Greek art

Greek art

Greek art, works of art produced in the Aegean basin, a center of artistic activity from very early times (see Aegean civilization). This article covers the art of ancient Greece from its beginnings through the Hellenistic period.

Early Greek Styles

Two great cultures—the Minoan civilization and the Mycenaean civilization—had developed complex and delicate art forms. Before 1000 B.C. invasions of Dorians and other barbarian tribes from the north laid waste the earlier Aegean cultures. While there was not the definite cultural break once envisaged by archaeologists, the chaotic conditions caused by the invasions produced at first a decline in artistic production and then a slow transformation into a new art. A geometric scheme with linear patterns replaced the curvilinear designs and naturalistic representations of the Mycenaean age. When human and animal life was again represented, the forms assumed were schematized and formal. The pottery of the late geometric period (c.900-700 B.C.) is characterized by two-dimensional stylized patterns, effectively designed but bearing little relation to nature. Between 700 and 600 B.C. this geometric style gave way to new interest in representation, and Asian influence encouraged the use of floral and arabesque designs and the adoption of Asian monster and animal themes.

The Archaic Period

During the archaic period (c.660-480 B.C.) sculpture emerged as a principal form of artistic expression. Dating from the beginning of this period are magnificent statues of nude walking youths, the kouroi, which suggest Egyptian prototypes but which are distinctive in stylization and tension of movement (e.g., Kouros, Metropolitan Mus.). Draped female sculptures from the archaic period suggest Middle Eastern influence (e.g., Hera of Samos, Louvre).

Vase painters depicted mythological scenes and, toward the end of the archaic period, many scenes from contemporary life. Outstanding was the Athenian school of black-figured vase painting led by the painter Execias. The appearance of the red-figured style of vase painting (c.525 B.C.) showed increased concern with the rendering of three-dimensional space and naturalistic detail. Euthymides and Euphronius were among the great early masters in this medium. About a generation later masterpieces were produced by the painters Brygos and Duris.

The Early Classical Period

In the early classical, or transitional, period (c.480-450 B.C.) a new humanism began to find its aesthetic expression in terms of a perfect balance between verisimilitude and abstraction of form. The largest surviving single group of sculpture is from the temple of Zeus at Olympia. Although certain conventions in rendering hair and draperies persist from the archaic period, the magnificent marble figures from the pediments reveal a new kind of insight into the structure of the human figure. Rare surviving works in bronze are the famous Charioteer (museum, Delphi) and the Zeus or Poseidon found in an ancient shipwreck off Cape Artemision (National Mus., Athens).

The Golden Age

The height of the classical period, or Golden Age (c.450-400 B.C.), was the time of Pericles and Thucydides, of the great dramatists Sophocles and Euripides, and of the young Socrates. The aesthetic ideal based on the representation of human character as an expression of a divine system embodying a rational ethic and ordered reality was integral to the culture. The sculptor Polykleitos sought to arrive at a rational norm for the structure of the ideal human figure.

The most magnificent original sculptures from this period are those from the temples of the Athenian acropolis. Earliest of these are the Parthenon sculptures including the frieze representing the Panathenaic procession and the pedimental sculptures (see Elgin Marbles). The Parthenon sculptors are anonymous, but Phidias is believed to have drawn up the designs. Somewhat later in date are the sculptures of the Hephaesteum, the Erechtheum, and the Nike Balustrade.

The Late Classical Period

In the late classical period (400-300 B.C.) there was increased emphasis on the expression of emotion in art. Sculptural works attributed to Praxiteles are characterized by elegance of proportion and graceful beauty. Powerful emotional effects are typical of the sculpture in the style of Scopas, and a new feeling for individualization and three-dimensional movement appeared in the art of Lysippos. Other sculptors of the period between 500 and 300 B.C. were Myron, Kresilas, Timotheus, and Bryaxis; painters included Polygnotus, Apollodorus, Zeuxis, Parrhasius, and Apelles. Aside from literary references, little is known about the actual work of these men. The style of the sculptors is adduced from fragments and Roman copies. Even less is known about the painters. From the vase paintings some reconstruction of the Greek school of mural painting is possible.

The Hellenistic Period

With the conquests of Alexander the Great, Greek art entered its last great phase, the Hellenistic period (see Hellenistic civilization. The importance of Athens gradually declined, and cultural centers rose at Pergamum, Rhodes, and Alexandria. Masterpieces of this period include the Nike (Victory) of Samothrace and Aphrodite of Melos (both: Louvre) and the Pergamum Frieze (Berlin Mus.). Especially charming among the minor arts are terra-cotta figurines from Tanagra. Marked tendencies toward heightening spatial illusionism are revealed in sculpture and, judging from Roman copies, prevailed also in painting (e.g., Odyssey Landscapes, Vatican).

From the 2d cent. B.C. onward copies of former masterpieces of sculpture, which only approximate their prototypes, appear frequently along with vigorous group compositions closely related to the Pergamene school (e.g., Laocoön and His Sons, Vatican). Greek and Roman artists produced these copies of former masterpieces for private patrons or the Roman state, and most of our knowledge of classical Greek art is derived from them. Although the inventive originality of Greek culture declined at this time, its influence remained of paramount importance during the Roman and Byzantine periods, and has continued to be an inspiring force throughout the history of Western culture.


See J. D. and A. B. Beazley, Greek Sculpture and Painting (1965); G. M. A. Richter, Handbook of Greek Art (5th ed. 1967); J. Charbonneaux, Archaic Greek Art (1971); J. Boardman, Greek Art (rev. ed. 1973); M. Robertson, History of Greek Art (2 vol., 1976); J. J. Pullitt, Art in the Hellenistic Age (1986).

Greece has a rich and varied artistic history spanning some 5000 years. It began in the Cycladic and Minoan prehistorical civilization, and gave birth to Western classical art in the ancient period (further developing this during the Hellenistic Period). It took in influences of Eastern civilizations and the new religion of Orthodox Christianity in the Byzantine era and absorbed Italian and European ideas during the period of Romanticism (with the invigoration of the Greek Revolution), right up until the Modernist and Postmodernist periods.

Greek art is mainly four forms: architecture, sculpture, painting and painted pottery.

Ancient Period

Greek art began in the prehistoric Cycladic and Minoan civilizations.

There are three scholarly distinctions of later ancient Greek art that correspond roughly with historical periods of the same names. These are the Archaic, the Classical and the Hellenistic. The Archaic period is usually dated from ca. 1000 BC. The Persian Wars of 480 BC to 448 BC are usually taken as the dividing line between the Archaic and the Classical periods, and before the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC is regarded as separating the Classical from the Hellenistic period. Of course, different forms of art developed at different speeds in different parts of the Greek world, and varied to a degree from artist to artist. There was no sharp transition from one artistic period to another.

The art of ancient Greece has exercised an enormous influence on the culture of many countries from ancient times until the present, particularly in the areas of sculpture and architecture. In the West, the art of the Roman Empire was largely derived from Greek models. In the East, Alexander the Great's conquests initiated several centuries of exchange between Greek, Central Asian and Indian cultures, resulting in Greco-Buddhist art, with ramifications as far as Japan. Following the Renaissance in Europe, the humanist aesthetic and the high technical standards of Greek art inspired generations of European artists.

Byzantine Period

Byzantine art is the term created by the Eastern Roman Empire from about the 5th century until the fall of Constantinople in 1453. (The Roman Empire during this period is conventionally known as the Byzantine Empire.) The term can also be used for the art of states which were contemporary with the Byzantine Empire and shared a common culture with it, without actually being part of it, such as Kazakhstan, Serbia or Russia, and also Venice, which had close ties to the Byzantine Empire despite being in other respects part of western European culture. It can also be used for the art of peoples of the former Byzantine Empire under the rule of Ottoman Empire after 1453. In some respects the Byzantine artistic tradition has continued in Russia and other Eastern Orthodox countries to the present day.

Byzantine art grew from the art of Ancient Greece, and at least before 1453 never lost sight of its classical heritage, but was distinguished from it in a number of ways. The most profound of these was that the humanist ethic of Ancient Greek art was replaced by the Christian ethic. If the purpose of classical art was the glorification of man, the purpose of Byzantine art was the glorification of God, and particularly of his son, Jesus.

In place of the nude, the figures of God the Father, Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary, and the saints and martyrs of Christian tradition were elevated and became the dominant - indeed almost exclusive - focus of Byzantine art. One of the most important forms of Byzantine art was, and still is, the icon: an image of Christ, the Virgin (particularly the Virgin and Child), or a saint, used as an object of veneration in Orthodox churches and private homes.

Post-Byzantine Period

The Cretan School was an important school of icon painting which flourished while Crete was under Venetian rule during the late Middle Ages, reaching its climax after the Fall of Constantinople, becoming the central force in Greek painting during the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries. The Cretan artists developed a particular style of painting under the influence of both Eastern and Western artistic traditions and movements; the most famous product of the school, El Greco was the most successful of the many artists who tried to build a career in Western Europe, and also the one who left the Byzantine style furthest behind him in his later career.

Modern Period

Due to the Ottoman occupation of Greece, there was very little artistic output during this time, so the de facto birth of modern Greek art was the start of the 19th century (the end of the Greek War of Independence was in 1829). Absorbing a number of Romantic influences, most notably from Italy, the result was the distinctive style of Greek Romanticist art, inspired by revolutionary ideals as well as the particular geography and long history of the country.

Contemporary Period

Theodoros Stamos (1922–1997) was a great abstract expressionism art from Lefkas that lived and worked in New York in the 40s and 50s. His work has been exhibited throughout the world, and can be found in major museum collections such as the Whitney Museum of Art, the Guggenheim Museum, Smithsonian and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

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