Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Origin of Painted Ornament

Ornament drawing by Guillaume Abel Blouet

Was Greek sculpture painted? If so, what did it look like? It's a question that has had scholars debating for a very long time. Guillaume Abel Blouet was first to start the fire-storm (in the 1820s) by suggesting that Greek statuary had once been brightly colored. In his L’Expédition Scientifique de Morée he published reconstructions of major Greek and Byzantine monuments, demonstrating his theory by painting them in colorful hues.

"This touched off a controversy as to whether classical works were poly-chromed, an assumption counter to Winckelmann and other earlier classical historians." source

Blouet published several volumes of gorgeous drawings from his trips to Rome, including these few examples of painted ornament from 1823. I posted over 140 of his drawings from the Roman volume here, on my Flickr page. They are fantastic reference material for murals too, by the way.

From "Ensemble de Dessins de Rome et Ses Environs" by Blouet, 1823
Winckelmann was considered the father of art history, and anything he said on the subject was considered gospel. Here comes Blouet and over-turns our whole notion of what we consider 'Classical'. [The controversy must have been short-lived, however, as Blouet was appointed architect for the completion of the Arc de Triomphe, in Paris in 1836].

What's interesting to me is that his theories, though grudgingly accepted, were quickly swept under the rug. Nobody ran out with brushes to slap a coat of paint on all the monuments of Paris. We have been conditioned to prefer the bleached and faded statues as they stand in our Museums. "Centuries of burial or neglect had bleached the marbles, and greened the bronzes, beyond their makers' recognition. But it was those altered colors that became the model for how the ancient world had looked, and for what all new sculpture ought to look like." source

Or, as Gurewitsch writes: "Though we seldom think about it, such fragments are overwhelmingly abstract, thus, quintessentially "modern." And for most of us, that's not a problem. We're modern too. We like our antiquities that way."

Athena, colored according to research by Brinkmann
We now know that Blouet was correct: the Greeks did in fact paint their statuary with high chroma colors of great variety. 

The Smithsonian describes the above pictured re-construction of the statue of Athena, showing the color palette of the ancient Greeks as determined by archaeologist Vinzenz Brinkmann. Brinkmann has been painstakingly researching for the last 25 years

"The partial color reconstruction of Athena is based on a c.490 B.C. sculpture of the Goddess from the pediment of the Temple of Aphaia on the Greek island of Aegina. Vinzenz Brinkmann typically leaves areas white where no evidence of original coloration is found. This rear view of the statue emphasizes the elaborate detailing of Athena’s aegis, or cape, trimmed with the life-like bodies of partially uncoiled green snakes."

Brinkmann himself has struggled somewhat with the gaudy palette. "If people say, ‘What kitsch,’ it annoys me but I’m not surprised,” he says. 

What pigments did they use exactly? Hard to say. "Even after extensive visual and scientific analysis of the original sculptures, scholars still don't know if the paint was applied in one or two coats, how finely the pigments were ground, or exactly which binding medium would have been used in each case--all elements that would affect the appearance of a finished piece. Generally, though, the color reconstructions in the exhibition "truly look closer to ancient sculpture than just the plain white marble"."

The Alexander Sarcophagus as it originally appeared


  1. Alan, the intrepid scholar-aesthete, strikes again!


    Your the Indiana Jones of Ornament.

  2. I think they were more sensitively painted than these examples, if looking at Egyptian work is any example

    Another great post, Alan, thanks

  3. Good point Lynne;

    I didn't mean to suggest that the Greeks were the first to paint their ornament, as you pointed out: the Egyptians had beaten them to it by a long shot. [side note: I want to do a post on the Fayum portraits, which are stunning examples of the abilities of those ancient Egyptian painters you mention].

    As to whether the colors of the samples above reflect the way they were seen on Greek monuments, I don't know. They look kind of 'plastic' to my eye too, but I'd have to defer to the experts on that one.

  4. Alan- I am grateful for your quest for knowledge and willingness to share it!

    Surface Fragments is one of my favorite places to visit.

  5. Wow, surprisingly I never knew this.I have been reading your blog a lot over the past few days and it has earned a place in my bookmarks.Thanks for sharing with us.

  6. crazy good art. Thanks for sharing..