A Brief History of Ancient Greek Art

From its beginnings in the Minoan Civilization to the age of Hellenistic art, Ancient Greek art remains an important time period in the advancement of artistic techniques and approaches. Each new century brought profound changes to the Egyptian art that preceded it. From the Bronze Age to the birth of the Roman Empire, Greece dominated the art world, and its influence continues to the present day.

Minoan Art

The earliest Greek art, indeed in Europe, dates back to the Bronze Age. On the small Aegean island of Crete (now a part of Greece), the Minoan Civilization developed, roughly in parallel with that of Ancient Egypt. For example, Minoan art relied on a schematic style (repetition of human figures, for example) that was commonly found in Egyptian art as well. Art was comprised of carvings and painted pottery until 1500 BC, when what is frequently called the “Palace Period” emerged, and wall painting first appeared in Europe, although only fragments survive today.

Unlike Egyptian art, however, Minoan art reveals a naturalism and subtlety not seen in the art of Egypt. Their seafaring orientation lent a natural subject matter, which is reflected in Minoan painting. “Frescoe with Dolphins” (1500-1450 BC) that today still hangs in the remains of the Palace of Knossos, Crete, shows an amazing knowledge of the oceans and sea animals, like the dolphins.

Another fragmentary painting that remains from the Minoan Civilization is “Toreador Fresco” (1500 BC). Encapsulated in this artwork is one of the recurring themes of Minoan culture and art, bull jumping. Thought in some way to be connected to Minoan religious practices, the painting depicts 3 acrobats leaping over the horns of a bull. The fresco is most unusual in that it depicts a time lapse sequence, in which we see the acrobats grabbing the bull’s horns, then another mid-vault, and the final acrobat landing with arms outstretched.

Mycenaean Art

Succeeding the Minoan Civilization, on mainland Greece, the Bronze Age Mycenaean Civilization was in full flower. Its history and legends were captured by Homer in his epic poems, “Iliad” and the “Odyssey,” which reflect the end of the Mycenaean period (“the heroic age”). One of the most enduring artworks from the time is a “Funeral Mask” (1500 BC) thought to be that of King Agamemnon, who led the Greeks to victory in the Trojan Wars. All that is truly known is that the golden death mask is from a royal tomb.

Fragments of Mycenaean paintings were found at two sites: Tiryns and Pylos, with scenes from everyday life. In contrast to Minoan art, Mycenaean was much more serious in nature. The Mycenaean Civilization collapsed around 1100 BC, marking the end of the Bronze Age and the end of pre-history (that is, the period of history before written records existed). By 650 BC, Greece had emerged as Europe’s most advanced civilization.

Emergence of Greek Pottery

Following the Minoan and Mycenaean Civilizations, a record of painting is nearly lost in Greek art. Where the Egyptians, Minoans, and Mycenaeans used frescoes, later Greeks painted on wooden panels that disintegrated over time, and the main artistic record is instead found in pottery remains. Pottery always served a specific use (storage jars, drinking vessels, containers for perfume, and so on). On this pottery, a new trend was foreshadowed: the Greek fixation on the human figure, something that would become a central motif of Ancient Greek art.

Exekias, one of the most famous known potters, signed at least two of his works (black figure pots) that remain to this day. His most famous, “Dyonysos in His Boat” (540 BC) is important not only because of its perfect balance, but also because it signals the new direction that representation would take–away from symbols to a style that shows the world more as it actually is.

Another change in the development of pottery can be seen in the “red figure” technique, in which human images were not painted but instead formed when a black background was applied around them, letting the red clay show through. “Pallas Athena” (480 BC) and “The End of the Party” (490 BC) are two important examples of this style.

Portraying the Human Form

The focus on the human figure is first seen in Greek pottery and later in sculpture. The portrayal of the human body by the Greeks in their artwork had a direct impact on its inclusion and development in Roman art, and later in Western art in general. The early Greek statues, such as “Kouros” (late 6th century BC) were based on the Egyptian grid system. Gradually the lines of the body lost their stiffness–as seen in “Kritios Boy” (480 BC)–and eventually emerge into sculptures that capture the musculature of a natural human form, as in “Discus Thrower” (450 BC).

Etruscan Painting

With the expansion of the Ancient Greek Civilization came a new artistic development, found on the Italian peninsula in the 8th century BC. Influenced by Greek artistic changes, yet uniquely its own, the Etruscan style was greatly admired by the Greeks. Early Etruscan art was typified by wall painting, and an important example remains in the “Tomb of the Leopards” (470 BC) at Tarquinia. The mural shows a joyful group of revelers, drinking and playing instruments.

Much of Etruscan work, however, had a sinister edge, fixated on the fleeting nature of life. In “Mourning Women” (late 5th century BC), a fresco from a tomb at Rivo di Puglia, the scene depicts brightly colored mourners who lament the inescapable advance of time.

Classical Period

The most important painter of the Classical Period of Ancient Greek art (475-450 BC) was Polyanotos, yet none of his work remains. We know of his most famous painting “Discus Thrower” only from the writings of ancient Greeks. The most important surviving painting from the 4th century BC is “The Rape of Persephone” (340 BC), which is located in a tomb complex that also contained the remains of Philip II of Macedon.

Full of richness and life, this naturalistic painting is the explanation by the Greeks of seasons. Persephone is the daughter of Demeter, goddess of fertility, who is carried off to the underworld and will re-emerge as Spring.

Hellenistic Art

Following the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC, the rise of the city-state emerged, and so did Hellenistic art in Ancient Greece. Alexander’s cosmopolitan influence had already taken place and was flourishing through a mix of Eastern and Western styles. Hellenistic culture prevailed in the region until well after the Roman Empire took hold.

The Eastern influence meant a blossoming of art for its own sake, with more decorative embellishment, and religion relegated to the background. In place of religious subjects, art focused instead on gardens, still life, portraiture, and capturing the daily life of Greeks. The art was also much more widespread. Paintings could be found in barbers’ and cobblers’ shops as well as palaces (as recorded in ancient writings).

Art during the Hellenistic age was also more focused on “truth,” even when this meant the depiction of violent, dramatic scenes. The definitive example of this philosophy can be seen in “Laocoon and His Two Sons” (1st century AD), a sculpture that depicts a horrifying scene. Taken from Virgil’s “Aeneid,” the sculpture depicts a Trojan priest and his two sons in the process of being strangled by sea monsters, a revenge from the gods.

Rediscovered in 1506, the sculpture had an important effect on Renaissance artists, such as Michelangelo, who called “Laocoon and His Two Sons” a “singular miracle of art.” The sculpture’s influence continued, and El Greco later painted three works based on the Laocoon story as well.