Although polychrome sculpture became increasingly fashionable during the 19th Century, its acceptance did not come without a struggle. The Puritan ideals of the 18th Century which held that sculpture should be white as it was in Greek art, lost credibility with the discussion of Phidias' monumental gold and ivory statue of Athena and Parthenos in John Stuart and Nicholas Revett's book entitled Antiquities of Athens, which was published as early as 1762. Although this book introduced evidence that polychrome technique was not only utilized but favored in ancient Greece, art historians of the late 18th and early 19th Centuries were quick to accuse the great Phidias of lacking taste. By 1845 the great patron of the arts in France, Duc de Luynes, commissioned Charles Simart to reconstruct Phidias' Athena Parthenos for the stairwell at Câteau de Dampierre. He would place it immediately in front of Ingres' famous fresco, The Golden Age.
The 19th Century was a time of great experimentation as well as a time for change. In painting great advances were made in compositional structures and color combinations, and a large variety of subject matter was available to artists. Nevertheless, '[the experts] consciously ignored the common ground of time and space, and continued to isolate painting and sculpture from one and other' (A. Blühm, The Color of Sculpture, Amsterdam, 1996, p. 14). Until John Gibson created his Tinted Venus, 1854, it was very unlikely for a sculptor to receive positive criticism for a polychrome statue. Even Cordier, who was blessed with major comissions such as the Paris Opéra and the Rothschilds' Château de Ferrières, was often attacked by critics for his bravura. It was the Second Empire's love of luxury that would lay the foundation for the production, enjoyment and appreciation of this advancement in sculpture. Pietro Calvi and Charles-Henri-Joseph Cordier are the two of the most renowned sculptors of this era working with colored marble.
Pietro Calvi achieved international recognition during the last quarter of the 19th Century. He not only exhibited widely in Europe, notably at the Royal Academy in London between 1872 and 1883, but also worked for a time in the United States. His American sojourn resulted in his much reproduced busts of Uncle Tom and The Minstrel. His dramatic bust of Othello is one of the masterpieces of the colored sculpture tradition.
Born in Milan, Calvi studied at the Accademia, but the greatest influence on the young artist was Giovanni Seleroni with whom he collaborated occassionally and it was he who encouraged Calvi's experiments with colored marble. Examples of Calvi's public commissions are the decoration of the Milan Cathedral, where he carved the statue of St. Valeria as well as the dome of the Galeria Victorio-Emmanuele, also in Milan.
Calvi made his London debut at the Royal Academy of 1872 with an example of his Othello which he paired with a bust of Selika. He subsequently exhibited it at the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1878 and again in Naples the following year.