The Legacy of Ancient Greece

Greek Art


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(480 B.C.) and there executed a number of important paintings. In fact, he is said to have received Athenian citizenship. He worked also at Delphi and at other places, after the ordinary manner of artists.

Painting in this period, as practiced by Polygnotus and other great artists, was chiefly mural; the painting of easel pictures seems to have been of quite secondary consequence. Thus the most famous works of Polygnotus adorned the inner faces of the walls of temples and stoas. The subjects of these great mural paintings were chiefly mythological. For example, the two compositions of Polygnotus at Delphi, of which we possess an extremely detailed account in the pages of Pausanias, depicted the sack of Troy and the descent of Odysseus into Hades. But it is worth remarking, in view of the extreme rarity of historical subjects in Greek relief- sculpture, that in the Stoa Poicile (Painted Portico) of Athens, alongside of a Sack of Troy by Polygnotus and a Battle of Greeks and Amazons by his contemporary, Micon, there were two historical scenes, a Battle of Marathon and a Battle of OEnoe. In fact, historical battle-pieces were not rare among the Greeks at any period.

As regards the style of Polygnotus we can glean a few interesting facts from our ancient authorities. His figures were not ranged on a single line, as in contemporary bas-reliefs, but were placed at varying heights, so as to produce a somewhat complex composition. His palette contained only four colors, black, white, yellow, and red, but by mixing these he was enabled to secure a somewhat greater variety. He laid his colors on in "flat" tints, just as the Egyptian decorators did, making no attempt to render the gradations of color due to varying light and shade. His pictures were therefore rather colored drawings than genuine paintings, in our sense of the term. He often inscribed beside his figures their names, according to a common practice of the time. Yet this must not be taken as implying that he was unable to characterize his figures by purely artistic means. On the contrary, Polygnotus was preeminently skilled in expressing character, and it is recorded that he drew the face with a freedom which archaic art had not attained. In all probability his pictures are not to be thought of as having any depth of perspective; that is to say, although he did not fail to suggest the nature of the ground on which his figures stood and the objects adjacent to them, it is not likely that he represented his figures at varying distances from the spectator or gave them a regular background.

It is clear that Polygnotus was gifted with artistic genius of the first rank and that he exercised a powerful influence upon contemporaries and successors. Yet, alas! in spite of all research and speculation, our knowledge of his work remains very shadowy. A single drawing from his hand would be worth more than all that has ever been written about him. But if one would like to dream what his art was like, one may imagine it as combining with the dramatic power of Euphronius and the exquisite loveliness of the Aphrodite cup, Giotto's elevation of feeling and Michael Angelo's profundity of thought.

Another branch of painting which began to attain importance in the time of Polygnotus was scene-painting for theatrical performances. It may be, as has been conjectured, that the impulse toward a style of work in which a greater degree of illusion was aimed at and secured came from this branch of the art. We read, at any rate, that one Agatharchus, a scene-painter who flourished about the middle of the fifth century, wrote a treatise which stimulated two philosophers to an investigation of the laws of perspective.

The most important technical advance, however, is attributed to Apollodorus of Athens, a painter of easel pictures. He departed from the old method of coloring in flat tints and introduced the practice of grading colors according to the play of light and shade. How successfully he managed this innovation we have no means of knowing; probably very imperfectly. But the step was of the utmost significance. It meant the abandonment of mere colored drawing and the creation of the genuine art of painting.

Two artists of the highest distinction now appear upon the scene. They are Zeuxis and Parrhasius. The rather vague remark of a Roman writer, that they both lived "about the time of the Peloponnesian War" (431-404 B.C.) is as definite a statement as can safely be made about their date. Parrhasius was born at Ephesus, Zeuxis at some one or other of the numerous cities named Heraclea. Both traveled freely from place to place, after the usual fashion of Greek artists, and both naturally made their home for a time in Athens. Zeuxis availed himself of the innovation of Apollodorus and probably carried it farther. Indeed, he is credited by one Roman writer with being the founder of the new method. The strength of Parrhasius is said to have lain in subtlety of line, which would suggest that with him, as with Polygnotus, painting was essentially outline drawing. Yet he too can hardly have remained unaffected by the new chiaroscuro.

Easel pictures now assumed a relative importance which they had not had a generation earlier. Some of these were placed in temples and such conformed in their subjects to the requirements of religious art, as understood in Greece. But many of the easel pictures by Zeuxis and his contemporaries can hardly have had any other destination than the private houses of wealthy connoisseurs. Moreover, we hear first in this period of mural painting as applied to domestic interiors. Alcibiades is said to have imprisoned a reluctant painter, Agatharchus (cf. page 278), in his house and to have forced him to decorate the walls. The result of this sort of private demand was what we have seen taking place a hundred years later in the case of sculpture, viz.: that artists became free to employ their talents on any subjects which would gratify the taste of patrons. For example, a painting by Zeuxis of which Lucian has left us a description illustrates what may be called mythological genre. It represented a female Centaur giving suck to two offspring, with the father of the family in the background, amusing himself by swinging a lion's whelp above his head to scare his young. This was, no doubt, admirable in its way, and it would be narrow-minded to disparage it because it did not stand on the ethical level of Polygnotus's work. But painters did not always keep within the limits of what is innocent. No longer restrained by the conditions of monumental and religious art, they began to pander not merely to what is frivolous, but to what is vile in human nature. The great Parrhasius is reported by Pliny to have painted licentious little pictures, "refreshing himself" (says the writer) by this means after more serious labors. Thus at the same time that painting was making great technical advances, its nobility of purpose was on the average declining.

Timanthes seems to have been a younger contemporary of Zeuxis and Parrhasius. Perhaps his career fell chiefly after 400 B. C. The painting of his of which we hear the most represented the sacrifice of Iphigenia at Aulis, The one point about the picture to which all our accounts refer is the grief exhibited in varying degrees by the bystanders. The countenance of Calchas was sorrowful; that of Ulysses still more so; that of Menelaus displayed an intensity of distress which the painter could not outdo; Agamemnon, therefore, was represented with his face covered by his mantle, his attitude alone suggesting the father's poignant anguish. The description is interesting as illustrating the attention paid in this period to the expression of emotion. Timanthes was in spirit akin to Scopas. There is a Pompeian wall- painting of the sacrifice of Iphigenia, which represents Agamemnon with veiled head and which may be regarded, in that particular at least, as a remote echo of Timanthes's famous picture.

Sicyon, in the northeastern part of Peloponnesus--a city already referred to as the home of the sculptor Lysippus--was the seat of an important school of painting in the fourth century. Toward the middle of the century the leading teacher of the art in that place was one Pamphilus. He secured the introduction of drawing into the elementary schools of Sicyon, and this new branch of education was gradually adopted in other Greek communities. A pupil of his, Pausias by name, is credited with raising the process of encaustic painting to a prominence which it had not enjoyed before. In this process the colors, mixed with wax, were applied to a wooden panel and then burned in by means of a hot iron held near.

Thebes also, which attained to a short-lived importance in the political world after the battle of Leuctra (371 B.C.), developed a school of painting, which seems to have been in close touch with that of Athens. There were painters besides, who seem to have had no connection with any one of these centers of activity. The fourth century was the Golden Age of Greek painting, and the list of eminent names is as long and as distinguished for painting as for sculpture.

The most famous of all was Apelles. He was a Greek of Asia Minor and received his early training at Ephesus. He then betook himself to Sicyon, in order to profit by the instruction of Pamphilus and by association with the other painters gathered there. It seems likely that his next move was to Pella, the capital of Macedon, then ruled over by Philip, the father of Alexander. At any rate, he entered into intimate relations with the young prince and painted numerous portraits of both father and son. Indeed, according to an often repeated story, Alexander, probably after his accession to the throne, conferred upon Apelles the exclusive privilege of painting his portrait, as upon Lysippus the exclusive privilege of representing him in bronze. Later, presumably when Alexander started on his eastern campaigns (334 B.C.), Apelles returned to Asia Minor, but of course not even then to lead a settled life. He outlived Alexander, but we do not know by how much.

Of his many portraits of the great conqueror four are specifically mentioned by our authorities. One of these represented the king as holding a thunderbolt, i.e., in the guise of Zeus--a fine piece of flattery. For this picture, which was placed in the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, he is reported, though not on very good authority, to have received twenty talents in gold coin. It is impossible to make exact comparisons between ancient and modern prices, but the sum named would perhaps be in purchasing power as large as any modern painter ever received for a work of similar size. [Footnote: Nicias, an Athenian painter and a contemporary of Apelles, is reported to have been offered by Ptolemy, the ruler of Egypt, sixty talents for a picture and to have refused the offer.] It has been mentioned above that Apelles made a number of portraits of King Philip. He had also many sitters among the generals and associates of Alexander; and he left at least one picture of himself. His portraits were famous for their truth of likeness, as we should expect of a great painter in this age.

An allegorical painting by Apelles of Slander and Her Crew is interesting as an example of a class of works to which Lysippus's statue of Opportunity belonged (page 239). This picture contained ten figures, whereas most of his others of which we have any description contained only one figure each.

His most famous work was an Aphrodite, originally placed in the Temple of Asclepius on the island of Cos. The goddess was represented, according to the Greek myth of her birth, as rising from the sea, the upper part of her person being alone distinctly visible. The picture, from all that we can learn of it, seems to have been imbued with the same spirit of refinement and grace as Praxiteles's statue of Aphrodite in the neighboring city of Cnidus. The Coans, after cherishing it for three hundred years, were forced to surrender it to the emperor Augustus for a price of a hundred talents, and it was removed to the Temple of Julius Caesar in Rome. By the time of Nero it had become so much injured that it had to be replaced by a copy.

Protogenes was another painter whom even the slightest sketch cannot afford to pass over in silence. He was born at Caunus in southwestern Asia Minor and flourished about the same time as Apelles. We read of his conversing with the philosopher Aristotle (died 322 B.C.), of whose mother he painted a portrait, and of his being engaged on his most famous work, a picture of a Rhodian hero, at the time of the siege of Rhodes by Demetrius (304 B.C.). He was an extremely painstaking artist, inclined to excessive elaboration in his work. Apelles, who is always represented as of amiable and generous character, is reported as saying that Protogenes was his equal or superior in every point but one, the one inferiority of Protogenes being that he did not know when to stop. According to another anecdote Apelles, while profoundly impressed by Protogenes's masterpiece, the Rhodian hero above referred to, pronounced it lacking in that quality of grace which was his own most eminent merit. [Footnote: Plutarch, "Life of Demetrius," Section 22.] There are still other anecdotes, which give an entertaining idea of the friendly rivalry between these two masters, but which do not help us much in imagining their artistic qualities. As regards technique, it seems likely that both of them practiced principally "tempera" painting, in which the colors are mixed with yolk of eggs or some other sticky non-unctuous medium. [Footnote: Oil painting was unknown in ancient times.] Both Apelles and Protogenes are said to have written technical treatises on the painter's art.

There being nothing extant which would properly illustrate the methods and the styles of the great artists in color, the best substitute that we have from about their period is an Etruscan sarcophagus, found near Corneto in 1869. The material is "alabaster or a marble closely resembling alabaster." It is ornamented on all four sides by paintings executed in tempera representing a battle of Greeks and Amazons. "In the flesh tints the difference of the sexes is strongly marked, the flesh of the fighting Greeks being a tawny red, while that of the Amazons is very fair. For each sex two tints only are used in the shading and modeling of the flesh. ... Hair and eyes are for the most part a purplish brown; garments mainly reddish brown, whitish grey, or pale lilac and light blue. Horses are uniformly a greyish white, shaded with a fuller tint of grey; their eyes always blue. There are two colors of metal, light blue for swords, spear-heads, and the inner faces of shields, golden yellow for helmets, greaves, reins, and handles of shields, girdles, and chain ornaments."

Our illustration (Fig. 193) is taken from the middle of one of the long sides of the sarcophagus. It represents a mounted Amazon in front of a fully armed foot-soldier, upon whom she turns to deliver a blow with her sword. "Every reader will be struck by the beauty and spirit of the Amazon, alike in her action and her facial expression. The type of head, broad, bold, and powerful, and at the same time young and blooming, with the pathetic- indignant expression, is preserved with little falling off from the best age of Greek art. ... In spirit and expression almost equal to the Amazon is the horse she bestrides." [Footnote: The quotations are from an article by Mr. Sidney Colvin in The Journal of Hellenic Studies, Vol. IV., pages 354 ff] The Greek warrior is also admirable in attitude and expression, full of energy and determination.

Although the paintings of this sarcophagus were doubtless executed in Etruria, and probably by an Etruscan hand, they are in their style almost purely Greek. The work is assigned to the earlier half of the third century B.C. If an unknown craftsman was stimulated by Greek models to the production of paintings of such beauty and power, how magnificent must have been the achievements of the great masters of the brush!

For examples of Greek portrait painting we are indebted to Egypt, that country whose climate has preserved so much that elsewhere would have perished. It will be remembered that Egypt, having been conquered by Alexander, fell after his death to the lot of his general, Ptolemy, and continued to be ruled by Ptolemy's descendants until, in 30 B.C., it became a Roman province. During the period of Macedonian rule Alexandria was the chief center of Greek culture in the world, and Greeks and Greek civilization became established also in the interior of the country; nor did these Hellenizing influences abate under Roman domination. To this late period, when Greek and Egyptian customs ere largely amalgamated, belongs a class of portrait heads which have been found in the Fayyurn, chiefly within the last ten years. They are painted on panels of wood (or rarely on canvas), and were originally attached to mummies. The embalmed body was carefully wrapped in linen bandages and the portrait placed over the face and secured in position. These pictures are executed principally by the encaustic process, though some use was made also of tempera. The persons represented appear to be of various races-- Greek, Egyptian, Hebrew, negro, and mixed; perhaps the Greek type predominates in the specimens now known. At any rate, the artistic methods of the portraits seem to be purely Greek. As for their date, it is the prevailing opinion that they belong to the second century after Christ and later, though an attempt has been made to carry the best of them back to the second century B.C.

The finest collection of these portraits is one acquired by a Viennese merchant, Herr Theodor Graf. They differ widely in artistic merit; our illustrations show three of the best. Fig. 194 is a man in middle life, with irregular features, abundant, waving hair, and thin, straggling beard. One who has seen Watts's picture of "The Prodigal Son" may remark in the lower part of this face a likeness to that. Fig. 195 is a charming girl, wearing a golden wreath of ivy-leaves about her hair and a string of great pearls about her neck. Her dark eyes look strangely large, as do those of all the women of the series; probably the effect of eyes naturally large was heightened, as nowadays in Egypt, by the practice of blackening the edges of the eyelids. Fig. 196 is the most fascinating face of all, and it is artistically unsurpassed in the whole series. This and a portrait of an elderly man, not given here, are the masterpieces of the Graf collection. It is much too little to say of these two heads that they are the best examples of Greek painting that have come down to us. In spite of the great inferiority of the encaustic technique to that of oil painting, these pictures are not unworthy of comparison with the great portraits of modern times.

The ancient wall-paintings found in and near Rome. but more especially in Pompeii, are also mostly Greek in character, so far as their best qualities are concerned. The best of them, while betraying deficient skill in perspective, show such merits in coloring, such power of expression and such talent for composition, as to afford to the student a lively enjoyment and to intensify tenfold his regret that Zeuxis and Parrhasius, Apelles and Protogenes, are and will remain to us nothing but names.

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