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 BC 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 BC) is characterized by two-dimensional stylized patterns, effectively designed but bearing little relation to nature. Between 700 and 600 BC 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 BC) 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 BC) 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 BC) 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 BC), 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 BC) 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 BC 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. BC 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); J. Charbonneaux, Archaic Greek Art (1971); M. Robertson, History of Greek Art (2 vol., 1976); J. J. Pullitt, Art in the Hellenistic Age (1986); G. M. A. Richter, A Handbook of Greek Art (9th ed. 1987); J. Boardman, Greek Art (4th ed., rev. and expanded, 1996); J. H. Oakley, The Greek Vase (2013).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2015, The Columbia University Press.

Greek Art: Selected full-text books and articles

New Chapters in Greek Art By Percy Henry Gardner Clarendon Press, 1926
Approach to Greek Art By Charles Seltman Studio Publications, 1948
Art in Greece By A. De Ridder; W. Deonna Alfred A. Knopf, 1927
Greek Art: A Study of the Formal Evolution of Style By Rhys Carpenter University of Pennsylvania Press, 1962
Form and Color in Greek Painting By Vincent J. Bruno W. W. Norton, 1977
Horse, Bird & Man: The Origins of Greek Paintings By J. L. Benson University of Massachusetts Press, 1970
Masterpieces of Greek Art: Text and Color Photography By Raymond V. S. J. Schoder New York Graphic Society, 1960
Greek Art, the Basis of Later European Art By Arthur Fairbanks Longmans, Green and Co., 1933
FREE! A Grammar of Greek Art By Percy Gardner The Macmillan Company, 1905
The Fall of Troy in Early Greek Poetry and Art By Michael J. Anderson Clarendon Press, 1997
The Art of Crete and Early Greece: The Prelude to Greek Art By Friedrich Matz; Ann E. Keep Greystone Press, 1962
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