Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 14, 2016
Mary Ann Eaverly Tan Men/Pale Women: Color and Gender in Archaic Greece and Egypt, a Comparative Approach Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2013. 192 pp.; 25 b/w ills. Cloth $65.00 (9780472119110)

Mary Ann Eaverly’s Tan Men/Pale Women: Color and Gender in Archaic Greece and Egypt, a Comparative Approach addresses the skin color differentiation of men and women in ancient Egyptian and Greek art. Eaverly criticizes the marginalization of this topic in current scholarly discussion and contends that, in instances where the topic has been explored, interpretations are generally outdated. According to Eaverly, the consensus that male/female skin color differentiation occurs because it realistically indicates sun exposure—men are habitually outside in the sun, whereas women remain indoors—is an inadequate conclusion that continues to be recycled in scholarship today. In the book, she attempts to fill this void by looking closely at representations of skin color in both ancient Egyptian and Archaic Greek art, and examines the ways these conventions respond to the dynamics of their respective societies and religions.

The book is a loose synthesis of Eaverly’s previous articles on the subject, and it never really explicates how Egyptian and Greek art interact with one another beyond a generalized statement that Egyptians influenced Greeks. Eaverly’s overarching argument is that male/female skin color differentiation in the visual arts was not realistic but symbolic. In Egyptian art, the dark skin of males and the light skin of females represents duality, a concept central to Egyptian religion; in Greek art, the same differentiation emphasizes the distinct, opposing roles of men and women in society. Eaverly examines the above in two parts: first, by outlining what she refers to as the “norm,” and second, by juxtaposing the norm with what she describes as an “exception to the rule,” suggesting that the exceptions are concomitant with a changing sociopolitical climate.

Chapter 1, “Egypt: Establishing the Norm—Old Kingdom Precedents,” introduces basic principles of ancient Egyptian art from the late Predynastic Period (ca. 3500–3000 BCE) through the New Kingdom (ca. 1550–1070 BCE), focusing primarily on the most well-known examples of elite funerary statues from the Old Kingdom, by which time, the author states, color conventions were firmly established (28–29). Eaverly rejects the interpretation that the gender-differential skin color convention realistically depicts sun exposure. Instead, she argues that the differentiation is meant to express duality, or “oppositional pairs” (40), which mirrors concepts of Egyptian ideology, such as the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt, or order and chaos, where “unions of opposites symbolized completion” (40). Eaverly further suggests that binary skin color in tomb paintings was a way to demarcate the dual, complementary roles of men and women in the perpetuation of the creation myth, as well as the role of women to act as a stimulus for reproduction, thus guaranteeing the afterlife of the tomb owner (41). Such completion, she argues, was imperative to maintain order in the cosmos, and male and female colors, which she believes are opposites, are just one method of portraying this duality.

Chapter 2, “Egypt: The Exception That Proves the Rule—Hatshepsut and Akhenaten,” presents two case studies of deviation from traditional Egyptian art, both from the Eighteenth Dynasty of the New Kingdom, during reigns that the author calls “crisis points” (17). One example focuses on the reign of Queen Hatshepsut who, upon the death of her husband and her elevation to regent, declared herself king, appropriated the relevant names and titles, and ruled in her own right. Eaverly centers her discussion on Hatshepsut’s mortuary temple at Deir el-Bahri whose statuary and reliefs exemplify the visual means of authenticating her kingship. She explains that Hatshepsut used masculine conventions for her representations, yet did not completely discard feminine characteristics, even using feminine grammar in the inscriptions. For instance, Hatshepsut’s Osiride statues appear with various skin colors—yellow, reddish-brown, and orange—and are grouped by color in different areas of the temple. Eaverly tentatively subscribes to Roland Tefnin’s interpretation that these differently colored statues have chronological significance (Roland Tefnin, La statuaire d’Hatshepsout: Portrait royal et politique sous la 18e dynastie, Brussels: Fondation égyptologique reine Elisabeth, 1979, 37–71), proposing that the yellow-skinned statues date to early in Hatshepsut’s reign while the darker-skinned statues date to later (62), but she then groups the Osiride statues with yellow (female) skin with the other, non-Osiride statues that possess a feminine form and dark (male) skin as “Hatshepsut’s endeavor to combine her ‘two genders’—her biological femaleness and her male iconic role as pharaoh” (64). She further argues that eventually this gender combination, namely the presence of feminine attributes, may have called Hatshepsut’s legitimacy as king into question, and it became imperative to portray herself solely as a male with both male skin color and form. The examples offered to substantiate this hypothesis are the dark-skinned Osiride statues that may date to later in her reign in which Hatshepsut is depicted as entirely male. However, the validity of this interpretation is tenuous when one takes into account the consistently feminine grammatical inscriptions.

Chapter 3, “Greece: Establishing the Norm—the Road to Attic Figure,” concentrates on skin color differentiation in black-figure vase painting. Eaverly postulates that male/female skin color differentiation in Attic black-figure vases does not signify the complementarity of men and women as in Egyptian art, but emphasizes that “women are fundamentally different from men” (105) in terms of activity and nature. She provides a brief history of Greek vase painting from the Geometric Period through the sixth-century BCE, only minimally covering Greek Bronze Age painting because, she states, male/female skin color differentiation in Bronze Age Minoan and Mycenaean vase paintings and frescos is inconsistent and likely not particularly influential on later Greek art (11, 87). In her historical analysis, Eaverly sums up the Orientalizing Period with an Early Attic amphora depicting two Greek myths; the two male heroes represented on either side of the vase are painted opposite colors—Odysseus is painted white while Perseus is black. She attributes the differential colors not to Egyptian convention but to a Near Eastern one in which, in the extremely limited corpus of surviving wall paintings, both men and women are variably painted with pale or dark skin. For Eaverly, these paintings indicate that color was not important in portraying gender in Near Eastern art, an idea she applies to the vases of the Early Attic period. But when Corinthian vases emerge, gender color differentiation, which in this case the author attributes to Egyptian influence, reappears. Men are typically painted reddish-brown whereas women are rendered in outline with their skin left the light reserve color of the clay or painted white. Her argument that Egyptian art influenced Greek art, however, is superficial, supported only by the limited examples in the first two chapters of the book; they precede the Greek art examples by, at the earliest, six hundred years. Including examples of skin color differentiation in Egyptian art from a time more contemporaneous with the Greek art study, for instance the Twenty-Fifth through Twenty-Sixth Dynasties (ca. 747–525 BCE), might have been useful.

The discussion on Attic black-figure painting begins first with textual references from Homer and Hesiod, among others, who describe the dichotomy of men as dark and women as white. Again, Eaverly mentions the long-accepted interpretation that women were confined indoors and had paler skin as a result of limited sun exposure. Scholars such as John Boardman maintain this interpretation today (John Boardman, Athenian Black Figure Vases, corrected edition, London: Thames and Hudson, 1991, 16), even though there is ample evidence that women engaged in activities outside the home, such as lower-class women who worked as midwives (Sue Blundell, Women in Ancient Greece, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995, 145). In this survey, Eaverly offers numerous examples of vases, not all of them reproduced here, featuring women painted white. However, this part of the chapter is confusing for one not familiar with Attic black figure. Although Eaverly is trying to illustrate that, as a rule, men are dark and women are pale, she presents several exceptions to this rule in which men are also painted white, e.g., an image of a hydra depicting Herakles and Eurystheus, both male and white. Thus, her intended argument is, for me, unclear.

Chapter 4, “Greece: The Exception That Proves the Rule—Attic Red Figure,” deals with the emergence and later dominance of red-figure painting and the question of why men and women were no longer painted in the binary fashion of black and white. In Attic red-figure vase art both the poses of the figures, painted in what Eaverly proposes is a naturalistic style, and their settings are drastically different than the earlier black-figure paintings. For example, women tend to be depicted alone or in interior settings as a means to convey their fundamental difference from men, whereas earlier black-figure artists accomplished this distinction with color (149–50).

Eaverly’s original and convincing contribution is the suggestion that red figure is “a response to societal trends” (146), primarily concentrating not on the fundamental differences between men and women but rather on “status issues of men vis a vis one another” (146). The Pioneer Group vases illustrate this point; in symposium scenes, aristocrats appear to be in mixed company with the vase painters themselves (145), perhaps as a commentary on the emerging democratic society. She suggests that red figure may also be a response to increased cultural interactions with the “other.” As evidence of the ways Athenians contrasted themselves against the other, Eaverly includes a Janiform vase featuring a Greek woman’s head in the red-figure style on one side and the head of an African man painted black on the other. Eaverly thus posits that skin color differentiation, where it appears in Attic red-figure painting, was a model used to depict a polarity between Greeks and foreigners.

Eaverly points out that she is neither an Egyptologist nor a vase painting specialist (16), and states that her lack of these specializations is beneficial to a broad study in which it is necessary to look at the bigger picture. She succeeds in problematizing the study of conventions in male/female color differentiation in the art of Egypt and early Greece, but, as she suggests, expanding the analysis to include Etruscan, Roman, and Near Eastern art could be extremely valuable. Her presentation, though sometimes confusing at the level of detail, is broadly clear and accessible to an audience unfamiliar with the subject matter. Lastly, the book, whose subject is color, contains only twenty-five black-and-white images—nine Egyptian and sixteen Greek examples—which is somewhat dissatisfying.

Briana C. Jackson
PhD candidate, Institute of Fine Arts, New York University