I am part of the panel session entitled "The Color of Sculpture," discussing the revitalization and different applications of polychromy in sculpture during the 19th and 20th centuries. Two of my CUNY Graduate Center colleagues are also on the same panel, so that was a nice surprise. The image you see here is a photograph I took a few years ago showing a close-up of the Tinted Venus, 1851-53, by John Gibson, at the Walker Art Gallery, National Museums Liverpool, which will be the subject of my talk. The statue is installed in a glass-walled tempietto, hence the off sheen seen in the photograph. Here is the brief proposal that I submitted.
Art history has both credited and derided the British sculptor John Gibson for the reintroduction of polychrome sculpture in the nineteenth century. The display of his Tinted Venus at the 1862 International Exhibition in London is seen by most as the highlight and death knell of his career. Perceiving Gibson as a Victorian Pygmalion, critics and scholars—then and now—claim he tinted his statue to make marble appear like flesh. In fact, this is but one of a number of erroneous misconceptions about his Tinted Venus and other polychrome works. Rather, Gibson’s intent was to introduce an ancient Greco-Roman decorative practice, reinvented for a modern audience.
This paper will redress art history’s misconceptions about Gibson and his polychrome sculpture. Among the areas to be discussed will be his sources of inspiration, his studio practice, and the display of the Tinted Venus in Rome long before its premiere in London. This paper also will consider the surprising number of positive reviews that this statue received at the time. Gibson’s experiment was certainly polarizing, but only by correcting assumptions about his practice can art historians today better understand his important role in the history of polychrome sculpture.