Hellenistic Art


The Hellenistic Period of Greek art lasted from the fourth century b.c.e. to approximately the time of Jesus (Christ) of Nazareth, a period of more than 300 years.

Unlike earlier Greek art, which consisted predominantly of art of Greece itself, Hellenistic art was more diverse culturally and geographically. Because Hellenistic art arose after the conquests of Alexander the Great, it also included art from the Greek-influenced regions of Alexander’s empire.

Hellenic Greece consisted of the mainland and nearby Aegean Sea islands, Ionia (the western coast of Turkey), southern Italy, and Sicily (Magna Graecia) and, by the dawn of the Hellenistic Period, also Egypt, Syria, and other lands of the Near East. Greek culture had its origins in Mycenae. Mycenae established a painted pottery that persisted into later Greek art.

Mycenaean civilization could not withstand the disruptions of the Trojan War. After a period of civil war and invasion Mycenae collapsed around 1100 b.c.e. The Greek cities entered the Greek Dark Ages (1100–750 b.c.e.), characterized by population decline, impoverishment, and isolation.

Preceding Periods

Not all was bleak during the Greek Dark Ages. During this period Dorians spread through the peninsula, and Greeks settled Ionia. Around 800 b.c.e. the revival that would culminate in Hellenic art began.

Athenian artisans created protogeometric pottery with abstract designs, being in its precision of detail a precursor of later Greek art. The Archaic Period followed and lasted until around 480 b.c.e. Artists came increasingly under the influence of outside ideas and styles.

By the sixth century b.c.e. Greek art included vase painting that was unsurpassed artistically and technically. The human figure reappeared in Greek art after the Dark Ages and initially was highly abstract. Greeks invented life-sized, freestanding stone sculptures of humans.

There was an Egyptian influence, but the Greeks wanted an accurate depiction; however, they conflated accuracy with perfection or ideal representation, making the statues larger than life.

The mastery of the human form was matched by a mastery of the technique of imparting the impression of motion in a static object. These developments lasted from the Hellenic through the Hellenistic Periods. After the fifth-century b.c.e. Persian wars, Athens established an empire and spent the century in rivalry with Sparta.

Midway through the fifth century b.c.e., the Classical Period began. Greece’s classical age lasted 480–338 b.c.e. This is the period between the onset of conflict with Persia and the conquest of Greece by Philip of Macedon and his son, Alexander.

Greek artists had mastered representation of the human body in sculpture, with figures both at rest and in action reflecting calm and ordered beauty and achieving near godlike perfection. Greek painting of the age no longer exists, but ancient writers extolled it. Vase decorations hint at the mastery of form and line that characterized Greek sculpture.

Greek art established the basic themes, forms, and attitudes of Western culture: mimesis (imitation of nature), the nude human figure (man is the measure of all things, or humanism), architectural structural elements, decorative motifs, and types of buildings.

With the Persian conquest the classical age ended. In its stead arose the Hellenistic Period. Alexander extended his father’s empire into Turkey, Syria, Egypt, Persia, Afghanistan, and India from 334 to 323 b.c.e.

His death in 323 b.c.e. is the traditional date used as the demarcation between Hellenic and Hellenistic art, the former the art of the Greeks, the latter the art of the Greek speakers of whatever ethnicity. Another differentiation is that Hellenic Greece was a time of city-states, while the Hellenistic era was a time of monarchies of larger size.

Hellenistic Art

Alexander’s empire broke apart on his death, with several Hellenistic (Greek-like) kingdoms appearing. The great art centers of the mainland gave way to cities on islands such as Rhodes or in the eastern Mediterranean (Alexandria, Antioch, and Pergamum).

Sculpture had tendencies toward classicism, rococo, and baroque—in other words, no clear direction or restriction. Art glorified the gods and great athletes, but it also served to decorate the homes of the newly rich.

Heroic portraits and massive groups were popular, but so were humble themes and portrayals of human beings in all walks and stages of life—even caricature became popular. From architecture came an awareness of space that added landscapes and interiors to sculpture and painting.

Whereas Hellenic art was restrained and attempted to show the perfect and the universal, Hellenistic art was preoccupied with the particular rather than the universal. Patrons and artists alike preferred individuality, novelty (including ethnicity and ugliness), and artistic inventiveness. Hellenistic art built on the classical concepts, but became more dramatic, with sweeping lines and strong contrasts of light, shadow, and emotion.

Idealism gave way to naturalism, the culmination of the works of fourth-century b.c.e. sculptors Lysippos, Skopas, and Praxiteles, all of whom emphasized realistic expression of the human figure. Greatness and humility, characteristic of the Charioteer of Delphi, gave way to bold expression during tense moments, typified by the Boy Jockey.

Unlike Hellenic art, sculptures showed extreme emotion: pain, stress, anger, despair, or fear, but depiction of the outward subject was insufficient for many Hellenistic sculptors. Posture and physical characteristics were used to show thoughts, feelings, and attitudes.

Hygeia, of which only the head remains, is a statue that reflects the Hellenistic style. Although done in conformance to classical standards and ideals, Hygeia has an expression of concern and understanding.

Individual Support for The Arts

Hellenistic art was an expression of the prosperity and new social structure that arose in the areas of Alexander’s empire. Public support for the arts continued, but individual citizens also began patronizing artists. Rather than create monuments to gods or kings, they bought art that was secular and personal.

An example of great art put into an environment is the Altar of Zeus from Pergamum (c. 180 b.c.e.), which Greek artists created for Eumenes II. Enclosed by a high podium decorated with a frieze of the battle between the gods and the Giants, it shows classical iconography as well as baroque exaggeration of movement and emotion and a background of swirling draperies.

Samples of Hellenistic painting are mostly in the facades and interiors of chamber tombs and mosaics, as well as in Roman copies. Hellenistic art also plays with erotic themes through depictions of Aphrodite, Eros, the Satyrs, Dionysus, Pan, and hermaphrodites.

Female nudes were highly popular, and many examples remain, including the well-known Aphrodite of Melos (Venus de Milo). The proportions and curves of the Venus are still the standard for modern beauty.

Hellenistic art for home use included mosaics, garden statuaries, painted stucco wall decorations, and marble furnishings. Hellenistic art influenced Rome and through the Romans the Italian Renaissance. Hellenistic architecture flourished with the spread of the empire, leading to a demand for new buildings.

Rather than a building occupying any empty space, architects attempted to make the building aesthetically compatible with its surroundings. Hellenistic architects popularized the long-established stoa, a long rectangular building with a roof supported in the front by columns.

Stoas served as offices, classrooms, law courts, shopping centers, and gathering places in bad weather, or for socializing. The first woman architect, Phile of Priene, who lived around 100 b.c.e., designed a reservoir among other works.

Mosaics were made before the third century b.c.e. from small pieces of colored river pebbles. Early in the third century b.c.e. tesserae, squares of cut glass or stone, were used. The Alexander Mosaic from second-century b.c.e. Pompeii shows Alexander the Great battling Darius III, probably during the Battle of Issus.

The Hellenistic Period was a time of booming commerce and trade, generating a need for large amphorae, vessels for carrying wine, oil, and other liquids in volume. Other pottery products included molded terracotta oil lamps and figurines.

The figurines, Tanagra figures, depict scenes of everyday Hellenistic life: women reading, dancing, or playing instruments or actors, cooks, bakers, barbers, and people playing games and gossiping.

When Rome defeated the last of the Hellenistic kingdoms, Egypt, in 31 b.c.e. at the Battle of Actium, the Hellenistic Period ended. According to Pliny the Elder, with the onset of the Hellenistic Period, "Cessavit deinde ars" ("Then art disappeared").

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