Academic journal article The Sculpture Journal

Transparent Forms: Tinting, Whiteness and John Gibson's Venus

Academic journal article The Sculpture Journal

Transparent Forms: Tinting, Whiteness and John Gibson's Venus

Article excerpt

There is a familiar story about John Gibson's Tinted Venus that has been told and re-told (fig. 1). This story explains how, as more and more archaeological evidence for the Greeks' use of polychromy on marble statuary emerged, Gibson started to experiment in emulation of the ancients. He had made the Venus Verticordia, commissioned in 1833 by Joseph Neeld for his home at Grittleton Hall, one of the most important collections of contemporary sculpture. When Gibson received a commission for a second version from Liverpool industrialist Robert Preston and his wife (the version now in the Walker Art Gallery), he coloured the statue. The golden apple awarded by Paris was gilded, and gilding was applied to the tortoise at Venus's feet, while Venus herself was given blue eyes, yellow hair, red lips and delicately pink flesh. This created a sensation, and cries of indecency rang out, particularly when the Venus was displayed in a temple-like structure at the 1862 International Exhibition (fig. 2). Gibson received three subsequent commissions, two of which were tinted, including the version made for the Marquis of Sligo (now in the Resnick collection). He also produced other tinted statues, such as the Pandora made for the 2nd Duke of Wellington in 1856, but bought by Lady Marian Alford; a second version was made for Mr Lawrence of Liverpool 'colored [sic] at his own request'.1 This gives one pause for thought: if the reaction to the Tinted Venus was one of outrage, how does one account for this evident success? Some viewers may have been shocked, but the nineteenth- century debate about the theory and practice of polychromy is far more complex and far less sensational than the bare bones of the story suggest.

Colour and sculpture were brought together in various ways in the nineteenth century, and most of these were wholly uncontentious. Natural polychromy, the use of coloured materials, had a long history and provoked no controversy whether in the form of copies after the antique or modern iterations as practised by sculptors such as Cordier. Coloured backgrounds, as might be found on cameos or architectural friezes, were accepted as fine ways to emphasize contour and form in relief works. Most significantly, discussions of medieval polychromy and its decorative effects were generally positive, and projects to restore medieval sculpture embraced colour with enthusiasm, evident in George Gilbert Scott's reconstruction of the end of Philippa of Hainault's tomb in Westminster Abbey or the restoration of Salisbury Cathedral.2 It is telling that, for the Victorians, medieval history bears polychromy in a way that antique history does not, and this distinction points to the heart of the matter, which is the mismatch of colour with ideal sculpture. The issue is whiteness, marble's whiteness. The importance of this is well known: Greek sculpture was the acme of culture, but archaeological evidence of Greek polychromy started to emerge earlier in the nineteenth century which challenged the Winckelmannian notion of sculpture as pure form, and only form - the idea that what made sculpture itself, and elevated it above other art forms, was the absence of colour. White is the colour of colourlessness. But the whiteness of the ideal had other meanings: it was the colour of abstractness, of reason, of a fantasy of ancient Greece as the ideal polity. Whiteness served as a moral index, the colour of purity, permitting the representation of flesh, not least in the nude, but setting clear limits to erotic force.

Thus, criticisms of polychromy conceive whiteness in two distinct ways: as a presence, that is, white as a colour that has meanings of its own; and as an absence, the idea that ideal marble sculpture has no colour. This doubleness is clearly demonstrated in some of the criticisms of the Tinted Venus, the most famous example of nineteenth-century polychromy. Gibson was criticized for confusing sculpture and painting, importing the pictorial into the world of pure form. …

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