Greek Art - Archaic, Classical, and Hellenistic

Topic 4: Greek Art - Archaic, Classical, and Hellenistic

  • Greek culture - and therefore Greek art - was not confined to modern-day Greece. Sicily, southern Italy, and parts of what is now Turkey were all part of "greater Greece". They were important centers of artistic production and the location of many surviving monuments.

  • For much of its history Greece was divided into city-states. The most important of these was Athens, often considered the birthplace of democracy (though slavery and slave labor played a large role in Greek, and later Roman, life). Athens had a rich literary and artistic culture, which was infused with its civic ideals.

  • The Acropolis of Athens, an ancient citadel, is home to some of the most celebrated monuments in art history, notably the Parthenon - a temple of Athena, the city's patron goddess, built in the fifth century B.C.E., when Athens was the leader of a group of city-states and at the height of its influence. The fifth and fourth centuries B.C.E. represent the Classical period of Greek art and culture. (Pre-Classical art is referred to as Archaic.)

  • At the end of the Classical period, Greece was united under the rule of Alexander the Great, who died in 323 B.C.E. Alexander's empire stretched into Asia; the decline of self-ruled city-states and increased contact with the cultures of the Near East altered Greek art as well as Greek life. This is known as the Hellenistic period; it ended with the absorption of Greece into the Roman Empire in the second century B.C.E.

  • Ideals of balance, harmony, and physical perfection were central to Greek art and culture, especially during the Classical period. The idea of life after death was relatively unimportant to the Greeks. The gods of the Greek pantheon were depicted as human in form, with human concerns. Idealized images of the human body dominate Greek art.

  • Sculpture is the art form most strongly associated with Ancient Greece (painting was important, too, but very little has survived, except for vase paintings). The favored material was marble, which is easier to work and more luminous than some other stones. Greek sculptures were originally heavily painted in strong colors such as red and black, so they looked very different from the pure white objects known to later generations. Full-length bronze figures were common as well, but fewer have survived.
  • Sculptural depictions of the human body began during the Archaic period; a female figure was known as a kore (maiden), a male figure as a kouros (youth). These figures were more stylized and less realistic than those of the Classical period. Rigidly upright posture and tightly curled hair are characteristic of Archaic sculpture.
  • Classical sculptors such as Polykleitos strove to create a sense of life in their figures through the accurate depiction of posture and musculature, while also observing standards of harmony and proportion. Much free-standing sculpture of the Classical period is actually known to us through later Roman copies.
  • Hellenistic sculptors placed more emphasis on motion and drama, exaggerating many Classical traits. Facial expressions and the folds of drapery are deeply carved, creating shadows. The Winged Victory of Samothrace is among the best known examples.
  • Greek architecture shows the same concern with harmony and proportion. Its most characteristic element is the use of columns in one of three styles, known as orders: the Doric, the Ionic, and the Corinthian. The columns, like many other elements of Greek architecture, represent the translation into stone of elements of wood construction. Like Greek sculpture, Greek buildings were once brightly painted.
  • Sculpted decoration was an important element of many Greek buildings. Perhaps the most celebrated examples are the carvings that originally adorned the Parthenon (built using the Doric order). Originally, architectural sculpture most often appeared on the pediment - the triangular space between the top of the columns and the peak of the roof. But in the Hellenistic period, this and other rules were often broken, as the Altar of Zeus from Pergamon shows.

Related Links:
Greek Art - Archaic, Classical, & Hellenistic Quiz
The Ancient Near East
AP Art History Quizzes
AP Art History Notes