The styles and techniques the ancient Greeks developed in painting, mosaics*, and sculpture have had an enormous influence on the art that followed. Borrowed and adapted by the ancient Romans and spread throughout the Roman empire, the art of classical* Greece became the model for great painters and sculptors throughout the history of Europe.
Ancient Greek artists painted on a variety of surfaces, including stucco-lined walls, wood panels, stone pillars and tombs, and pottery. Painters who worked on larger objects, such as walls and panels, were known as monumental painters. They were greatly respected and honored by the ancient Greeks. Unfortunately, little of their work survives. Much of what is known about the evolution of Greek painting comes from examples of painted pottery, especially vases.
* mosaic art form in which small pieces of stone or glass are set in cement; also refers to a picture made in this manner
* classical in Greek history, refers to the period of great political and cultural achievement from about 500 B.C. to 323 B.C.
Monumental Painting. Ancient writers, especially Pliny the Elder and Pausanias, describe the work and reputation of the wall and panel painters of classical Athens. Known for his skill at portraying emotion, Polygnotos of Thasos, the first great painter of this period, painted murals of famous battles on several important buildings in Athens. Other artists in the 400s B.C. developed techniques that made paintings seem more realistic. Agatharchos, for instance, developed a system of perspective—a way of giving a painting the appearance of depth and distance—perhaps while painting scenery for the plays of Aeschylus.
Artists further refined these techniques in the 300s B.C., the “golden age” of Greek painting.
Paintings on the inside and outside of tombs and on stelae* provide more evidence regarding ancient Greek painting. Archaeologists have uncovered tombs in Macedonia dating from the early 300s B.C. The paintings on these tombs feature rich colors, skillful shading, and dramatic expression.
Early Greek Vase Painting. Greek painted pottery dates back to the 900s B.C. These early vases, painted in a style known as Geometric, were decorated with bands of geometric patterns, such as diamonds, triangles, and zigzags. Some pottery incorporated small, simple silhouettes of horses and people as part of these ornamental bands. Later, painters from Athens and the Greek city of Corinth experimented with more ambitious illustrations, including scenes from Greek mythology, such as Perseus beheading Medusa and the exploits of Heracles. Specializing in small, red-clay vessels for holding oils, the Corinthian painters engraved fine decorative details onto dark painted silhouettes. Other colors, mainly reds and whites, were then added. The masterpiece of this style is the Chigi Vase, a small wine pitcher on which a fierce battle is depicted.
In the late 600s B.C., Corinthian painters added their refined engraved work to the larger pottery vessels popular in Athens, producing the “black-figure” style that became the dominant style throughout Greece. In this style of painting, details were created by a sharp instrument that cut through the black glaze of the figures to the lighter clay color of the vase. Although at first illustrating mythological subjects in ornamental bands, or friezes, black-figure painters experimented with scenes of fewer and larger figures. Exekias, one of the finest of all Greek vase painters, is the artist of a famous amphora*, now in the Vatican Museum, that depicts the Greek heroes Achilles and Ajax hunched over a game board.
* amphora large, oval jar with two handles and a wide mouth
* krater jar or vase with a wide mouth and a large, round body that is used for mixing wine and water
* relief method of sculpture in which the design is raised from the surface from which it is shaped
The Red-figure Style. Around 525 B.C., an artist known as the Andokides Painter invented the “red-figure” style of pottery painting, essentially reversing the technique of the black-figure style. In red-figure painting, the background of the illustration was painted black, leaving the reddish color of the clay for the figures. Details, such as facial features, could then be painted on, rather than engraved, making individual figures stand out more than the silhouettes of black-figure painting. Red-figure painting was particularly appropriate for depicting scenes of daily life, such as athletes exercising, music competitions, and school scenes. Between 520 and 480 B.C., the great age of red-figure painting, many fine painters produced increasingly experimental and personal work. One of the finest examples of this period is the great krater* by Euphronios, now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. On one side, it shows the death of the epic hero Sarpedon and, on the other side, ordinary soldiers arming themselves.
The best Athenian vase painters of the 400s B.C. were influenced by the art on public buildings, especially the relief* sculpture of the great buildings on the Acropolis. These artists also imitated the styles of the monumental painters of the period, with scenes from mythology and legend again becoming popular. In an offshoot of the red-figure style, painters of lekythoi (narrow jugs used for scented oil in funeral rites) covered pottery with delicate multicolored freehand drawings—usually of mourners at a tomb—on a white background.
Vases with red-figure painting were also produced in the Greek cities of southern Italy and Sicily, although they were not as fine as Athenian painting. By the end of the 300s B.C., the style disappeared as painted pottery became less important.
Mosaics made of rounded pebbles set in a layer of cement were used as flooring as early as the 1000s B.C. Beginning in the 400s B.C., however, artists created elaborate illustrations and designs using this technique. Many places in Greece had floors decorated with mosaics, but the finest early examples were from the city of Olynthos in Macedonia. Found in private homes, usually on the floors of dining rooms, these mosaics contained a central rectangular or circular panel depicting a scene from Greek mythology, surrounded by an ornamental border. Later artists attempted to imitate the effects of the painting of the time by using smaller pebbles and a greater variety of colors. The masterpiece of the art of pebble mosaic was created in two large buildings at Pella, the capital of Macedonia, in the late 300s B.C. In addition to mythological
* terra-cotta hard-baked clay, either glazed or unglazed topics, these mosaics depict a lion hunt and a deer hunt, subjects associated with the Macedonian leader Alexander the Great.
ALEXANDER THE GREAT’S PERSONAL SCULPTOR
Alexander the Great would allow only his court sculptor, Lysippos of Sikyon, to create his image. According to the Greek biographer Plutarch, Lysippos captured Alexander's likeness exactly, portraying the king with his head tilted dramatically to one side, his mouth slightly open, and with melting eyes. This was the expression, according to Plutarch, that Alexander's friends liked to imitate.
In the 200s B.C., artists invented the tessellated mosaic, which is a mosaic made from small cubes of stone, glass, and terra-cotta*. The technique was so refined that as many as 30 tesserae, or cubes, could fit into a square centimeter. Since these mosaics decorated private homes, most depicted pleasant subjects such as scenes from drama or mythology. A particularly fine tessellated mosaic, found in the House of the Masks on the island of Delos, portrays the god Dionysus riding a leopard.
Most surviving early Greek sculpture consists of small terra-cotta or bronze statues, usually of animals, that were used for decorative or religious purposes. In the 600s B.C., inspired by Near Eastern and Egyptian culture, the Greeks experimented with new styles and techniques. In the “Daedalic” style (named after Daedalus, the mythical inventor and artist), human figures were molded in terra-cotta or carved from ivory or stone. Rigid standing figures with arms pressed against the sides, Daedalic sculptures had flat-top heads and triangular faces that were flanked with horizontally arranged waves of hair.
The typical Greek sculpture of the 500s B.C. were kouroi, which were large stone figures of nude young men, and korai, similarly large statues of clothed young women. At first very blocklike in form, like the Egyptian statues on which they were modeled, the kouroi and korai gradually became more anatomically realistic. All Greek stone statues were originally brightly painted, including facial features, hair, and skin.
The Greeks had long used bronze to make small statues, but by the classical period, they created large bronze figures using a method called the lost-wax technique. The lost-wax technique consisted of coating a clay model with wax. The wax-covered figure was then covered with material that hardened around the wax, which was then melted. Molten bronze was poured into the space where the wax had been. Once the bronze had cooled and hardened, the clay model in the center was removed, and the result was a hollow bronze sculpture.
Sculptures in the 400s B.C. displayed a sense of movement and a more natural depiction of the body than that of the rigid kouroi. Athletes became popular subjects for sculpture, such as the Discus Thrower by Myron. Also, sculptors began to explore states of consciousness in their work, giving their statues facial expressions and postures that showed concentration, fatigue, or dismay.
The most famous sculptor of the period was Phidias. A friend of the Athenian leader Pericles, Phidias supervised all the artwork on the Acropolis in Athens. His most famous works, such as a colossal statue of the goddess Athena in the Parthenon, have not survived, although statues on the building itself indicate his artistic vision. The figures on these sculptures combined serene expressions with an impression of movement. Phidias trained many sculptors, who later traveled throughout Greece spreading his style.
Later sculptors worked in a variety of styles. Polykleitos the Elder, of the city of Argos, was famous for the perfect proportions and harmonious
beauty of his figures. Praxiteles, a well-known Athenian sculptor of the 300s B.C., created playful work, such as a sculpture of the god Hermes dangling a bunch of grapes in front of the infant Dionysus. Lysippos of Sikyon, the court sculptor of Alexander the Great, produced realistic portraits of public figures in a style that became popular in the 200s B.C. By the late 100s B.C., many Greek sculptors had moved to Rome to set up workshops. Roman sculpture was highly influenced by Greek work and was, in fact, usually made by Greeks. (See also Architecture, Greek; Architecture, Roman; Art, Roman; Crafts and Craftsmanship; Gems and Jewelry; Mosaics; Sculpture, Greek; Sculpture, Roman.)