Gods in Color: Polychromy in the Ancient World

Saturday, October 28, 2017 - Sunday, January 7, 2018
Legion of Honor: Rosekrans Court | Galleries B‒F

The art of ancient cultures was often painted to dazzling and powerful effect. Polychromy—the painting of objects in a variety of colors—was a regular feature of sculpture in Egypt, Mesopotamia, the Aegean, Greece, and Rome. When antiquities were rediscovered after prolonged exposure to the elements or centuries of burial, their colored surfaces had often faded to invisibility. As a result, later sculptors such as Michelangelo who were inspired by Greek and Roman sculpture left their own marble and bronze surfaces unadorned, perpetuating this inaccurate classical ideal. Gods in Color emphasizes how ancient sculpture is incomplete without color. White or monochrome sculpture would have been as strange to the ancients as the color reconstructions might seem to us.

Modern scientific methods have revealed new evidence for painted surfaces on classical sculpture and allowed us to determine what pigments were used. This exhibition and its catalogue present reconstructions of well-known sculptural works dating from Bronze Age Greece to Imperial Rome, reinstating these bright colors to familiar works and uncovering the spirit of classical civilizations as never before. Also on view is a selection of antiquities from Egypt and the Near East that allows us to investigate the use of polychromy in these ancient cultures.

Examples of colorful sculpture in this survey include Cycladic figures of the third millennium BC, reconstructed examples of Archaic-period Greek marble and bronze sculptures, and marble portraiture by Roman artists. A number of statues from the Athenian Akropolis are represented through colorfully painted casts, including several examples of the “Peplos Kore,” each with a different chromatic interpretation. Reproductions also include a portion of the pedimental sculpture from the Temple of Aphaia on the Greek island of Aegina; one of its figures, of a Trojan archer, is interpreted with vivid patterns on his clothing, exemplifying how the Greeks rendered the colorful garments of eastern “barbarians.” Modern copies of two life-size warriors from Riace reveal how polychromy was applied to bronze sculpture using copper, silver, and colored stones. A reconstructed marble portrait of Caligula from the Roman Imperial Period provides an opportunity to see how artists of this culture used a wide range of pigments and surface applications to create lifelike images.

These ancient examples, both original and reconstructed, are complemented by watercolors of Greek landscapes by English antiquarian Edward Dodwell and by Italian artist Simone Pomardi. These works show that some ancient architecture still retained their original color when they were depicted in the early nineteenth century.

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

Donors to the exhibition:

Presenting Sponsors
Barbro and Bernard Osher
Diane W. Wilsey

Curator's Circle
Packard Humanities Institute
Lisa Sardegna and David A. Carillo

Additional support
Bernard and Jane von Bothmer in honor of Dr. Dietrich von Bothmer
Elizabeth D. Moyer, PhD and Michael Powanda, PhD
Keesal Young and Logan

The symposium, The Pervasiveness of Pigment in Antiquity, is held on Saturday, 28 October, from 10:00 am to 4:00 pm, at the Gould Theater, Legion of Honor, to celebrate the opening of the exhibition. The symposium is sponsored by Elizabeth D. Moyer, PhD and Michael Powanda, PhD. Registration is required. To register, please email ancientart@famsf.org.

About Exhibitions at the Ancient Art Council

Exhibitions are an important aspect of a curatorial department. The Ancient Art Department has organized and mounted over the years exhibitions showcasing art from different ancient cultures in the Mediterranean. Some of these exhibitions are also accompanied by scholarly catalogues written, edited, or with contributions by the curator in charge of Ancient Art and Interpretation, and published by the Publications Department. Exhibitions, like publications, fulfill the fundamental commitment of the Department to education, research, and scholarship.