: We spend a lot of time in ENG 1100 talking about genre and media and observing ways that various forms of writing and writing tools can work to reach different audiences. Near the end of the semester, this involves us looking at podcasts and video essays to see how genres working outside of purely textual writing can accomplish the same things (or more) than written academic genres. Seeing Sabra’s use of the video essay genre was really, really cool. Furthermore, it serves as an awesome example that writing in ENG 1100 isn’t just for fulfilling requirements for grades– students can write and produce real, impactful work during the course.

Q: What advice would you give to students who are currently enrolled in ENG 1100, might want to complete a similar project, or are interested in publishing in Phoenix Rhetorix?

A: ​Know that your personal interests matter! Regardless of your passions, the issues specific to your interests and identity can be the most rewarding subjects for writing and research in classes like ENG 1100. Take risks and use your research to confront the issues that impact you.