How we fell for the lie of whiteness in classical sculpture

Written by Tom | 24th June 2020 | Updated 14 June 2023

Grand statues of ancient figures, chiseled from marble into elegant, shapely perfection, has long been the image we associate with classical sculpture. These statues are also usually white, but history—at least the one we’ve gradually begun to uncover—tells us that ancient marble statues once radiated colour. Ancient art and archaeology expert, Peter Reynaers, sat down with us to explain how nature and prejudice have white-washed classical sculpture.

Back when Pompeii still stood, there was a paint shop said to be home to 29 colour pigments. The eruption of Mt. Vesuvius ultimately destroyed this shop, but Pliny the Elder’s surviving book Natural History stands as a record of its existence and the presence of polychromatic art in Ancient Rome. “The ancients liked colour, and not only on statues”, Peter enthuses. “In our time, nothing much is to be seen of those colours. But modern technology has enabled us to see the residual paint on statues and temples, and prove that in ancient times, everything was actually brightly coloured”. 

Life in technicolour

In ancient Greece and Rome, colours were formed from mineral extracts mixed with beeswax or egg yolk, and marble statues were painted in vivid primary shades – far from the austere palette we have long associated with ancient art. Certain 1st Century C.E frescoes portrayed bronzed warriors sporting colourful attire and historians have discovered that the Greeks actually disliked colourless sculptures, deeming them ugly. 

Sculptures, like of Aphrodite pictured, would have been coloured to fully represent deities as living beings

While there were aesthetic reasons for the use of colour, it was the spiritual ones that took on greater weight, says Peter. “It meant a great deal to the ancients that the statues were coloured, as a statue of a god or goddess was the "container" on earth for the spirit of that divine being, so it had to represent them faithfully as living beings”. The colour of these sculptures was often so evocative that they elicited a number of varying responses from those that came across them.

“Take the statue of the Aphrodite (Venus) of Knidos made by Praxiteles. He had the statue polychromed by a famous painter that invented a new technique to bring the statue "alive". It was so beautiful and lifelike that it aroused men sexually, as evidenced by the tradition of young men breaking into the temple at night and attempting to copulate with the statue”. So when did everything become so white?

A natural mistake

One of the major forces that drove the erasure of colour was time itself. “Many statues were archaeological finds. After remaining so long underground, as well as being subject to processes like oxidation, the paint on their surfaces was wiped off completely”, explains Peter. “Consequently, these statues were found without their colours and many artists who sought to emulate the style of ancient art, copied this. It began in the Renaissance period and from the 16th century onwards, the consensus grew amongst collectors that the statues were meant to be colourless. Even in museums, small specks of paint were cleaned off because curators believed it to be ‘dirt’ and not paint residue that was left on the marble”.

Compare the two statues of Augustus Prima Porta – a full-length recreation of Augustus Caesar, the first emperor of the Roman Empire

When Renaissance art emerged, it also began to rewrite the very notion of artistic refinement. The colourful art of the Middle Ages was seen as unworthy and unintellectual, while whiteness was conversely considered to be the gauge of high-quality art and intellectualism. Even esteemed and established artists like Leonardo da Vinci were against the use of colour on sculptures, believing that sculpture should centre on the craftsmanship of chiselling and perfecting human form (part of a wider debate known as paragone).

Power and prejudice

This, however, is where a more malevolent force came into play. Fast forward to the 18th century and the ‘classical ideal’ was synonymous with whiteness. Art has always been victim to subjectivity and influence and the 1700s saw the publication of a book that would continue to perpetuate the myth of whiteness, with a heavy dose of biological racism mixed in. 

Johann Joachim Winckelmann was a well-known German art historian and in 1764, he published his now seminal work in European literature, History of Ancient Art. It was within this text that Winckelmann not only ignored evidence of coloured sculptures, but outright rejected it. He states that “colour contributes to beauty, but it is not beauty” alongside the suggestion that “the whiter the body is, the more beautiful it is”. 

Winckelmann deemed whiteness the measure of beauty and ignored evidence that ancient art was actually coloured in the first place

Therein began one of classical art’s more insidious narratives. Sculpture often represents the human form and colour came to be seen as reductive and frivolous. When Hitler adopted classical sculpture as the purest and most acceptable form of art, this further confirmed just how problematic the erasure of colour in sculpture had become. The lack of colour was no longer just a case of time weathering away at art – it had become a conscious attempt to prove that it never existed. 

Recolouring the ancient world

While these views lingered on into the 20th century, the truth has since been unearthed. Though figures like Hitler, and arguably Winckelmann, weaponised classical sculpture in their arsenal of biological racism, scholars agree that the ancients weren’t concerned with this, at least not in comparison to today’s society. In fact, the Romans were said to be deeply interested in people of colour (specifically ancient Ethiopians) and sculptors of the time did attempt to represent different skin tones. 

Modern technology, such as 3D printing, is allowing the ancient world to be recoloured. And this is important for historical accuracy on a number of levels. While much of history is about understanding how people of a time lived, classical sculpture offers an insight into seeing exactly who lived there. The pervasiveness of white statuary is problematic because it lays false premises around what the ancients considered beautiful and encourages beliefs that the ideal to which beauty should be compared is always whiteness. 

The Treu Head from Second Century C.E. was found in the 1880s with a number of colour traces

As Sarah Bond points out in her article ‘Whitewashing Ancient Statues: Whiteness, Racism And Color In The Ancient World’, museums' continual showcasing of unpainted sculptures skews people’s impressions of ancient culture. Of course, so much of art from the Renaissance onwards was white, but it’s important to represent once coloured sculptures in their full technicoloured form. Otherwise, we're in danger of only seeing colour and people of colour in ancient ceramics and tribal art – which often unwittingly entrenches deeply held views of barbarism and misrepresents large groups of people. 

The Mediterranean region and its people were a tapestry of colour. Ancient art, ultimately, should be the same. 


Scour our collection of classical art and sculpture, and help colour in the world. Or register as a seller if you have some treasures to share. 

Discover more Classical art | Sculpture | Archaeological Finds & Remains Archaeology & Natural History

You might also like:

What is classical art? 

Why Egyptology is still as popular as ever

The Buddha that's become a non-binary idol

Create your free account
At Catawiki, you’ll be surprised every week with the impressive selection of special objects we have on offer. Create your free account today and explore our weekly auctions curated by our team of experts.
Share this article
Close Created with Sketch.
Not registered yet?
By creating your free Catawiki account, you’ll be able to bid on any of our 75,000 special objects up for auction every week.
Register now