It’s been quite a week for polychromy (the multicoloured painting of ancient sculpture). First I got into something of an initially heated, but in the end rather good-natured debate, when I suggested on Twitter that maybe some people were perhaps jumping the gun a bit in now assuming that all Greek and Roman sculptures must have been painted. Ok we now know that they weren’t all gleaming white marble but how much do we really know about how often statues were painted? Then just a few days later an interesting article appeared in the New Yorker, which dealt with the subject in quite some depth and has been deservedly widely shared on social media.
It’s been a while since I found any time to write a blog post. I left off weeks ago after having delivered just one of my promised series of posts on interesting things I saw in the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek in Copenhagen (in August!!!). So, to return to where I left off and to serve as a prelude to a piece (or pieces) I’m now planning to write with some thoughts I’ve had this week on the issue of ancient polychromy here’s a short piece about a rather curious piece of modern sculpture I saw in the museum – a grave monument from the early 19th Century.
The museum label reads: “Tomb monument to Otto Westengaard. Painted plaster cast after coloured drawing by Hermann Ernst Freund. 1837.” I confess I hadn’t previously heard of Freund but he was a disciple of Thorvaldsen’s and quite a famous painter in his day. Some of his statues are on display in the Glyptotek, including an impressive seated Thor, and I’d seen those before I arrived at this piece. My internet searches have failed, however, to find out any information at all about who Otto Westengaard was. He’s presumably the one listed on this genealogy site as living 1763-1835 (though that does make it hard to explain why his date of birth on the side of the monument is given as 1764!) but I’ve got no idea how important he was or why Freund was commissioned to make his gravestone. What caught my eye, however, was what the monument looks like.
It’s clearly inspired by grave monuments from Classical Athens like the one above: the shape of the stelai, the delicate relief of the girl, who seems to be filling an oil lamp, the two rosettes. I’ve seen sphinxes in the round topping grave monuments in the Kerameikos Museum in Athens. The usually stand sideways atop the monument. The two-bodied one still strikes me as a bit fanciful but today I at least found a fairly close parallel for a sphinx carved in relief looking directly forward on a 4th century grave monument.
Coming from the high point of Neoclassicism the form of the monument is therefore not surprising. What did surprise me about it, however, were the vivid colours.
Although, as the New Yorker piece points out people have known about traces of pigment on ancient sculpture for centuries but tended to downplay it’s significance. It’s only very recently that opinion has begun to tip in favour of the idea that painting statues was common in antiquity – perhaps too far but that’s something I want to come back to in my next piece. Neoclassical sculptors of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, artists like Freund, Thorvaldsen and, perhaps most famous of all, Canova are strongly associated with a belief in the pure whiteness of Greek and Roman statues. They sought to emulate this ideal in their own Classically inspired works, which in turn played a role in reinforcing the idea that ancient artwork was devoid of culture.
So what made Freund decide to paint Westengaard’s grave monument?
I’d be curious to know whether this was the decision of the artist or the patron. Perhaps even more interesting would be to know where he got the idea that a Classical Greek gravestone could be painted. All of the pieces of ancient sculpture for which I’ve heard pigment was known about before the twentieth century were statues not relief sculpture but this piece suggests some awareness that Classical grave stelai could be painted, something for which concrete evidence is now known. The vividness – to put it less kindly – the gaudiness of the colours comes close to some of the fairly recent and now quite famous reconstructions of ancient sculpture by Vinzenz Brinkmann, seen in the travelling “Gods in Colour” exhibition which I’ve been lucky enough to catch in both Athens and Oxford. (It’s certainly far less subtle than John Gibson’s so-called “Tinted Venus“, mentioned by the New Yorker piece and which generated so much controversy in the 1850s as one of the first Neoclassical sculptures to attempt to replicate ancient polychromy.)
Yet, if we compare Freunds’ grave monument with a reconstruction of a Classical grave stele that featured in Brinkman’s exhibition (see above) the palette is completely different. The red background against which the girl is set is reminiscent of some of the famous wall paintings from Pompeii which I suspect could have been an inspiration here but where did the idea for all that yellow come from? Had Freund perhaps seen an ancient tomb marker that preserved traces of that colour? And if so, where had he seen it? Although some Classical grave monuments had made their way to Italy in the time of the Roman Empire they weren’t copied like statues in the round and therefore don’t exist in the country in anything like the same numbers. Greece at the time Freund made Westengaard’s gravestone had just won its independence from the Ottoman Empire so although excavations wouldn’t begin in the Kerameikos for another three and a half decades it is conceivable that Freund might have seen or known about a coloured stele discovered at around that time somewhere in Greece. On the other hand, perhaps it was nothing more than a fantasy.
Another interesting question is what did people make of this grave stone when they saw it in the 1830s? It’s unclear from the museum display whether the monument itself was ever actually completed and, if so, where it is or whether it retained the colours of the plaster cast and drawing. Was Otto Westengaard really buried beneath a gravestone that looked like this? And if so, does the real monument still exist anywhere? (And these aren’t just rhetorical questions. If anyone knows I’d be very glad to know!)
This piece of sculpture raises more questions than I can answer here but intriguingly it hints that knowledge of ancient polychromy and attitudes toward the possibility of ancient sculpture being painted were more complex in the early 19th century than we generally now tend to suppose.