A History of Greek Art
Mark Stansbury-O'Donnell is a Professor of Art History at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota. He is the author of Pictorial Narrative in Ancient Greek Art (1999), Vase Painting, Gender, and Social Identity in Archaic Athens (2006), and Looking at Greek Art (2011).
A History of Greek Art
Introduction and Issues in the History of Greek Art
An Alternative Mini-History of Greek Art
Some Questions to Consider for this Book
The Plan of this Book
A Few Notes About Using this Book
Textbox: Stylistic Analysis and Sir John Beazley
The first histories of Greek art were written in the Hellenistic period of the third to first centuries BCE , during the last period covered in this book. By that time, Greek art and culture had spread well beyond the borders of the country of Greece today, and the Greeks themselves lived in cities from Russia and Afghanistan in the east to Spain in the west. Greek art was a common sight in Rome, whether statues expropriated from cities that the Romans had conquered or works commissioned from Greek artists by Roman patrons for their homes and villas.
The oldest extant account of the history of Greek art is a "mini-history" written by the Roman orator Cicero around 46 BCE and appearing in his history of rhetoric and orators entitled Brutus :
Who, of those who pay some attention to the lesser arts, does not appreciate the fact that the statues of Kanachos were more rigid than they ought to have been if they were to imitate reality? The statues of Kalamis are also hard, although they are softer than those of Kanachos. Even the statues of Myron had not yet been brought to a satisfactory representation of reality, although at that stage you would not hesitate to say that they were beautiful. Those of Polykleitos are still more beautiful; in fact, just about perfect, as they usually seem to me. A similar systematic development exists in painting. In the art of Zeuxis, Polygnotos, and Timanthes and the others who did not make use of more than four colors, we praise their forms and their draughtsmanship. But in the art of Aëtion, Nikomachos, Protogenes, and Apelles, everything has come to a stage of perfection.
(Cicero, Brutus 70; tr. Pollitt 1990, 223)
Brief though it is, this passage has the ingredients necessary for a history. Drawing from earlier Greek sources, Cicero names a series of artists in a chronological sequence, presenting us with a relative chronology of people and events, rather than an absolute chronology based on specific dates. He also tells us about the accomplishments of these artists. The first, Kanachos, created statues of the human figure in rigid postures, whereas his successors developed statues that were increasingly softer and more lifelike in appearance. This happened progressively over several generations, and Cicero singles out Polykleitos as nearly perfect in the way he sculpted the human form. We will see later a copy of a bronze statue called the Doryphoros or "Spear-Bearer" by Polykleitos (see Figure 10.7 , page 243) , but for now we can look at a similar figure from the Parthenon frieze that can be given an absolute date between 442 and 438 BCE based on the inscribed accounts of building expenses for the Parthenon ( Figure 1.1 ) . The figure standing in front of the horse touching his head with his left arm stands in a very lifelike pose with the weight to one hip and leg. The muscles and anatomy of the body are articulated accurately and precisely, making him lifelike in appearance. Furthermore, he is a graceful, athletic figure whose nudity allows us to admire his beauty. We can see how Cicero might acclaim a Polykleitan statue of the mid-fifth century BCE as both beautiful and "just about perfect."
1.1 North frieze of the Parthenon, 442-438 BCE .