Periods And Personages In Grecian Art
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
Three Periods in Grecian Art — The Pre-Periclean Age — The Temples of Magna Graecia and Sicily — The Use of Stone, Stucco, and Marble — The Traffic in Vases — Defeat of the Persians — The Confederacy of Delos — Pericles and the Golden Age — Phidias — Ictinus — Mnesicles and other Artists — Plato and Socrates—The Post-Periclean Era
Praxiteles — Lysippus — Apelles — The Greek Theatre.
WE may conveniently divide Grecian art into three periods—the pre-Periclean or pre-Phidian—the Golden or Periclean Age with its second blossoming after the death of Pericles—and the Alexandrian Age down to the time when Greece became a Roman Province. Of the first little remains in architecture except some of the ruined temples of Sicily and Southern Italy and even these are but fragmentary. Of them the so-called Basilica and the Temple of Demeter at Paestum below Pompeii, and the Temple of Concord at Agrigentum in Sicily, are typical. They are the fruit of the age of colonization, that seed-time of Greece, when her cities, of an adventurous and restless spirit, reaching out for trade, were sending out colonies to Sicily, to Southern Italy—known as Magna Graecia or Greater Greece—to the islands to the eastward and northeastward up to the Hellespont and Propontis, and in this relief of the pressure of growing populations coming into contact with her neighbors, learning from them and they from her. It will be observed that these early temples are rude and clumsy in their proportions —but it was from structures such as these that the Parthenon was to be evolved. These temples and many others in provinces remote from marble quarries were built of limestone or of volcanic tufa, neither being susceptible of that high degree of surface finish in which the Greeks delighted, and they therefore covered these rougher stones with a fine hard stucco. I am quite convinced that the Greek architect did not regard marble with the almost superstitious reverence in which it is held by the practitioners of the present day, and did not hesitate to stain and paint it; that he preferred it when obtainable, partly because of its translucent structure but principally because it is easily worked, so that a pure and true arris could be obtained which would cast a pure true shadow on a pure true surface. It is well known, especially to sculptors, that by passing the hand over a surface inequalities and modulations may be perceived that are quite invisible to the eye; when this test is applied to architectural work of the finest period such as the temples on the Athenian Acropolis, it is quite impossible to detect any imperfections of the surface; it is as true as human skill can make it.
In her intercourse with her neighbors during the sixth and fifth centuries before Christ, Athens exported incredible quantities of vases to the countries lying west, particularly to Etruria just north and northwest of Rome. Vases were signed as painters sign their canvases to-day; so we know that a certain Euphronius was one of the most famous of these potters and painters. It is true of all periods that the smaller and more portable objects of use or beauty are those by which the arts of one people become first known to others, through trade and barter, through the presents one ruler may make to another, through the curious or beautiful things travellers bring back to their homes.
The Golden Age was inaugurated by the defeat of the Persians by the Athenians at Salamis within sight of Athens, at Plataea, and at Mycale, in 481–480; Athens became the most splendid city of the Hellenic world. The hegemony in Greece and the leadership in maritime affairs passed from Sparta to her. She organized the Confederacy of Delos, later used the "dues" of the Delian League to strengthen her own navy and gradually reduced nearly all her allies to a state of vassalage; her armaments increased enormously and the dues contributed by the members of the League were a virtual subsidy to Athens to protect them. It was upon this pretext at least that Pericles, when he came to power, transferred the treasury of the League bodily to Athens and used the funds in his projects for beautifying the city and the restoration of the fanes the Persians had destroyed.
At certain epochs in the history of the world, conditions and events seem to conspire to produce great men and great works ; as in favored corners of the Gallic vineyards the soil yields a wine of special excellence, so at this time in this happy-starred Attica the Greek spirit had its richest vintage; and the Golden Age of Athenian literature inaugurated in this period was destined to outlast the supremacy of the other arts of Athens and continue far into the Alexandrian Age. Chief among the amazing galaxy of artistic personalities of the Pericleian Age was Phidias, born at Athens in 490 B. C., the year of the battle of Marathon. His teachers were said to have been Hegias of Attica, and Ageladas, the foremost figure of the Argive school of sculpture. He became the Director of Works for Pericles. The pediment figures and the frieze of the Parthenon were his; all of the former that survived the ravages of time, the Turk, and the Venetians, were taken, with part of the frieze, by Lord Elgin to London, where, as the Elgin Marbles, they are to be seen in the British Museum. The chryselephantine statue of Olympian Zeus at Olympia in Ells was his also, and he maintained a studio or workshop at that focus of Hellenic life. Phidias was the author of thirteen bronze figures dedicated at Delphi by the Athenians out of the booty from the battle of Marathon; for steel was unknown, and weapons, shields, and armor, were of hardened bronze, readily converted into statuary. His bronze colossus of Athene Promachos, erected on the Athenian Acropolis to celebrate the victory over the Persians, towered above the temples themselves; and the sun could be seen glinting on her spear-tip by mariners rounding the headland of Sunium fifty miles away. He was prosecuted on a charge of sacrilege trumped up by the personal and political enemies of his friend and patron Pericles for having introduced portraits of himself and his chief on the shield of the statue of Athene Parthenos, the Virgin Athena, in her temple the Parthenon, and is said to have died in prison ! His work marks the transition from the primitive or archaic manner to the fully developed style of Attica.
Ictinus, the architect of the Parthenon, was presumably an Athenian, but the exact dates of the birth and death of this man who was one of the most exquisitely gifted artists of all time are unknown. He was the author of the Temple of the Mysteries at Eleusis in Attica, and of the temple of Apollo Epicurius—the ally or helper—at Bassae up in the grey hills near Phigalia in Arcadia, erected by the Arcadians to Apollo in gratitude for the deliverance of Arcadia from the same plague that devastated Athens and of which Pericles sickened and died. With Ictinus on the Parthenon was associated that Callicrates who was the architect of the tiny Temple of Nike Apteros at the gates of the Acropolis of Athens.
Polyclitus, sculptor and architect, was a native of Argolis and the recognized head of the school of sculpture of Argos and Sicyon, renowned for proficiency in the casting of bronze statues; his Doryphoros or Spear Bearer was called "The Rule " ' because of its perfections. Among other works he made the chryselephantine statue of Hera at Argos, the centre of the national worship of Hera.
Myron the Athenian was another great sculptor, whose Standing Discobolus or Thrower of the Discus, and Stooping Discobolus, are famous. The latter illustrates to a marvel what has been said of arrested action and equilibrium in sculpture; Myron chose the exact fraction of a second when the downward sweep of the arm has ended and the upward throw has not yet begun.
Polygnotus, the painter, was a native of the island of Thasos, and came of a family of painters; he was known as the Prometheus of painting from the vigor of his work. He would accept no pay but received honors at Delphi and citizenship in Athens. His most celebrated works were two great paintings on the walls of a Stoa, or covered and colonnaded public promenade, at Delphi in Phocis, representing Hades and the Fall of Troy. He also painted the Stoa Poekile or Echo Colonnade at Athens, built by Peixianax the brother-in-law of Cimon, who was the rival of Pericles, and probably decorated other Athenian buildings. A younger contemporary of Polygnotus, and apparently more popular than he, was Micon, an Athenian, sculptor as well as painter. He painted the fabled contests of the Athenians with the Amazons, and scenes from the life of Theseus. In partner-ship with Panaenus he executed a picture of the battle of Marathon, well-known in its time. Zeuxis and Agatharcus were other celebrated painters, unfortunate like their fellows in the complete destruction of their works.
Mnesicles was the architect of the Propylaea and the Erechtheum. His most fruitful years were those from 437 to about 415 B. C. but the time and even the place of birth of this great artist are unknown.
The latter part of this period of prosperity, comparative peace, and consequent artistic accomplishment, was darkened by the death of Pericles in 429 and by the struggle for supremacy between Athens and Sparta—the Peloponnesian War—involving all the states and cities of Hellas until 404. But it was illumined by the birth of Plato the philosopher, born in the year of Pericles' death. We are not accustomed to associate the qualities of the man of action with those of the philosopher; nor do we associate Socrates, the teacher of Plato, with battles and the strenuous life—and yet he fought bravely at the side of another pupil, the young Alcibiades, in some of the wars of Attica; but this was entirely characteristic of Greek custom; every citizen bore his share in the civil and military burdens of the state. So Plato, thus called from the breadth of his shoulders, the son of Ariston, a famous athlete, won victories in wrestling at the Pythian games at Delphi and at the Nemean and the Isthmian games. While a guest of Dionysius I, Tyrant of Syracuse, he offended his host, who caused him to be sold as a slave. Plato was ransomed by a friend. This adventure in Sicily, the imprisonment of Phidias already referred to, and the fate of Plato's master Socrates, condemned to drink the poison distilled from hemlock, seem to indicate that even at this time of enlightenment the life of the intellectual man was subject to hazard. Indeed, it is clear from what Mahaffy says that the extremes of savagery and brutality were co-existent with artistic and intellectual refinement throughout the world of Hellas and envy and jealousy played their parts as prominent traits in the Greek nature.
The Age of Pericles lighted the paths of men for many a golden year. But it is not by the reflected light of those sixty wondrous years that such men as Praxiteles and his contemporaries shone. The work of the years following the death of Pericles should be regarded rather as the natural sequel of the Golden Age, the natural reaction to its tremendous stimuli. The architect Hippodamus of Miletus in Caria, Asia Minor, planned the Piraeus, the port of Athens, and laid out the city of Rhodes, which, later, in the Alexandrian Age, became one of the chief centres of Greek art. To Callimachus, architect and sculptor, is ascribed the invention of the Corinthian capital in a pretty legend about as sound when examined in the light of qualified criticism as the myth that the arches of the Gothic cathedrals repro-duce the aisles of the forests with their overarching branches. One of the leading artists of this period was Scopas, both architect and sculptor, active in Ionia and in Caria, and one of the sculptors employed by Artemisia, Queen of Caria and widow of Mausolus, upon the tomb she built for her husband and which has given a generic name to all such mortuary buildings—the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus, and of which the architects were Satyrus and Pythius. Scopas also carved one of the plinths of the columns of the Temple of Diana at Ephesus; and the famous group representing Niobe and her Children is also ascribed to him.
The name of Praxiteles gives its chief lustre to this second blossoming of the Greek genius; he came of a line of Athenian sculptors, his grandfather of the same name having been celebrated in the fifth century. His father was Cephisodotus, who made the group of Eirene with the child Plutus in her arms. Praxiteles was older than but a contemporary of Lysippus, of the bronze school of Argos and Sicyon. He was the author of the Cnidian Aphrodite, the so-called Venus de' Medici, which stood in the Temple of Aphrodite on Cnidus, an Ionian isle. The beautiful Hermes with the Infant Dionysus in his arms, found about the middle of the nineteenth century lying on its face where it had fallen in the ashes of the roof of the Temple of Hera at Olympia in Elis, was his. He had a son named after his father Cephisodotus, who was his artistic heir; another son was Timarchus, and the statue of Menander which stood in the Theatre of Dionysus at Athens was the joint work of these brothers.
Lysippus, to whom reference has been made, was a native of Sicyon in the Peloponnesus, and is said to have produced some fifteen hundred works, among them Kairos, or Passing Opportunity; the Apoxyonemos; a portrait of Alexander the Great ; and one of Sophocles.
Apelles, one of the great names in painting that have come down to us, was a native of Colophon in Lydia, Asia Minor. Besides portraits of Alexander, he painted Calumny; Artemis surrounded by her Nymphs; Aphrodite Anadyomene or Venus rising from the Sea; and many other things, all of which have perished and of which only vague and unsatisfactory descriptions survive. But they are mentioned here to indicate that a new order of subject was being treated by the artist, such as the "Passing Opportunity" of Lysippus and the "Calumny" of Apelles, and a broadening of the artistic horizon as well as increased power and technical resources to render subjects of a psychological character.
Toward the close of the post-Pericleian period, or about 340 B. C., the Theatre of Dionysus at Athens, used also as the usual place of public assembly, was built by an unknown architect on the side of the Acropolis facing toward Phaleron and the sea. The Greeks usually selected sites for their theatres on the flanks of hills where the conformation of the ground gave a natural amphitheatre so that there should be the minimum of excavation or of construction, and such hillside slopes almost always in Greece command beautiful views of sea and headland or distant island. But this prospect was always screened from the view of the audience by a cloth or wooden "scena," which became later, in the Roman theatre, a high wall of stone frequently treated with much architectural elaboration. Thus vanishes the myth that the view served in lieu of painted scenery. Nothing could be more distracting during a theatrical performance than a great natural panorama behind the actors, leading the mind away from the stage and the play. Nor could the persons or the passions of human beings fail to seem small and trivial in a setting of such stupendous scale.