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Summer Teen Intensive / Exploration of Greek and Roman Polychrome

By Christina Alderman and Sonja John
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The politics of 2016‒2017 have made it clear that the study of what is often termed Western civilization is more important than ever. Whether it is viewed as a social construct to be understood (and maybe deconstructed) or as something that needs to be preserved in the face of evil (see President Trump’s recent speech in Warsaw), the concept of Western civilization is an important part of our current public discourse. A major component of this discussion concerns racial identity.

The 2017 RISD Museum Summer Teen Intensive kept returning to this conversation throughout the 11-day program. RISD’s curator of ancient art, Gina Borromeo, met with the teens early in the program to examine objects from ancient Egypt. The conversation began with the teens defining ancient Egyptian art; many students mentioned pyramids, the Sphinx, mummies, Cleopatra, and other things that they had seen in media and popular culture. When looking at the objects in our collection, teens began to question their preconceived notions and became curious about the object’s original context—who they were made for, and what was their original purpose? In subsequent discussions, the teens began to question the role of the museum in removing objects from their original context and purpose.

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When wandering the galleries on their own, one of the teens returned with sharp criticism of the way one painting, which features members of the Narragansett tribe meeting with Roger Williams, perpetuates certain narratives about the Native Americans. The point was made that the museum plays a role in who is allowed to maintain their identity and whose identities are directly and indirectly erased.


The teens’ own conversations began to reflect a current conversation in academic circles, generated by the backlash to an article by the classicist Sarah Bond. To very briefly summarize Dr. Bond’s essay for Hyperallergic, “Why We Need to Start Seeing the Classical World in Color,” while everyone is familiar with bright white Greek and Roman marble statues, most don’t know that these statues were originally very colorfully painted. This is beyond question, especially now that we have incredible equipment that is able to scan for minute traces of pigment. However, this technology is new, and the influential 18th-century art historian Johann Winckelmann did not know this. In his overview of Western art, he included the whiteness of the statues as an essential component to their beauty. This misconception of Greek aesthetics has influenced art history and aesthetics ever since. It has even contributed to “the false construction of race.” Moreover, some overtly racist organizations have adopted the imagery of white marble statues, drawing on this history of interpretation. In response to the article, Dr. Bond has received an incredible amount of online outrage from the Alt-Right and other white supremacists, including threats of violence. We discussed the article with the teens and watched the recent video produced on

During the preparation for the final project, this topic became increasingly important to the group. When exploring RISD’s ancient Greek and Roman galleries, they examined many objects, including the Bebenburg Youth and a cinerarium, both of which still have traces of pigment. They decided to address the politicization of aesthetics and engage the controversy by bringing color back to the galleries. Drawing sketches of a selection of the objects for audiences to color, they made a coloring book which included a statement of purpose. During a public museum event, the teens invited their families and friends to wander the galleries, reflect on the artworks, and give them color. They were also on hand to talk about their project and process. Below is the introduction to the coloring book, as well as some examples of colored pages. You can also download the entire booklet in .pdf format.

Pigments of Your Imagination: A Color Restoration Book
Imagine a statue from ancient Greece or Rome. Is it white? Well, of course it is. That’s all we know and have been taught. Most films, shows, and video games have depicted Greek and Roman statues in a stripped form. The reality of the situation is that this idea was originally introduced by a man named Johann Winckelmann, a philosopher in the mid-1700s. He omitted the presence of color, which resulted in race being ignored in subsequent scholarship.The vision he created for these pieces was to see the “beautiful” white marble, and only that. He portrayed the Greeks and Romans as “too sophisticated to color their art,” which resulted in “color in sculpture coming to mean barbarism” (Sarah Bond, Whitewashing Ancient Statues: Whiteness, Racism, and Color in the Ancient World). The Greeks and Romans used many colors to depict people through sculpture, such as using paints in order to accentuate detailing in the human body and face. As well, the Greeks often used red and yellow as a base to begin their work on sculptures of figures. The use of paint reflected the society’s less monochromatic culture. The Greek and Roman empires encompassed many lands ranging from Mesopotamia to Britannia and Macedonia to India. Further, throughout the lifespan of the Greek and Roman empires, there was little to no color prejudice in existence within their societies. A different ethnicity was less important than your allegiance to the empire (Mary Beard, Racism in Greece and Rome).

Christina Alderman
Assistant Director, Family and Teen Programs RISD Museum

Sonja John
RISD, BFA Painting 2017 and Mellon Summer Intern in Education at the RISD Museum