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  • Writer's pictureDebbie Challis

Seeing White: Making the Parthenon Sculptures British

Sometimes known as the ‘father of art history’, Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717-1768) revered the Apollo Belvedere and other sculptures that he studied in Rome, some of which he identified as being Roman copies of Greek originals.

It has long been understood that Winckelmann’s ‘Hellenomania’ – a term used by Martin Bernal to describe ‘Northern European engagement with Greece from the 1790s to the mid nineteenth century’ – was rooted in German eurocentrism (Bernal, 1991; Harloe and Momigliano, 2018: 2). Winckelmann emphasised the physical embodiment of nature and realism of the male body in sculpture that in turn represented the environment of the Greeks (Challis, 2010: 97-98). He did not speak of the Greeks as a race but rather as a nation informed by their natural and political climate, and his ideas significantly impacted critical terminology around ancient art and the idealisation of Greece. The Apollo’s white marble body fed an assumption that the ‘lofty ancient Greeks [were] too sophisticated to colour their art’ (Painter, 2010: 61). Winckelmann (and his many successors) equated the use of colour on sculpture with primitivism.

Like the idealisation of the face and bodies of the Greeks, chromophobia – the dislike or fear of colour has a long legacy. It is well known amongst art historians that classical sculpture was polychromatic and a number of exhibitions using sophisticated technology to present colour sculpture increased public engagement with the issue in the 2000s. For example, the 2007 touring exhibition Gods in Color and then The Color of Life. Polychromy in Sculpture from Antiquity to the Present exhibition at J. Paul Getty Museum in 2008 (Talbot, 2018). There can still be shocked reactions, particularly in the mainstream press, as ‘Winckelmann’s long-lived dogma about pure white classical still has its supporters’ (Bradley, 2009). The ‘cleaning’ of the Parthenon sculptures at the behest of Lord Duveen in the 1930s has been seen as a legacy of Winckelmann’s aesthetics not an act of further racialisation. Yet, the aesthetics of whiteness of classical sculpture, as Nell Irwin Painter has observed, is bound up in race (Painter, 2010: 63).

White statues became emblems of white nationalism and, as Sarah Bond has pointed out:

‘This assemblage of neon whiteness serves to create a false idea of homogeneity – everyone was very white! – across the Mediterranean region’ (Bond, 2017).

Homogeneous identity was clearly impossible in an area which mainly covered the Eastern Mediterranean and North Africa as ‘Palestine and Egypt were as much part of it [the classical world] as much as Italy’ (Satia, 2020: 146). In any case, Europe was never only ‘white’. David Theo Goldberg has contended that the modern idea of Europe began to be formed in the fifteenth century, partly in reaction to Columbus and exploration, and at this time the idea of race was ‘emergent rather than fully formed’ (Goldberg, 2008: 2). In her sweeping history of Europe from the Roman Empire to the present, Olivette Otele documents the presence of Africans in Europe through Black saints, North African colonisation of parts of Southern Europe, continuous migrations, enslavement and as an after effect of European colonialism (Otele, 2020). The classical world of Greece and Rome – and its European successors – has falsely assumed to have been homogenously white, leading to toxic prejudice. The BBC Radio 4 documentary Detoxifying the Classics, with Katherine Harloe, addresses the use of classical texts and Greco-Roman material culture by white supremacists, pointing to a long history of use to defend colonialism and slavery. The sculpture of the Greeks and Romans, and their display in museums, have been used to assist the construction of a classical (and modern) white identity with chromophobia playing an important part.

When the Parthenon Sculptures were first displayed to British elite audiences in Lord Elgin’s private galleries in 1807, they became ‘powerfully connected to British nationhood’. Fiona Rose-Greenland points out that at the same time the sculptures were racialised as white. Pointing to a newspaper article reviewing the Greek face in 1811 (actually part of a series of racist articles in the Examiner called ‘Negro Faculties’) and contrasting them with the supposed lack of cultural achievements of the black ‘negro’, she argues that:

‘British pretensions to universal culture had a limit, and they were entrenched by Elgin’s time: Africans and other persons of non-epitomised physiognomy were excluded from the supranational classical family. The Elgin Marbles helped define British masculinity, but they also served to exclude despised categories of people from national membership’. (Rose-Greenland, 2013: 13)

I think it also needs to be highlighted that this counter-positioning between ‘negros’ and Europeans was taking place when the slave trade in African people had just been made illegal, though slavery itself was not. Denying cultural advancement to African people was part of a wider economic and political strategy. The idea that ‘white marble can be read as white people’ was applied to the Parthenon sculptures at an important historical moment in defining race and privilege (Painter, 2010: 63).

After the victory of the British and allies in the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, the Parthenon sculptures were purchased from Lord Elgin for Britain in 1816. In an echo of Winckelmann’s language on the Greek climate and artistic achievement, the parliamentary report that supported their acquisition at a cost of

A print of the Acropolis in Athens
Frontispiece to Henry Ellis (1833) Guide to the Elgin and Phigaleian Marbles in the British Museum

£35,000 contended that the products of the ‘free government’ of Athenian soil and native talent should be in Britain as ‘no country can be better adapted than our own to afford an honourable asylum to these monuments of Pheidias and the administration of Pericles’ (Quoted in Cockerell, 1835: 30). Casts of the Parthenon sculptures in the British Museum were used in public buildings to support this idea across Britain for almost 100 years (Challis, 2006). Parallels were made between the liberty loving Greeks and freedom loving Britons as well as between the maritime empire of Athens and Britain’s overseas colonies.

In 1832 the Parthenon sculptures were installed in their own gallery in the British Museum, itself built in ‘Greek revival style’. The following year – the same year that the independent Greek state was born – Sir Henry Ellis, the Principal Librarian (or Director) of the British Museum, contended in a guide to the Elgin Room, that contemporary nations could claim direct racial descent from the ancient Greeks if they were of Germanic stock, such as the British. Ellis argued that:

‘we trace a descent neither doubtful nor disputed, though our line is not direct’ (Ellis, 1833: 218-9).

This was not an original idea, but it is significant that it was used in an early guide to the display of the Parthenon Sculptures, published in a relatively popular series – the Library of Entertaining Knowledge for the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge. Ellis denied the people of the new Greek nation claims to their heritage through discounting their biological and cultural ancestry. This denial reflected a racial hierarchy in which white northern Europeans were privileged over other white people and over all people of colour.


Detoxifying the Classics is a must listen:

Bond, Sarah, ‘Whitewashing Ancient Statues: Whiteness, Racism and Color in the Ancient World’, Forbes, 27 April 2017: [accessed 11 April 2021].

Bindman, David (2002), Ape to Apollo. Aesthetics and the Idea of Race in the Eighteenth Century. London: Reaktion Books.

Bradley, Mark (2009), ‘The importance of colour on ancient marble sculpture’, Art History, Vol. 32: No. 3, 427-57.

Challis, Debbie (2010), ‘”The Ablest Race”: The Ancient Greeks in Victorian Racial Theory’, Mark Bradley (ed.), Classics & Imperialism in the British Empire, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 94-120.

Challis, Debbie (2006), ‘The Parthenon Sculptures. Emblems of British identity’, British Art Journal, VII/1, 37-43.

Ellis, Henry (1833), The British Museum. Elgin and Phigaleian Marbles. Volume 2 (London: Charles Knight).

Goldberg, David Theo (2008), The Threat of Race: reflections on Racial Neoliberalism, Oxford: Wiley Blackwell.

Harloe, Katherine (2018), ‘Winckelmania: Hellenomania between ideal and experience’, in Katherine Harloe, Nicoletta Momigliano and Alexandra Farnoux (eds) Hellenomania, London: Routledge, 40-55.

Rose-Greenland, Fiona (2013), ‘The Parthenon Marbles as icons of nationalism in nineteenth-century Britain’, Nations and Nationalism, 19 (4), 1-20.

Satia, Priya (2020), Time’s Monster: History, Conscience and Britain’s Empire, London: Allen Lane

Otele, Olivette (2020), African Europeans. An Untold Story, London: Hirst and Company

Painter, Nell Irvin (2010), The History of White People, London: W. W. Norton and Company.

Talbot, Margaret (2018) ‘The Myth of Whiteness in Classical Art’, New Yorker, 22 October 2018: [accessed 11 April 2021].

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