Gods in Color: Polychromy in the Ancient World

October 28, 2017January 7, 2018

Gods in Color: Polychromy in the Ancient World will offer an astonishing look at Classical sculpture swathed in their original vibrant colors questioning the perception of an all-white "classical" ideal. Ancient sculpture and architecture from Greece and Rome will be revealed as intended—garishly colorful, richly ornamented, and full of life—along with original sculpture from the Near East, Egypt, Greece, and Rome against the backdrop of the Legion of Honor's neoclassical building.

To find out more about the exhibition, explore this digital offering from our friends at the the Liebieghaus in Frankfurt.

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Purchase a dual exhibition ticket and see KLIMT & RODIN in addition to Gods in Color at a discounted price.

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In Depth

Reconstruction B of the Peplos Kore, 2005. Original: Greek, Athens, ca. 530 BC; New Acropolis Museum, Athens. Reconstruction: plaster cast with natural pigments in egg tempera, 53 1/2 in. (136 cm) height. Liebieghaus Sculpture Collection (Polychromy Research Project), Frankfurt

Renaissance artists who emulated rediscovered antiquities established white marble sculpture as the ideal artform. Examples from the Museums’ collection by Benvenuto Cellini, Antonio Canova, and Aristide Maillol will reveal how white marble and monochrome metals in classical art and architecture continued to be greatly admired into the Renaissance and neoclassical period. In the 18th century, ancient Greek sculpture was regarded as the ultimate expression of what the influential German art historian Johann Joachim Winckelmann called “noble simplicity and quiet grandeur.”

The idealization of classical art continued into the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when Greek and Roman sculpture were considered essential to museum collections. When real antiquities were not available, plaster casts were created and became highly valued copies that fascinated visitors and served as cornerstones of the curricula for the teaching of art, architecture, and the history of art. Casts of antique sculptures given to the de Young by the Greek government after the close of both the California Midwinter International Exposition of 1894 and the Panama-Pacific International Exposition of 1915 will also be on view and confirm the prevelance of these reproductions.

The earliest antiquities in the exhibition are Cycladic figures in FAMSF’s collections, which date back to the third millennium BC. When first discovered in the early 20th century, these highly stylized marble statuettes, by then pristine and gleaming, were a source of inspiration for artists such as Constantin Brancusi, Pablo Picasso, and Hans Arp, who found the streamlined forms emotionally stirring. By using raking light and other techniques on the Cycladic figures, details such as shallow reliefs, raised lines, and paint ghosts have been revealed, which indicate where blue paint was originally used for eyes and hair.

The next period represented in the exhibition will be the art of Archaic Greece (600–480 BC), when marble and limestone were the main materials used for sculpture and architecture. The carefully reproduced examples of temple architecture and funerary monuments will reveal how the ancient Greeks richly embellished their sculptures with colorful painting, gilding, silvering, and inlay. A number of statues from the Athenian Acropolis are represented through colorfully painted casts—including two interpretations of the “Peplos Kore” (ca. 520 BC).

The riot of color will continue with reproductions of ancient works including a full-scale reproduction of a portion of the west pediment of the Temple of Aphaia (ca. 480 BC) in its original polychromy from the Greek island of Aegina. The architectural elements and sculpture will be joined by amazing reproductions of the bronze warriors from Riace (ca. 460 BC), two life-size bronze male nudes. Although the originals were found underwater, chemical analyses have been able to identify numerous preserved elements of bronze polychromy: lips, eyelashes, and nipples of pure red copper, teeth of silver, and eyes of a variety of colored stones.

The strikingly beautiful "Alexander Sarcophagus" (ca. 320 BC), discovered in 1887 with much of its polychromy still intact, reveals the bright colors used in the Hellenistic Period. The color reproduction, which was painted with the pigments found on the original, will offer a surprising illustration of the use of color on marble relief sculpture.

The survey will then turn to Rome and portraiture by artists who also used a wide range of pigments and surface applications to embellish their marble sculptures. Numerous traces of color were found on an original marble portrait of Caligula from the early Roman Imperial Period (AD 37–41), in the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek Copenhagen, a reproduction of which will be on display. The emperor’s face was carefully painted with flesh tones applied in multiple layers, creating an authentic, lifelike image.

The sculptures, both ancient and reproduced, will be complemented by early-19th century watercolors of Greek landscapes by English antiquarian Edward Dodwell and Italian artist Simone Pomardi. These breathtaking images, selected from the vast archive of the Packard Humanities Institute, bring to life classical monuments, some of which still retained their original color when these depictions were created. Quotes from Dodwell describe his travels to Greece in 1800 and 1805 when he observed traces of color on these ancient structures.

Also included will be a collection of Egyptian antiquities illustrating a range of painted colors, which are still visible on the sculptures, and a magnificent Egypto-Roman painted linen burial shroud. The exhibition also examines the art of the Near East, highlighted by antiquities from FAMSF’s collection, including an Assyrian wall relief from the Palace of Ashurnasirpal II in Nimrud (883–859 BC) and an Achaemenid Persian relief from Persepolis (ca. 490–470 BC). Both were originally painted in bright colors.

The exhibition will conclude with a description of the sources of pigments used and how they were applied. Most of these pigments were of mineral origin, such as red and yellow ocher, bright red cinnabar, azurite, and malachite, but also synthetic such as Egyptian blue, a material made from a mixture of silica, lime, copper, and alkali. White pigment was derived from lead or lime, and black from carbonized bone or other materials. The scientific investigations that uncovered the ancients’ love of color will also be explored.

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This exhibition is organized by the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco in collaboration with the Liebieghaus Sculpture Collection, Frankfurt.

Presenting Sponsor: Lois E. Kalb 1986 Revocable Intervivos Trust; Barbro and Bernard Osher; Diane B. Wilsey. Curator's Circle: Packard Humanities Institute; Lisa Sardegna and David A. Carrillo. Additional support is provided by Bernard and Jane von Bothmer in honor of Dr. Dietrich von Bothmer.