You are here

Tan Men/Pale Women: Color and Gender in Archaic Greece and Egypt. A Comparative Approach

Tan Men/Pale Women: Color and Gender in Archaic Greece and Egypt. A Comparative Approach

By Mary Ann Eaverly. Pp. xi + 181, figs. 25. The University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor 2013. $65. ISBN 978-0-472-11911 (cloth).

Reviewed by

I trust that I am not the only teacher guilty of regularly informing his students of the convention in ancient art that women’s skin is colored white and men’s is colored reddish-brown (or swarthy), and that this is so because ancient women spent most of their time in the home, out of the darkening rays of the sun, while ancient men spent most of their time out in the open, on athletic or battle fields, in hunting grounds, or in the agora. Such generalizations allow us to avoid the paralysis of particulars and to gloss over the many exceptions that may prove the rule but that would take too long to explore in survey courses that must move along. But from time to time, it is a good thing to test the validity of bromides, and this is what Eaverly has done in this short, uneven, but useful book. It is not that Eaverly denies the convention itself: for the most part, women really are pale and men really are darker. What she questions is the assumption that the convention is “realistic” or “naturalistic,” and it is her thesis that ancient artists are not so much concerned with imitating the way male and female skin really looked as they were with what the distinction of skin color symbolized. “Color differentiation” is, she argues, more than just a device to show which gender spent more time out of doors: it is a key to how ancient cultures viewed or constructed the world. It is primarily an ideological tool for distinguishing male and female at a cultural and political level, for “inscribing gender relations” (27).

An introduction sets out the issues to be tackled. Two chapters on Egyptian art follow. The first argues that the establishment of color differentiation (the binary system of pale skin for women and dark skin for men) was contemporary with the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt, and thus the establishment of the Egyptian nation-state, ca. 3100 B.C.E. The convention clearly distinguished men and women as opposites and so visually supported the maat, the concept of a balanced cosmos fundamental to Egyptian belief. At the same time, the convention supported the new dominant role of the male in Egyptian culture: society, Eaverly argues, had been more egalitarian in the Predynastic period, where color differentiation is not much in evidence (47–8). In the end, the opposition between the pale and the tan in Dynastic art is not realistic but symbolic of the new order—of a new view of the world. On the whole the case is made, though conventions have to begin somewhere, and I wonder if this one might not have been “realistic” at least in origin: after all, if color differentiation were purely symbolic, men might be pale and women tan and the expression of “complementary opposition” (55) would be just as clear. Along the same lines, Eaverly concedes that color can at times signify ethnicity or “race.” Nubians can be painted black and Asiatics yellow, so “realism” plays a role in color choice after all (35, 49).

The great exceptions to the “woman=pale/man=dark” dichotomy occur in the New Kingdom, during the extraordinary 18th-Dynasty reigns of Hatshepsut and Akhenaten (the subjects of ch. 2). Hatshepsut (not the only female ruler in Egypt’s history) experiments with a blend of gender indicators early in her reign but eventually adopts a fully male iconography for herself, including dark skin—all the better to convince Egyptians that she was performing that quintessentially male job (being pharaoh) as it had always been performed. For her, skin color was a visual marker of legitimacy. For everyone else in the art of her reign, the old convention is maintained (i.e., women other than Hatshepsut are pale). Color can still, from time to time, indicate ethnicity (as in the Punt reliefs from Deir el-Bahari, where Prince Parehu and his huge wife, Eti, are both dark-skinned). But for Eaverly, the case of Hatshepsut “confirms the close connection between male/female color differentiation and pharaonic ideology” (70). The revolutionary Akhenaten, however, dispenses with color differentiation altogether: in the brief Amarna period, women and men are painted the same color—either reddish-brown or a color akin to orange. And the new palette, Eaverly argues, symbolically links men and women to the Aten, whose disk and arms and gentle hands are painted the same color as they (78): color thus symbolizes the unity of humankind with its (only) god. And so Akhenaten himself, usually painted dark, also has female physical characteristics to indicate not his real appearance (and a hormonal imbalance) but the single, all-encompassing nature of the Aten: Akhenaten’s apparent gender-bending is symbolic, too.

This section of the book could be better illustrated (e.g., a drawing of the Predynastic Hierakonpolis mural would have benefited the lengthy discussion on pp. 48–50), and it is marred by repetition (e.g., having been told on p. 7 that Osiris is often painted black because of his connection to the fertile earth, we are told this again later, twice, on two successive pages [33–4]). There is also the occasional error (for most, the 3rd Dynasty, not the 4th, still marks the beginning of the Old Kingdom [28–9]; and the portraits of Rahotep and Nofret are on p. 29 dated to the 5th Dynasty, when the caption on p. 30 correctly dates them to the 4th). So, too, Eaverly does not address well-known New Kingdom tomb paintings where the skin color of servant girls is dark (does the trio of swarthy musicians in the Tomb of Nakht violate convention because they are servants and thus not subject to the same rules as the elites?). It is also unclear how the author would explain, say, the hunting-and-fishing scene in the Tomb of Menena at Thebes, where Menena’s wife and daughters are as reddish-brown as he (the tomb dates to the reign of Tuthmosis IV, and so dispensing with color differentiation here anticipates the supposedly “revolutionary” practices of the Amarna period by a generation or two). But on the whole, Eaverly makes her point.

Chapter 3 begins an examination of pale and dark in Greek art. After a cursory treatment of color differentiation in Bronze Age Aegean frescoes (Eaverly cannot quite decide what explains the white skin of two out of three bull-jumpers in the famous Toreador fresco from Knossos [86], and she does not mention the frescoes of Akrotiri, where color differentiation usually holds, but where different shades of reddish-brown can be used to indicate different ages for males), she turns to Archaic vase painting, and it immediately becomes clear how diverse Greek approaches could be. For example, “male/female color differentiation is not part of ... gender construction” in Attic Geometric imagery (93). On the neck panel of the Proto-Attic Eleusis amphora (fig. 15), the male hero Odysseus is painted white, but so are the female Gorgons on the body of the vase. On a Corinthian amphora in Paris (fig. 18), both Ismene and her lover Theoclymenos are painted white, while Tydeus is black, and for Eaverly the white is neither symbolic nor a gender indicator but just an artistic way “to provide a visual contrast” (113). It is in Athenian black-figure that color differentiation is most consistent, and it is there, especially, that “women’s lighter skin does not reflect an actual seclusion, but rather an ideological seclusion” (125). That is, women on vases such as the Swing Painter’s amphora in Boston (fig. 21) are painted white not because they were kept out of the sun but because the color separated them from men conceptually (Eaverly implies that if realism were the issue, the woman on the swing, since she is outside, should be tanned [124]; we might suggest instead that women are white, even out of doors, in the same way that Achilles is swift-footed whether he is running or sitting still). And for Eaverly, the sharp distinction between black men and white women is rooted in the Athenian myth that men are autochthonous, while women (daughters of Pandora) are manufactured products (128). Color differentiation is an expression of the notion that women belong to “an alien race living in the midst of men” (130).

But that ideology is apparently undercut ca. 530 B.C.E., for it is the argument of chapter 4 (the most tentative chapter) that just as the traditional color scheme can be dispensed with in Egypt for ideological reasons, so the abandonment of color differentiation in Athenian red-figure just might reflect changing ideas about women and be “consonant with” other Late Archaic political or cultural phenomena, such as the reforms of Kleisthenes (144–46) or “the newly emphasized polarity of Athenian versus foreigner” (155). That is, the red-figure-ness of both Athenian men and women emphasizes their Athenian-ness, though the invention of red-figure precedes Kleisthenes’ reforms by two decades, and, as Eaverly herself concedes, “no evidence supports the idea that equality of skin color is equivalent to any other kind of social equality” (144). And, of course, foreigners such as Persians are red figures, too. Ultimately, women are marked as different in red-figure not by color but by context, their “setting and sphere of activity” (152).

There are more exceptions to the (various) rules than Eaverly allows, but her book is a challenge to conventional wisdom and to easy, survey-level generalizations. As an argument that color differentiation is more complex than might at first appear, it succeeds.  

Jeffrey M. Hurwit
Department of Classics
University of Oregon

Book Review of Tan Men/Pale Women: Color and Gender in Archaic Greece and Egypt. A Comparative Approach, by Mary Ann Eaverly

Reviewed by Jeffrey M. Hurwit

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 119, No. 1 (January 2015)

Published online at


Add new comment

Plain text

  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.