A World of Chroma

The Metropolitan Museum of Art is running one of the most exciting exhibitions I’ve seen. Interspersed throughout the hall of Greek and Roman antiquities are select pieces that have been reproduced and revived with absolutely extravagant color as they would have appeared in their original form, making the marble works come to vivid life.

Lovely Lady. Reconstruction of a marble statue of a woman wrapping herself in a mantle (so-called Small Herculaneum Woman). Marble stucco on plaster cast, natural pigments in egg tempura, gold foil.

Chroma: Ancient Sculpture in Color explores the notion that the Greeks and Romans had a long tradition of painting their statues, busts and public buildings in eye-popping hues, debunking the traditional belief held since the Renaissance that everything was carved in simple white marble with a complete lack of color.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art has been working throughout the 20th century to the present time challenging, investigating and preserving this practice of painting objects, illuminating the true artistry of ancient western culture.

Dramatic Draping. Reconstruction of a marble statue of the goddess Artemis from Pompeii, Variant A. Marble Stucco on plaster cast, natural pigments in egg tempura.

Using state-of-the-art x-ray technology and 3D imaging, in addition to extensive research, the pigment that lies just below the surface can be distinguished and identified. Once the color combinations and designs are determined, Dr. Koch-Brinkmann sets about sourcing the minerals and other materials that would have been used at the time to recreate the bright paints and then she painstakingly applies them to the pieces.

A back view of Artemis.

Stunning in their execution and incredibly compelling, I experienced the ancient world coming alive in a completely new and invigorating way—realistic and relatable—as opposed to the typical cold and distant reaction I often feel when viewing the statuary. It is most apparent in the statures’ eyes, proving the adage “the eyes are the window to the soul” true. Seeing the pupils filled in with color makes all the difference.

Conquering Caesar. Reconstruction of a marble portrait of Emperor Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, called Caligula, Variant B. Synthetic marble, natural pigments in egg tempera.
Caesar before colorization.

It makes sense when you see the exhibition—of course they lived in color. Color was all around them and they expressed every hue imaginable. And as their homes and implements were always painted, naturally the other elements of their daily lives would be colorized as well.

Pattern Play. Reconstruction of the so-called Chios Kore from the Athenian Acropolis. Marble stucco on polymethyl methacrylate, natural pigments in egg tempura.
Man's Man. Reconstruction of bronze Riace Warrior A and Warrior B. Bronze cast, copper, gemstones, silver, gold, bitumen, natural colorants.

The show is a revelation and also displays another angle of sophistication within two ancient cultures that were and are highly celebrated to begin with.

And where there’s a celebration of life, color naturally follows.

Chroma: Ancient Sculpture in Color runs through March 26, 2023.