Scholars of Greek and Roman art have long recognized that many sculptures that today appear unpainted were originally covered in bright, polychrome paint. In contrast, the hallowed works of China's classical antiquity, the bronzes, are generally believed to have been monochrome works. In recent years, however, many varieties of bronzes have been unearthed with polychrome ornamentation including sacrificial vessels, figural sculptures, mirrors, lamps, weapons, and personal ornaments. This article summarizes and interprets the current evidence for painting on early Chinese bronze artifacts based on recent archaeological discoveries and on newer advances in technical analysis. In particular, I show that the practice of applying paint to bronzes goes far beyond embedding pigment into the intaglio channels of bronzes such as occurred during the Shang and Western Zhou eras. I also demonstrate that especially in the Warring States and early imperial periods, painted coloration on bronzes took off in diversely rich and compelling ways. This article highlights the various modes and techniques of painting bronze in early China, and offers several hypotheses as to why such polychrome ornamentation was desirable in early China, reconciling those motives with our quite different modern sensibilities.

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