Museum Home Past Exhibitions The Color of Life

March 6–June 23, 2008 at the Getty Villa

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Slideshow: Polychrome sculpture through the ages (opens in new browser window) 

This exhibition features polychrome (multicolored) masterpieces that reveal the many uses of color in figural sculpture over the course of four millennia.

Since antiquity, sculptors have utilized colored materials and applied pigments to give a lifelike quality to their statues. Inlaid eyes create a penetrating gaze and naturalistic complexions animate the face. Color can also help identify the subject of a work. The pigmentation of skin, garments, and accessories often conveys royal or divine status and distinguishes social roles.

Read about themes of The Color of Life below, or explore highlights of the exhibition chronologically in the exhibition slideshow.

Head of a God / Unknown
Head of a God, Greek, about 325 B.C.
learn_more See a close-up of the blue pigment on the beard.

Reconstructing Ancient Color

In antiquity, statues were typically painted. Pigments applied by ancient artists have faded over the centuries due to burial conditions, aging, and overzealous cleaning, but several types of evidence indicate that sculpture was originally polychrome. Ancient wall paintings and vessels depict vividly colored statues, and Greek and Latin texts refer to the art of painting figures. Today, using laboratory techniques, archaeologists and scientists are able to identify traces of ancient polychromy and present hypothetical reconstructions.

This terracotta head preserves traces of its original color, including bright blue on the beard, reddish brown on the hair, and pink on the lips and face. The unusual coloring suggests that the sculpture represents a supernatural figure, probably a deity such as Zeus, Poseidon, or Hades. Getty conservators and scientists have identified the blue pigment as Egyptian blue, one of the earliest man-made pigments.


Video: Tracing the Colors of Ancient Sculpture (3:07, silent)

Madonna and Child / Unknown
Madonna and Child with an Angel, Italian (Venice), early 1500s
audio Audio: Curator Eike Schmidt describes the symbolic meaning of the colors in this sculpture.
learn_more See a close-up of Mary's face and the red cross held by the Christ child.

Mimetic and Symbolic Color

European sculptors of the Middle Ages, Renaissance, and Baroque period continued to use pigments and colored materials. They frequently did so to enhance a figure's lifelike qualities. This function of polychromy is called mimetic—from the Greek word mimesis, "imitation."

Colors were also employed for their symbolic meanings. Gold signified light in connection with the sun gods Apollo and Helios, and was used in portraits of Roman emperors. Gold was eventually incorporated into Christian imagery, representing holiness and heavenly realms. The color red was often associated with Christ's suffering.

Color was also used to reflect gender distinctions. In many pre-industrial societies, elites and women often remained indoors, and their light skin tones were prized. Men who worked outdoors became tan. In the art of ancient Egypt, Greece, and other cultures, women were therefore typically shown with pale skin, while men were depicted in dark or ruddy tones. Such conventions continued through the Middle Ages and Renaissance.

The artist of this work skillfully used the colored streaks in a piece of chalcedony (a variety of quartz) to differentiate flesh color, dress, and the religious symbol of the cross. The Madonna's face is carved from the purest section of the stone, symbolizing her beauty and virtue. The yellow-brown of her diadem and drapery and the Christ child's clothing evokes goldlike splendor. The cross is formed from the brightest vein of red, which alludes to the blood Christ shed during the Crucifixion.

Dying Gaul / De Andrea
Dying Gaul, John De Andrea, 1984. © John De Andrea

Rediscovering Polychromy

The Neoclassical movement of the late 1700s and early 1800s promoted a revival of ancient Greek and Roman styles, which initially led to a widespread taste for white marbles. But the reading of classical texts revealed that ancient statues were originally polychrome and had lost their color over time. A new appreciation of polychromy in antiquity aroused a lively interest in color among modern sculptors.

In recent decades, a renewed focus on color has emerged. Cast from molds of human body parts, this sculpture was painted with painstaking detail, showing every crease and imperfection. The figure is based on an ancient statue known as the Dying Gaul. The work may be a reflection on the role of imitation in the process of artistic creation.