Sculpture Journal

Impure stone and the threat to decency: marble tints and veins

Sculpture Journal (2021), 30, (2), 139–152.

Abstract

According to the classical tradition, marble sculptures were to be made of ‘pure’ white material. This remained an aesthetic ideal even after archaeological findings had revealed evidence of ancient polychromy. This article argues that tinting as well as natural staining on marble figures in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were not only aesthetically but also morally reprehensible, because they violated the ideal of homo clausus. This term, coined by the sociologist Norbert Elias, conceptualizes a subject that imposes ‘self-restraint’ to control its physical body and its emotions. Perfect control was seen embodied in the ancient images of the gods, which were assumed to have been made of immaculate white marble. Any colouring, whether of natural origin or deliberately produced, seemed to contaminate this concept. My investigation is focused on the historical justifications for John Gibson’s scandalous Tinted Venus, and figures of veined marble rejected in France on similar grounds in the late eighteenth century, such as Christoph-Gabriel Allegrain’s Venus and Jean-Antoine Houdon’s Frileuse. I examine how the coloured veins and tints of the stone gained semantic qualities in female figures, where a blush or a vein seemed to reveal emotions and desires and thus infringe the ideal.

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Author details

Wagner, Monika