An early example of polychrome decoration was found in the Parthenon atop the Acropolis of Athens. By the time European antiquarianism took off in the 18th century, however, the paint that had been on classical buildings had completely weathered off. Thus, the antiquarians' and architects' first impressions of these ruins were that classical beauty was expressed only through shape and composition, lacking in robust colours, and it was that impression which informed neo-classical architecture. However, some classicists such as Jacques Ignace Hittorff noticed traces of paint on classical architecture and this slowly came to be accepted. Such acceptance was later accelerated by observation of minute colour traces by microscopic and other means, enabling less tentative reconstructions than Hittorff and his contemporaries had been able to produce. An example of classical Greek architectural polychrome may be seen in the full size replica of the Parthenon exhibited in Nashville, Tennessee, USA.
Polychrome building facades later rose in popularity as a way of highlighting certain trim features in Queen Anne architecture in the United States. The rise of the modern paint industry following the civil war also helped to fuel the (sometimes extravagant) use of multiple colors.
The Polychrome facade style faded with the rise of the 20th century's revival movements, which stressed classical colors applied in restrained fashion. The polychrome movement reappeared in San Francisco, California in the 1970s, to describe and remains popular today on Victorian era houses. During the 1970s, multiple polychrome houses in San Francisco earned the endearment 'Painted Ladies', a term that in 2004 is considered kitsch when it is applied to describe all Victorian houses that have been painted with various period colors.
John Joseph Earley (1881-1945) developed a "polychrome" process of concrete slab construction and ornamentation that was admired across America. In the Washington metropolitan area, his products graced a variety of buildings - all formed by the staff of the Earley Studio in Rosslyn, Virginia. The John J. Earley Polychrome Houses in Silver Spring, Maryland, were built in the mid 1930s. The concrete panels were pre-cast with colorful stones and shipped to the lot for on-site assembly. Earley wanted to develop a higher standard of affordable housing after the Depression, but only a handful of the houses were built before he died and written records of his concrete casting techniques were destroyed in a fire. Less well-known, but just as impressive, is the Dr. Fealy Polychrome House that Earley built atop a hill in Southeast Washington, D.C. overlooking the city. His uniquely designed polychrome houses outstanding among prefabricated houses in the country, appreciated for their Art Deco ornament and superb craftsmanship.
Some very early polychrome pottery has been excavated on Minoan Crete such as at the Bronze Age site of Phaistos. In ancient Greece sculptures were painted in strong colours. The paint was frequently limited to parts depicting clothing, hair, and so on, with the skin left in the natural colour of the stone, but it could also cover sculptures in their totality. The painting of Greek sculpture should not merely be seen as an enhancement of their sculpted form, but has the characteristics of a distinct style of art. For example, the pedimental sculptures from the Temple of Aphaia on Aegina have recently been demonstrated to have been painted with bold and elaborate patterns, depicting, amongst other details, patterned clothing. The polychrome of stone statues was paralleled by the use of different materials to distinguish skin, clothing and other details in chryselephantine sculptures, and by the use of different metals to depict lips, nipples, etc, on high-quality bronzes like the Riace Warriors.
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