The Legacy of Ancient Greece

Greek Art


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The reign of Alexander began a new era in Greek history, an era in which the great fact was the dissemination of Greek culture over wide regions to which it had been alien. This period, in which Egypt and western Asia were ruled by men of Greek or Macedonian blood and gradually took on more or less of Greek civilization, is often called the Hellenistic period.

Under the new political and social order new artistic conditions were developed. For one thing, Athens and the other old centers of artistic activity lost their pre-eminence, while new centers were created in the East, The only places which our literary sources mention as seats of important schools of sculpture in the two centuries following the death of Alexander are Rhodes and Pergamum.

Then again a demand now grew up for works of sculpture to be used as mere ornaments in the interiors of palaces and private houses, as well as in public buildings and places. This of course threw open the door for subjects which had been excluded when sculpture was dominated by a sacred purpose. Sculptors were now free to appeal to the lower tastes of their patrons. The practice of "art for art's sake" had its day, and trivial, comical, ugly, harrowing, or sensual themes were treated with all the resources of technical skill. In short, the position and purposes of the art of sculpture became very like what they are to-day. Hence the untrained modern student feels much more at home in a collection of Hellenistic sculpture than in the presence of the severer, sublimer creations of the age of Phidias.

It is by no means meant to pass a sweeping condemnation upon the productions of the post-classical period. Realistic portraiture was now practiced with great frequency and high success. Many of the genre statues and decorative reliefs of the time are admirable and delightful. Moreover, the old uses of sculpture were not abandoned, and though the tendency toward sensationalism was strong, a dignified and exalted work was sometimes achieved. But, broadly speaking, we must admit the loss of that "noble simplicity and quiet grandeur"--the phrase is Winckelmann's--which stamped the creations of the age of Phidias. Greek sculpture gained immensely in variety, but at the expense of its elevation of spirit.

Although this sketch is devoted principally to bronze and marble sculpture, I cannot resist the temptation to illustrate by a few examples the charming little terra-cotta figurines which have been found in such great numbers in graves at Tanagra and elsewhere in Boeotia (Figs. 169, 170). It is a question whether the best of them were not produced before the end of the period covered by the last chapter. At all events, they are post-Praxitelean. The commonest subjects are standing or seated women; young men, lads, and children are also often met with. Fig. 170 shows another favorite figure, the winged Eros, represented as a chubby boy of four or five--a conception of the god of Love which makes its first appearance in the Hellenistic period. The men who modeled these statuettes were doubtless regarded in their own day as very humble craftsmen, but the best of them had caught the secret of graceful poses and draperies, and the execution of their work is as delicate as its conception is refined.

Returning now to our proper subject, we may begin with the latest and most magnificent of the sarcophagi found at Sidon (Fig. 171; cf. page 234). This belongs somewhere near the end of the fourth century. It is decorated with relief-sculpture on all four sides and in the gables of the cover. On the long side shown in our illustration the subject is a battle between Greeks and Persians, perhaps the battle of Issus, fought in 333. Alexander the Great, recognizable by the skin of a lion's head which he wears like Heracles, instead of a helmet, is to be seen at the extreme left. The design, which looks crowded and confused when reduced to a small scale, is in reality well arranged and extremely spirited, besides being exquisitely wrought. But the crowning interest of the work lies in the unparalleled freshness with which it has kept its color. Garments, saddle-cloths, pieces of armor, and so on, are tinted in delicate colors, and the finest details, such as bow-strings, are perfectly distinct. The nude flesh, though not covered with opaque paint, has received some application which differentiates it from the glittering white background, and gives it a sort of ivory hue. The effect of all this color is thoroughly refined, and the work is a revelation of the beauty of polychromatic sculpture.

The Victory of Samothrace (Fig. 172) can also be dated at about the end of the fourth century. The figure is considerably above life-size. It was found in 1863, broken into a multitude of fragments, which have been carefully united. There are no modern pieces, except in the wings. The statue stood on a pedestal having the form of a ship's prow, the principal parts of which were found by an Austrian expedition to Samothrace in 1875. These fragments were subsequently conveyed to the Louvre, and the Victory now stands on her original pedestal. For determining the date and the proper restoration of this work we have the fortunate help of numismatics. Certain silver coins of Demetrius Poliorcetes, who reigned 306-286 B.C., bear upon one side a Victory which agrees closely with her of Samothrace, even to the great prow-pedestal. The type is supposed on good grounds to commemorate an important naval victory won by Demetrius over Ptolemy in 306. In view, then, of the close resemblance between coin-type and statue, it seems reasonably certain that the Victory was dedicated at Samothrace by Demetrius soon after the naval battle with Ptolemy and that the commemorative coins borrowed their design directly from the statue. Thus we get a date for the statue, and, what is more, clear evidence as to how it should be restored. The goddess held a trumpet to her lips with her right hand and in her left carried a support such as was used for the erection of a trophy. The ship upon which she has just alighted is conceived as under way, and the fresh breeze blows her garments backward in tumultuous folds. Compared with the Victory of Paeonius (Figs. 143, 144) this figure seems more impetuous and imposing. That leaves us calm; this elates us with the sense of onward motion against the salt sea air. Yet there is nothing unduly sensational about this work. It exhibits a magnificent idea, magnificently rendered.

From this point on no attempt will be made to preserve a chronological order, but the principal classes of sculpture belonging to the Hellenistic period will be illustrated, each by two or three examples. Religious sculpture may be put first. Here the chief place belongs to the Aphrodite of Melos, called the Venus of Milo (Fig. 173). This statue was found by accident in 1820 on the island of Melos (Milo) near the site of the ancient city. According to the best evidence available, it was lying in the neighborhood of its original pedestal, in a niche of some building. Near it were found a piece of an upper left arm and a left hand holding an apple; of these two fragments the former certainly and perhaps the latter belong to the statue. The prize was bought by M. de Riviere, French ambassador at Constantinople, and presented by him to the French king, Louis XVIII. The same vessel which conveyed it to France brought some other marble fragments from Melos, including a piece of an inscribed statue- base with an artist's inscription, in characters of the second century B.C. or later. A drawing exists of this fragment, but the object itself has disappeared, and in spite of much acute argumentation it remains uncertain whether it did or did not form a part of the basis of the Aphrodite.

Still greater uncertainty prevails as to the proper restoration of the statue, and no one of the many suggestions that have been made is free from difficulties. It seems probable, as has recently been set forth with great force and clearness by Professor Furtwangler, [Footnote: "Masterpieces of Greek Sculpture," pages 384 ff.] that the figure is an adaptation from an Aphrodite of the fourth century, who rests her left foot upon a helmet and, holding a shield on her left thigh, looks at her own reflection. On this view the difficulty of explaining the attitude of the Aphrodite of Melos arises from the fact that the motive was created for an entirely different purpose and is not altogether appropriate to the present one, whatever precisely that may be.

It has seemed necessary, in the case of a statue of so much importance, to touch upon these learned perplexities; but let them not greatly trouble the reader or turn him aside from enjoying the superb qualities of the work. One of the Aphrodites of Scopas or Praxiteles, if we had it in the original, would perhaps reveal to us a still diviner beauty. As it is, this is the worthiest existing embodiment of the goddess of Love. The ideal is chaste and noble, echoing the sentiment of the fourth century at its best; and the execution is worthy of a work which is in some sense a Greek original.

The Apollo of the Belvedere (Fig. 174), on the other hand, is only a copy of a bronze original. The principal restorations are the left hand and the right fore-arm and hand. The most natural explanation of the god's attitude is that he held a bow in his left hand and has just let fly an arrow against some foe. His figure is slender, according to the fashion which prevailed from the middle of the fourth century onward, and he moves over the ground with marvelous lightness. His appearance has an effect of almost dandified elegance, and critics to-day cannot feel the reverent raptures which this statue used to evoke. Yet still the Apollo of the Belvedere remains a radiant apparition. An attempt has recently been made to promote the figure, or rather its original, to the middle of the fourth century.

As a specimen of the portrait-sculpture of the Hellenistic period I have selected the seated statue of Posidippus (Fig. 175), an Athenian dramatist of the so-called New Comedy, who flourished in the early part of the third century. The preservation of the statue is extraordinary; there is nothing modern about it except the thumb of the left hand. It produces strongly the impression of being an original work and also of being a speaking likeness. It may have been modeled in the actual presence of the subject, but in that case the name on the front of the plinth was doubtless inscribed later, when the figure was removed from its pedestal and taken to Rome. Posidippus is clean-shaven, according to the fashion that came in about the time of Alexander. There is a companion statue of equal merit, which commonly goes by the name of Menander. The two men are strongly contrasted with one another by the sculptor in features, expression, and bodily carriage. Both statues show, as do many others of the period, how mistaken it would be to form our idea of the actual appearance of the Greeks from the purely ideal creations of Greek sculpture.

Besides real portraits, imaginary portraits of great excellence were produced in the Hellenistic period. Fig. 176 is a good specimen of these. Only the head is antique, and there are some restorations, including the nose. This is one of a considerable number of heads which reproduce an ideal portrait of Homer, conceived as a blind old man. The marks of age and blindness are rendered with great fidelity. There is a variant type of this head which is much more suggestive of poetical inspiration.

Portraiture, of course, did not confine itself to men of refinement and intellect. As an extreme example of what was possible in the opposite direction nothing could be better than the original bronze statue shown in Fig. 177. It was found in Rome in 1885, and is essentially complete, except for the missing eyeballs; the seat is new. The statue represents a naked boxer of herculean frame, his hands armed with the aestus or boxing-gloves made of leather. The man is evidently a professional "bruiser" of the lowest type. He is just resting after an encounter, and no detail is spared to bring out the nature of his occupation. Swollen ears were the conventional mark of the boxer at all periods, but here the effect is still further enhanced by scratches and drops of blood. Moreover, the nose and cheeks bear evidence of having been badly "punished," and the moustache is clotted with blood. From top to toe the statue exhibits the highest grade of technical skill. One would like very much to know what was the original purpose of the work. It may have been a votive statue, dedicated by a victorious boxer at Olympia or elsewhere. A bronze head of similar brutality found at Olympia bears witness that the refined statues of athletes produced in the best period of Greek art and set up in that precinct were forced at a later day to accept such low companionship. Or it may be that this boxer is not an actual person at all, and that the statue belongs to the domain of genre. In either case it testifies to the coarse taste of the age.

By genre sculpture is meant sculpture which deals with incidents or situations illustrative of every-day life. The conditions of the great age, although they permitted a genre-like treatment in votive sculptures and in grave-reliefs (cf. Fig. 134), offered few or no occasions for works of pure genre, whose sole purpose is to gratify the spectator. In the Hellenistic period, however, such works became plentiful. Fig. 178 gives a good specimen. A boy of four or five is struggling in play with a goose and is triumphant. The composition of the group is admirable, and the zest of the sport is delightfully brought out. Observe too that the characteristic forms of infancy--the large head, short legs, plump body and limbs--are truthfully rendered (cf. page 222). There is a large number of representations in ancient sculpture of boys with geese or other aquatic birds; among them are at least three other copies of this, same group. The original is thought to have been of bronze.

Fig. 179 is genre again, and is as repulsive as the last example is charming. It is a drunken old woman, lean and wrinkled, seated on the ground and clasping her wine-jar between her knees, in a state of maudlin ecstasy. The head is modern, but another copy of the statue has the original head, which is of the same character as this. Ignobility of subject could go no further than in this work.

It is a pleasure to turn to Fig. 180, which in purity of spirit is worthy of the best time. The arms are modern, and their direction may not be quite correct, though it must be nearly so. This original bronze figure represents a boy in an attitude of prayer. It is impossible to decide whether the statue was votive or is simply a genre piece.

Hellenistic art struck out a new path in a class of reliefs of which Figs. 181 and 182 are examples. There are some restorations. A gulf separates these works from the friezes of the Parthenon and the Mausoleum. Whereas relief-sculpture in the classical period abjured backgrounds and picturesque accessories, we find here a highly pictorial treatment. The subjects moreover are, in the instances chosen, of a character to which Greek sculpture before Alexander's time hardly offers a parallel (yet cf. Fig. 87). In Fig. 181 we see a ewe giving suck to her lamb. Above, at the right, is a hut or stall, from whose open door a dog is just coming out; at the left is an oak tree. In Fig. 182 a lioness crouches with her two cubs. Above is a sycamore tree, and to the right of it a group of objects which tell of the rustic worship of Bacchus. Each of the two reliefs decorated a fountain or something of the sort. In the one the overturned milk-jar served as a water- spout; in the other the open mouth of one of the cubs answered the same purpose. Generally speaking, the pictorial reliefs seem to have been used for the interior decoration of private and public buildings. By their subjects many of them bear witness to that love of country life and that feeling for the charms of landscape which are the most attractive traits of the Hellenistic period.

The kingdom of Pergamum in western Asia Minor was one of the smaller states formed out of Alexander's dominions. The city of Pergamum became a center of Greek learning second only to Alexandria in importance. Moreover, under Attalus I. (241-197 B.C.) and Eumenes II. (197-159 B.C.) it developed an independent and powerful school of sculpture, of whose productions we fortunately possess numerous examples. The most famous of these is the Dying Gaul or Galatian (Fig. 183), once erroneously called the Dying Gladiator. Hordes of Gauls had invaded Asia Minor as early as 278 B.C., and, making their headquarters in the interior, in the district afterwards known from them as Galatia, had become the terror and the scourge of the whole region. Attalus I. early in his reign gained an important victory over these fierce tribes, and this victory was commemorated by extensive groups of sculpture both at Pergamum and at Athens. The figure of the Dying Gaul belongs to this series. The statue was in the possession of Cardinal Ludovisi as early as 1633, along with a group closely allied in style, representing a Gaul and his wife, but nothing is certainly known as to the time and place of its discovery. The restorations are said to be: the tip of the nose, the left knee- pan, the toes, and the part of the plinth on which the right arm rests,[Footnote: Helbig, "Guide to the Public Collections of Classical Antiquities in Rome," Vol I, No 533.] together with the objects on it. That the man represented is not a Greek is evident from the large hands and feet, the coarse skin, the un-Greek character of the head (Fig. 184). That he is a Gaul is proved by several points of agreement with what is known from literary sources of the Gallic peculiarities--the moustache worn with shaven cheeks and chin, the stiff, pomaded hair growing low in the neck, the twisted collar or torque. He has been mortally wounded in battle--the wound is on the right side--and sinks with drooping head upon his shield and broken battle-horn. His death-struggle, though clearly marked, is not made violent or repulsive. With savage heroism he "consents to death, and conquers agony."[Footnote: Byron, "Childe Harold," IV, 150] Here, then, a powerful realism is united to a tragic idea, and amid all vicissitudes of taste this work has never ceased to command a profound admiration.

Our knowledge of Pergamene art has recently received a great extension, in consequence of excavations carried on in 1878-86 upon the acropolis of Pergamum in the interest of the Royal Museum of Berlin. Here were found the remains of numerous buildings, including an immense altar, or rather altar-platform, which was perhaps the structure referred to in Revelation II. 13, as "Satan's throne." This platform, a work of great architectural magnificence, was built under Eumenes II. Its exterior was decorated with a sculptured frieze, 7 1/2 feet in height and something like 400 feet in total length. The fragments of this great frieze which were found in the course of the German excavations have been pieced together with infinite patience and ingenuity and amount to by far the greater part of the whole. The subject is the gigantomachy, i.e., the battle between the gods and the rebellious sons of earth (cf. page 134).

Fig. 185 shows the most important group of the whole composition. Here Zeus recognizable by the thunderbolt in his outstretched right hand and the aegis upon his left arm, is pitted against three antagonists. Two of the three are already disabled. The one at the left, a youthful giant of human form, has sunk to earth, pierced through the left thigh with a huge, flaming thunderbolt. The second, also youthful and human, has fallen upon his knees in front of Zeus and presses his left hand convulsively to a wound (?) in his right shoulder. The third still fights desperately. This is a bearded giant, with animal ears and with legs that pass into long snaky bodies. Around his left arm is wrapped the skin of some animal; with his right hand (now missing) he is about to hurl some missile; the left snake, whose head may be seen just above the giant's left shoulder, is contending, but in vain, with an eagle, the bird of Zeus.

Fig. 186 adjoins Fig 185 on the right of the latter. [Footnote: Fig 186 is more reduced in scale, so that the slabs incorrectly appear to be of unequal height.] Here we have a group in which Athena is the central figure. The goddess, grasping her antagonist by the hair, sweeps to right. The youthful giant has great wings, but is otherwise purely human in form. A serpent, attendant of Athena, strikes its fangs into the giant's right breast. In front of Athena, the Earth-goddess, mother of the giants, half emerging from the ground, pleads for mercy. Above, Victory wings her way to the scene to place a crown upon Athena's head.

If we compare the Pergamene altar-frieze with scenes of combat from the best period of Greek art, say with the metopes of the Parthenon or the best preserved frieze of the Mausoleum, we see how much more complicated and confused in composition and how much more violent in spirit is this later work. Yet, though we miss the "noble simplicity" of the great age, we cannot fail to be impressed with the Titanic energy which surges through this stupendous composition. The "decline" of Greek art, if we are to use that term, cannot be taken to imply the exhaustion of artistic vitality.

The existence of a flourishing school of sculpture at Rhodes during the Hellenistic period is attested by our literary sources, as well as by artists' inscriptions found on the spot. Of the actual productions of that school we possess only the group of Laocoon and his sons (Fig. 187). This was found in Rome in 1506, on the site of the palace of Titus. The principal modern parts are: the right arm of Laocoon with the adjacent parts of the snake, the right arm of the younger son with the coil of the snake around it, and the right hand and wrist of the older son. These restorations are bad. The right arm of Laocoon should be bent so as to bring the hand behind the head, and the right hand of the younger son should fall limply backward.

Laocoon was a Trojan priest who, having committed grievous sin, was visited with a fearful punishment. On a certain occasion when he was engaged with his two sons in performing sacrifice, they were attacked by a pair of huge serpents, miraculously sent, and died a miserable death. The sculptors--for the group, according to Pliny, was the joint work of three Rhodian artists--have put before us the moving spectacle of this doom. Laocoon, his body convulsed and his face distorted by the torture of poison, his mouth open for a groan or a cry, has sunk upon the altar and struggles in the agony of death. The younger son is already past resistance; his left hand lies feebly on the head of the snake that bites him and the last breath escapes his lips. The older son, not yet bitten, but probably not destined to escape, strives to free himself from the coil about his ankle and at the same time looks with sympathetic horror upon his father's sufferings.

No work of sculpture of ancient or modern times has given rise to such an extensive literature as the Laocoon. None has been more lauded and more blamed. Hawthorne "felt the Laocoon very powerfully, though very quietly; an immortal agony, with a strange calmness diffused through it, so that it resembles the vast rage of the sea, calm on account of its immensity." [Footnote: "Italian Note-books," under date of March 10,1858.] Ruskin, on the other hand, thinks "that no group has exercised so pernicious an influence on art as this; a subject ill chosen, meanly conceived, and unnaturally treated, recommended to imitation by subtleties of execution and accumulation of technical knowledge," [Footnote: "Modern Painters," Part II, Section II, Chap. III.] Of the two verdicts the latter is surely much nearer the truth. The calmness which Hawthorne thought he saw in the Laocoon is not there; there is only a terrible torment. Battle, wounds, and death were staple themes of Greek sculpture from first to last; but nowhere else is the representation of physical suffering, pure and simple, so forced upon us, so made the "be-all and end-all" of a Greek work. As for the date of the group, opinion still varies considerably. The probabilities seem to point to a date not far removed from that of the Pergamene altar; i.e., to the first half of the second century B.C.

Macedonia and Greece became a Roman province in 146 B.C.; the kingdom of Pergamum in 133 B.C. These political changes, it is true, made no immediate difference to the cause of art. Greek sculpture went on, presently transferring its chief seat to Rome, as the most favorable place of patronage. What is called Roman sculpture is, for the most part, simply Greek sculpture under Roman rule. But in the Roman period we find no great, creative epoch of art history; moreover, the tendencies of the times have already received considerable illustration. At this point, therefore, we may break off this sketch.

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