Letter from GEORGE PERKINS MARSH to HIRAM POWERS, dated July 25, 1853.
The question you suggest respecting the extent to which the ancients coloured their
statuary, is difficult to answer, partly from the want of precise notices on the
subject in ancient authors, & partly from the fact that in the long period
through which Grecian art flourished, there is every reason to believe that the
practice varied. That they, in the best period executed and admired sculpture in the
precious metals, ivory and other particularly brilliant materials, and that in
cameos they availed themselves of the natural varieties of colour in the stone or
shell, is well known and there are several ancient statues both of bronze and
marble, with evident traces of both gilding and colour. In architecture, colour was
largely applied and its remains are every where traceable in the purely decorative
parts of the architecture of the Parthenon, the Temple of Theseus
and other Greek remains. The Egyptians too, the probable masters of the Greeks in art, coloured thing. These facts would lead one to infer, that the use of colour in sculpture was pretty general, but independent of these, we have the direct testimony of Pliny, that Praxiteles ascribed a great part of the effect of his best works to the colouring applied by Nicias.
We know also, both from Plutarch & Plato, that statues were coloured in their times, not with one general tone, but with the appropriate tints. Pliny says the statue of Jupiter in the Capitol was coloured with minium, but whether fairly red, or reduced to a carnation, he does not say.
On the other hand, according to Lucian, the Cnidian Venus of Praxiteles, and some other celebrated statues, were not coloured, though they may have been varnished in encaustic, a practice we have reason to believe nearly universal.
After all, we cannot tell how far an approach to absolute
imitation was arrived, and experiment alone can determine to what extent it ought to be arrived at in modern art. I have little confidence in the traditional artistic theories of the Italian schools & believe less in the supposed established rules of harmony in colour than in any other of their doctrines. In fact, a residence of a few years in the East will completely overthrow any man's preconceived notions on the subject of colour, & he will be pretty likely to conclude that nature is a safe guide in this as well as in many other matters belonging to the domain of art. The Egyptians seem to have used colour in art rather conventionally, & perhaps as a mere decoration, & some ancient critics complain of the exuberance and misapplication of colour in sculpture & architecture in the decaying period of those arts.
Your judgment of George is both kind &
just. I trust he will do well, but like other badly 'brought up' boys, he has much
and to unlearn.
You are right about the tables. 'Tis little but humbug. The fact you state that the table will only turn the hand is decisive. Faraday is more charitable than I am. I have no case where I did not think there was a rogue in the play. I have not tried your own experiment, but will.
I think we shall have no war. England will submit, & advise Turkey to submit, to any humiliation & France will hardly fight the battle alone.
I hope to send you some books & pamphlets by the Levant, which will sail in a few days for the coast of Italy. I shall forward them through Mr Binda, whom, by the way, we liked much.
Mrs Marsh & my niece join in kind salutations to you all, as well as to Kellogg, Gould, & other friends.
Very truly yoursG P MarshMr H. Powers
References in this letter:
Pliny says In Natural History, book 35, section 133, Pliny the Elder writes that "It is of this Nikias that Praxiteles, when asked which of his marble statues pleased him most, said, 'Those which the hand of Nikias has touched,' such was his tribute to this artist's colouring of the accessories" (trans. K.Jex-Blake)
George Ozias Marsh, Marsh's son by his first wife Harriet Buell, was born in Burlington in 1832. He had a troubled relationship with his father, for whom he harbored ill will arising from feelings of neglect and undue severity. He never fully recovered from a typhoid attack in 1857 while at Harvard Law School, eventually became an alcoholic supported by stipends from Marsh, and died in a rooming house in New York in 1865.
Joseph A. Binda was U.S. consul at Leghorn (Livorno) in the 1840s and 1850s.
The painter Miner K. Kellogg (1814-1889) first knew Powers when they were working for rival "museums" (popular exhibitions) in Cincinnati; at that time Powers, who was twenty-three, made Kellogg, who was fourteen, the subject of his first bust, in beeswax. After becoming acquainted with the sculptor again in Florence, Kellogg oversaw the American tour (1846-1849) of Powers' Greek Slave. The two eventually quarreled about finances, and later Kellogg moved to Paris to open a gallery.
Walter Gould (1829-1893), a native of Philadelphia, came to Florence to live and paint in 1849 and remained there for the rest of his life.