White isn’t right


A few weeks ago BBC 4 were running a short series on “A history of art in three colours”. The colours in question being gold, blue and white. The series was a bit of a Curate’s egg – “good in parts”. But one thing that particularly struck me was in the third programme on white, when the presenter discussed how the Classical Greek and Roman era statues that we are so familiar with which are so brilliantly white, didn’t look at all like that when they were created. They used to be painted in bright colours. Over time, the pigments have faded, weathered and disappeared, but, in the past, the museums have also deliberately removed remaining traces of colour due to their misguided belief that Classical sculpture should be “pure” and, therefore, white.

Just a few weeks after watching the programme, I visited the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek in Copenhagen where they have an exceptional large collection of statues and other artefacts from the Classical period. On some of the statues exhibits in the museum traces of colour were clearly visible.

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Researchers based at the museum have been undertaking research on the use of colour on Classical statues and there were a number of exhibits about the project.

The objects are initially examined visually using techniques such as macroscopy, technical photography and microscopy. Analysis of traces of pigments detected may be carried out in-situ using non-invasive methods such as X-Ray Fluorescence spectrometry (XRF). In some cases small samples may be removed for chemical analysis using a variety of techniques. The researchers then attempt to determine what pigments had been used and work out how the objects would have looked when they were created.

A number of examples of how some of the objects that have been researched may have looked were being shown in the museum.

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Further information on the project is available on the museum website here and also on the project’s own website. I also found this article about the subject of investigating the colour of classical sculptures that had originally appeared in the Smithsonian Magazine.

To our modern eyes, the colours are surprisingly garish. We expect the statues to look white because that’s how they’ve always been presented to us.

But the practice didn’t end with the demise of the Classical civilisations. The great medieval stone works were also painted. The statues and decorative carvings in the great medieval cathedrals, the intricately carved capitals, the columns and even the exterior facades were adorned with bright colours. Wells Cathedral was a notable example and as it says on their website

in the Middle Ages the stone was painted inside and outside and the West Front would have appeared like a gigantic picture book.

You can even paint it yourself here.

French Masterpieces at the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek

The Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek are currently holding an exhibition of their collection of French paintings from 1850 to the beginning of the 20th century in the Henning Larsen Wing of the Gallery. It’s a great, modern exhibition space with plain, light coloured walls which allow the visitor to focus on the paintings. The exhibition occupies all three floors.

There’s a considerable number of paintings, together with some sculptures and carvings, with all the well known names, and a few less well known, represented. Although the majority of the works on display are by the Impressionists and Post Impressionists, there’s also some by artists who came before the Impressionists, but who laid the way and influenced them, such as Courbet, Boudin and Delacroix. The works aren’t grouped by artist, date or style, which is an interesting approach by the curator and made a refreshing change. As it says on the Gallery’s website –

The new arrangement invites one to take a pleasurable stroll through one of the most radical and visionary periods in the history of painting

My one criticism is that there was limited information on the paintings, just the artist, title and date painted. There were guidebooks on sale in the shop – one on the Impressionist works and a second on the Post Impressionists. But the English version of the Impressionist book had sold out. I was hoping I’d be able to find out more from the Gallery’s website after our visit, but the information there is very limited, which is a pity. Fortunately photography was allowed, and I’d taken snaps of those works I particularly liked.

The collection is very comprehensive, but not overwhelming. We were able to walk around at our own pace without having to fight through crowds of people. And we weren’t exhausted at the end. The paintings are, perhaps, less well known than those in the Gare d’Orsay in Paris, the National Gallery in London and MOMA in New York. But they are well worth seeing.

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The exhibition is being shown until 30 April 2013. Details here.

Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek


I know what you’re thinking. What’s a “Glyptotek”? That’s what I wondered.  Well a glyptotek is a collection of sculpture, from the Greek glyphein, to carve and theke, a storing-place (source; Wikipedia) and the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek is

a museum of the ancient cultures of the Mediterranean as well as Danish and French art from the 19th century.

in Copenhagen, opposite the Tivoli Gardens. It was founded to house the collection of Carl Jacobsen , the owner of the Carlsberg brewery which he donated his collection to the Danish State and the City of Copenhagen in 1888 on condition that they provided a suitable building for its exhibition.

As the name implies, there is a major focus on sculpture with a comprehensive collection of antique sculpture from the ancient cultures around the Mediterranean as well as works by Rodin, Degas and other French 19th Century artists. But they also have a collection of French Impressionist and Post Impressionist painters and works by Danish artists.

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Rodin’s Burghers of Calais

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Degas’ Little Dancer. Rodin’s The Kiss in the background.

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Like most museums and galleries in Copenhagen, it only opens at 11 a.m. We didn’t realise this and arrived about half an hour early and had to wait, with plenty of other people who probably made the same mistake until they let us in.  It was worth the wait. Their collection was excellent. We stayed about 4 hours before we were “arted out” and there was plenty more to see. Like many galleries, one visit isn’t enough.

There are two buildings linked by a Winter Garden where the cafe and bookshop are located.


You enter via he Dahlerup Wing, the oldest part of the museum,  which houses the French and Danish collections. The other building, the Kampmann Wing, contains the ancient sculpture and artefacts.

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It also contains an auditorium which is used for lectures.


The Henning Larsen Wing, a modern building with an accessible roof space, constructed inside the courtyard of the Kampmann Wing. It was a very modern, light and airy exhibition space on three floors.



View from the roof.

During our visit it was displaying the Impressionist and Post Impressionist works from the gallery’s collection in a special exhibition of French Masterpieces.

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This post has gone on long enough. Hopefully it gives a flavour of this excellent gallery. I’ll return to discuss the exhibits.