Black Subjects, Science, and the Construction of Race
As Dr. Nell Irvin Painter affirms in the Introduction to The History of White People, "race is an idea, not a fact, and its questions demand answers from the conceptual rather than the factual realm." Beginning with the question of why white people are called "Caucasian," Painter traces the routes of Enlightenment theories on beauty that would eventually be used to categorize humans into increasingly specific, and often absurd, groupings.











  • Introductions
  • Experimental course
  • Class visits next week
  • How were the readings?
  • Sharing Knowledge project










In Geschichte der Kunst des Alterthums (1764) Johann Winckelmann argued, “the whiter the body is, the more beautiful it is,” and that “color contributes to beauty, but it is not beauty.” Winckelmann “championed an ideology of ancient Greek beauty based on his own gay male aesthetic" and "declared the Apollo Belvedere, already the most famous statue in Europe, the embodiment of perfect human beauty." Beyond Winckelman’s overt Eurocentrism, his opinions obfuscate abundant evidence that white marble was used by Ancient Greek and Roman sculptors for practical reasons: its softness, durability, and uniform color offered a perfect ground for bright and lively painted patterns, not because ancient Romans (the Greeks preferred bronze) saw themselves in the light color of the material.
Apollo Belvedere, 120 - 140 CE











Born into poverty in Prussia, Johann Winckelmann was able to secure an education, then a position working for the aristocrat and renowned collector of ancient art, Allesandro Cardinal Albani, in Rome. Now considered the founder of modern archaeology and art history, Winckelmann established a chronological basis and canon for ancient art while working for the aristocrat Allesandro Cardinal Albani, in Rome. As Nell Irvin Painter argues, “unaware that the Greek originals were often dark in color, he did not know–or glossed over the knowledge–that the Greeks routinely painted their sculpture. He saw only Roman versions of beautiful young men carved of hard Italian marble that shone a gleaming white”and projected on to the works the self-serving belief that the Greeks and Romans preferred to sculpt in marble because they too equated lighter skin with beauty.
Gods in Color
The myth of whiteness in classical sculpture
Polychrome reconstruction of the Prima Porta statue of Augustus from the 1st century AD, 2004. Painted plaster cast made after a prototype by P. Liverani, Vatican Museums, Rome.











Sir John Chardin traveled extensively, and frequently, to Persia and the East Indies during the 1670s and 1680s seeking precious gems and unusual objects for King Louis XIV's court. During a trip detailed in The Travels of Sir John Chardin into Persia and the East Indies, 1673-1677, Chardin was rerouted through the Black Sea region to the Caucasus (today's Chechnya and Georgia). Although he described the people of the region as vulgar thieves, and "complete savages" his description of the Georgian people as nonetheless, "the most beautiful in the Orient," and Georgian women enslaved in the sex trade as being "impossible to look at...without falling in love with them" because of their "charming faces" and "tall, graceful, slender, and poised" figures will be cited frequently to establish slave women from the Black Sea region as the western ideal of beauty.
Jean-Léon Gérome, Slave Market, 1866











One of the earliest thinkers to become interested in comparative anatomy, Camper developed a measurement of the human face that quantified "the relationship between the projection of the forehead, mouth, and chin." Sometime in the 1770s Camper drew an illustrated chart comparing the faces and skulls of a chimpanzee, a Negro, a Kalmuck, a European, and the Apollo Belvedere. While he intended the chart to demonstrate the nearly equal measurements between humans when compared to the chimpanzee, the chart is difficult to read, and has been used extensively to support arguments contrary to Camper's egalitarian view. In particular, his placement of the Negro face next to the chimpanzee face, and the European face next to the Apollo Belvedere was taken to confirm white supremacy.
Petrus Camper, Facial Angles of Chimpanzee, Humans and the Apollo Belvedere, 1791.











Johann Blumenbach's hugely influential classification of humans, On the Natural Variety of Mankind (1781) argues that “climate produces differences in skin color.” As a monogenesist, Blumenbach worked against a number of contradictory observations as he identified five groups of humans: Caucasian, Mongolian, Malayan, Ethiopian, and American. Although, as Painter notes, "scholars could never agree on how many varieties of people existed, where the boundaries between them lay, and which physical traits counted in separating them. Nor have two hundred and more years of racial inquiry diminished confusion on this issue." Nonetheless, over time, Blumenbach's five categories would somewhat arbitrarily gain acceptance, while also offering the name, "Caucasian" to describe certain lightly pigmented groups living in Europe. The idea that began with beauty, and was inextricably coupled with sexual enslavement, would be used to describe white people for generations to come, and make skin color a crucial factor in deciding race.
Johann Blumenbach, Principle Varieties of Mankind, 1779