From Classical Antiquity to the Renaissance, religious and profane sculpture in the Western world had largely been polychrome. Colour was gradually spurned by highbrow art which set as its standard white Greco-Roman marbles which had lost their colours after being buried for centuries. Fine art academies did not therefore advocate colour for statues. In the 18th century, the sculptor Falconet stated that “each of the arts has its own means of imitation and colour is not a means for sculpture”. Polychromy did not disappear, however, but was restricted to certain types of religious and popular sculpture.
In the late 18th century, texts by the German archaeologist and art historian Johann Joachim Winckelmann were quickly translated into French and added a moral dimension to the whiteness of marble. The notion of a universal monochrome aesthetic ideal dominated European sculpture in the 19th century. Romanticism, nevertheless brought in its wake a few isolated experiments with polychromy. Archaeology was interested in ancient and medieval polychrome sculpture and played a major role in re-evaluating it. In museums, visitors could admire famous polychrome sculptures, some of which have been brought together here especially for this exhibition. In the 19th century it is possible to identify two types of polychromy. “Natural” polychromy combines different coloured marbles, sometimes introducing patinated bronzes, and “artificial” polychromy applies paint to all types of material (marble, plaster, ivory, wax, wood) to which precious ornaments can be added.