BORN 390(?) B.C.: DIED 332(?) B.C.
THE antique writers have left us numerous testimonies of their admiration for the works of Praxiteles, but few descriptions of them, and still fewer bits of trustworthy information about the man himself. We have, how-ever, more material for the study of his art than in the case of any other of the greater Greek sculptors, for one precious original from his own chisel, the `Hermes,' has come down to us in excellent preservation; and in the `Apollo Sauroctonus,' the `Satyr,' and the `Aphrodite of Cnidus' we have, without much doubt, more or less faithful copies of famous statues by him. The reliefs from Mantinea were perhaps executed under his supervision, and may possibly be from his designs; and although there seems to be no sufficient ground for assuming, as formerly, that the `Eros' from Centocelle is a copy of any of his works, it surely exhibits Praxitelean characteristics. The so-called head of `Eubuleus,' the head of `Young Hercules,' and the Petworth head of `Aphrodite' have recently been proclaimed by authorities whose opinions must command respect, as actual originals from the master's hand; but their authenticity is as yet far from being generally admitted by archaeologists.
PRAXITELES was an Athenian by birth, a fact attested. by two inscriptions, one found near Thespiae and another at Olbia; but this is the only fact that we know concerning his origin. It is not improbable that his family may have resided in the district or deme of Eresidai, from the fact that in the third century B.C. a certain Praxiteles of Eresidai, whom M. Koehler conjectures to have been his grandson, was a priest of the temple of AEsculapius. The date of his birth and the descent of his family still remain subjects of theoretical discussion. It was a common custom in the families of antiquity, however, to name grandson after grandfather, thus alternating the names with each generation; and we know that one of Praxiteles' two sons, also a sculptor, bore the name of Cephisodotus; and we know also that there was an elder sculptor of the same name, and of no slight reputation, who worked at the end of the fifth century B.C. and at the beginning of the fourth. A group by this elder Cephisodotus at Athens, showing Irene, the goddess of Peace, protecting Plutus, the personification of Wealth, was, judging from the copy of it which has come down to us, a most interesting monument of the transition between the older and younger Attic schools, reminding us in technical characteristics of the age of Phidias, but in expression of face and delicate turn of head suggesting Praxiteles and the masters of the younger school. This elder Cephisodotus also executed works at Megalopolis; and we find Praxiteles during his early years working in the same region, so that as far as chronology is concerned there is nothing to militate against the now commonly accepted opinion that this first Cephisodotus was the father of Praxiteles, although M. Furtwângler believes him to have been an elder brother.
The chronology of Praxiteles' works is most uncertain; but without entering into any minute discussions of the evidence, let us attempt roughly to fix the main periods of his life according to what seem to be the most trust-worthy scraps of information that have come down to us.
And first, what date may we assign as that of his birth? Pliny speaks of the time of his greatest activity as the one hundred and fourth Olympiad, that is from 364 to 361 B.C. This was just after the skilful policy of Epaminondas had provoked a vigorous reaction against the leadership of Sparta in the Peloponnesus; Mantinea was reconstructed in 370; and some months after the Battle of Leuctra the Arcadian republics built Megalopolis for their new capital. This political renaissance was the signal for an active movement in art, and the adornment of the new-founded or reconstructed cities drew a number of the Attic artists into the Peloponnesus, among them Cephisodotus the elder and his compatriot Xenophon. Between the years 370 and 362 Cephisodotus was working at Megalopolis, and without doubt Praxiteles had accompanied his father into Arcadia. At any rate he there found occasion to manifest his youthful genius; for he contributed to the adornment of Mantinea one group, `Leto, Apollo, and Artemis,' which Pausanias dates with some exactness, placing it in the third generation after the sculptor Alcamenes, who was a pupil and contemporary of Phidias. As Phidias died about 430, two generations, counting each at thirty-four years, would bring us to the year 362 B.C. If then we estimate 390 as the approximate year of Praxiteles' birth, he would have been twenty-eight in 362, and probably by this time an accomplished artist. Doubtless his early work began under the influence of his father's style; and at any rate it is noteworthy that the group at Mantinea was a triple group, and that the group which Cephisodotus and Xenophon executed at about the same time for Megalopolis was also a triple group. This early group by Praxiteles is lost, but, thanks to the researches of M. Fougères at Mantinea, three of the bas-reliefs which adorned its base were discovered in 1887, being identified by a brief description of them by Pausanias.
It is probable that Praxiteles had by this time made his name known through other works, which we may attribute to this same period of youthful activity, that is from 370 to 362 B.C.; among them another group at Mantinea, `Hera between Athena and Hebe,' and a group at Megara, representing, like the first at Mantinea, Leto and her children. At any rate, about 360 he must have begun that series of works which established his fame, and everything leads us to believe that he had now returned to Athens and established him-self there.
It cannot have been far from this time that the young sculptor entered into those relations with the celebrated Phryne to which the ancient writers make more than one allusion. Phryne came, we are told, from Thespiae in Bceotia. She arrived in Athens very young, and so poor as to be forced to earn her living by gathering capers; but as she grew up her extraordinary beauty brought her lovers, renown, and wealth. It is related that on the occasion of a festival of Poseidon at Eleusis she laid aside her garments, let down her hair, and stepped into the sea in sight of the people, who were entranced at her beauty, thus suggesting to the painter Apelles his famous picture of Aphrodite rising from the sea. Another testimony to her physical loveliness is the story of her trial on the charge of impiety. She was defended by the orator Hyperides; and when it seemed as if the verdict were about to be rendered against her, he tore away her garment, and the judges were so moved by her beauty that they acquitted her. Though we cannot establish definite dates in her life to help us in following the career of Praxiteles, it seems probable that about 350 she must have been in the prime of her beauty, since it could not have been far from this time that she served Apelles as the model for his Aphrodite, and is said to have stood to Praxiteles for his `Aphrodite of Cnidus' (of which more hereafter); so that without attempting to establish any very rigorous chronology, we may consider that her intimacy with Praxiteles endured between 360 and 350—that is just before Praxiteles attained to the. fullest maturity of his talent.
If we admit these approximate dates we may find a point of departure from which to estimate the period of production of some of his most famous works which tradition has linked with Phryne's name. First among them are the famous statues of a `Satyr' in the Street of Tripods, Athens, and the `Eros of the Thespians.' Pausanias speaks of them thus: "There is," says he, "a street called `the Tripods,' its name derived from the fact that there stand upon it small temples to the gods, surmounted by bronze tripods. Upon these tripods are placed works of art most worthy of attention. Here indeed stands the `Satyr,' of which it is said that Praxiteles was extremely proud." He then proceeds to relate the following anecdote. Praxiteles, so the story goes, had promised Phryne his most beautiful work, but would not commit himself as to which of his statues he considered the most beautiful. Impatient to obtain the prize, his mistress one day resorted to a strategem in order to surprise the sculptor into an expression of preference. She sent one of her slaves to break breathlessly in upon him with the tidings that a fire had broken out in his studio and was consuming his works. Praxiteles cried out that all his labors had availed nothing if his statues of the `Satyr' or of `Eros' had been damaged. At this juncture Phryne appeared to tell him that no such misfortune had really occurred, but that only by such a ruse could she induce him to confess which of his works he prized most. She then claimed the `Eros' for her own, and dedicated it to the famous shrine of that god in her native town, Thespiae. This `Eros' remained in the shrine up to the first century of our era, when, according to Pausanias, Caligula transported it to Rome. The Emperor Claudius restored it to the Thespians; Nero took it from them again and had its marble wings gilded; and in the time of Pliny it adorned the Portico of Octavia in Rome. It was burned during the reign of Titus. The anecdote told by Pausanias serves at least to assure us that the two statues, the `Eros' and the `Satyr,' were contemporary productions, as they stood in Praxiteles' studio at the same time.
We must consider as of this same period too an `Aphrodite' of marble, and a marble portrait of herself, which completed the triple offering of Phryne to Thespiae; and also another portrait of her in gilded bronze which was dedicated at Delphi.
Certain evidences lead us to believe that about 350 Praxiteles was working in Asia Minor; and it is not improbable that the art movement which had attracted Scopas and his collaborators drew Praxiteles also to the Greek cities of Asia. Vitruvius states that Praxiteles was employed with Scopas and others on the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus, but there is slight probability that this statement is true. However, he did carve an altar for Ephesus with reliefs—"full of Praxiteles' work" is the expression used of it—which dates subsequent to the burning of the old temple there in 356, for it was intended to adorn the new shrine. It is probable, therefore, that he worked at Ephesus; and as we know that some of his most celebrated statues were to be found in the other cities of Asia Minor, as at Cnidus and Parium, or in the neighboring islands, as at Cos, there is no reason to think that he did not sojourn there.
Two of his most renowned works were executed at this period—the Aphrodites of the cities of Cos and Cnidus. According to Pliny, Praxiteles had completed two statues of Aphrodite which he offered for sale at the same time, the one nude, the other draped. The people of Cos chose the draped figure, believing it to be more in keeping with the dignity of the goddess; and for the same price the Cnidians purchased the nude Aphrodite. This latter, the `Aphrodite of Cnidus,' is perhaps more praised by ancient writers than any other statue of antiquity, and seems to have completely eclipsed the fame of the `Aphrodite of Cos, of which we hear no more.
Certain writers state that Phryne was the model for the `Aphrodite of Cnidus'; and if this be so the date of its execution was probably not much later than 350. It was universally considered Praxiteles' masterpiece. Pliny calls it not only the most wonderful statue by Praxiteles, but the most beautiful in the whole world. When Lucian seeks to paint the ideal of womanly loveliness he says: "Let her head be like that of the `Aphrodite' at Cnidus, her hair and forehead and the beautiful arch of her eyebrows like those there rendered by Praxiteles. Let her eye have the same soft swimming expression, brilliant luster, and charming loveliness; and let her age be that chosen by the master for the goddess." Again he considers that this statue must be the perfect image of the goddess as she lives in the heavens. Indeed, from the antique writers we can gather a whole chorus of epigrams in its praise, as, for ex-ample, that in which Aphrodite herself is supposed to glide over the waves in her chariot from her home at Paphos to Cnidus that she might see her effigy there, and to have exclaimed at sight of it, "Where could Praxiteles have seen me unveiled?" We learn that travelers came in great numbers from all parts of the ancient world to the unpretending seaport town to look upon the marble goddess who had made it famous; and that the Cnidians prized the statue so highly that even though the city was oppressed with a heavy debt they refused the offer of Nicomedes, king of Bithynia, to pay it if they would give him the statue in return. Carved in Pariah marble, the goddess stood in a small shrine or temple, open back and front so that two views of the statue might be obtained, and surrounded by a grove of myrtle and other shade-trees. No drapery hid the perfection of her body. Her lips were slightly parted in a gentle smile.
For many years the `Aphrodite of Cnidus' received the homage of poets and travelers; but toward the end of the fourth century of our era it is said to have been removed to the palace of Lausus in Constantinople, where it stood for nearly a hundred years, finally to fall a prey to the flames.
These two statues of Aphrodite, then, that of Cos and that of Cnidus, seem to have been strictly contemporaneous, and to have belonged to the period when we may assume that the genius of Praxiteles had reached its fullest maturity-that is to say, after 350. If we group with these two works the others executed for Asia Minor, we must include, as of the same time, an `Eros' carved for the town of Parium in Mysia, of which the people of Parium were so proud that they even compared it to the `Aphrodite of Cnidus.' It was probably destroyed about 265 A.D., when Asia Minor was ravaged by the Goths.
The last years of Praxiteles' life seem to have been passed in Athens. According to the calculation of M. Studniczka, it was about 346, when his reputation must have been at its height, that he executed for the Temple of Artemis Brauronia, at Athens, a statue of that goddess. Pausanias only mentions this statue with the greatest brevity, and it is listed in the inventory of the temple merely as the `standing statue.'
In this brief summary of the life of Praxiteles we have mentioned only those works named by the ancient writers which might in some way throw light on the chronology of his life, making no attempt to specify the numerous statues by him which they merely praise, though if we may credit their reports (which are too often of the most vague and unsatisfactory sort), his productiveness and versatility are scarcely paralleled, nearly sixty famous statues being mentioned as from his hand.
For instance, Praxiteles is known to have made at least three Satyrs,—the one before alluded to as standing on the famous `Street of Tripods' in Athens, a second in the Temple of Dionysus at Megara, and a third which was in Rome in the time of Pliny, who speaks of it as "the one which the Greeks call famous"; but no one of these is described with sufficient definiteness to make it possible to decide which, if any, is reproduced in the Satyr popularly called `The Marble Faun' of the Capitol, Rome. The `Apollo Sauroctonus,' too, has been identified merely from Pliny's brief description of a bronze of unknown location.
By a piece of good fortune which can hardly be overestimated, we possess, however, one work which, beyond all reasonable doubt, comes straight from the hand of Praxiteles himself—the only example we have of an undisputed original which is the work of any of the greater masters of antiquity. In describing the Temple of Hera at Olympia, Pausanias, after enumerating a number of archaic statues, says: "In later times other works also were dedicated in this temple, a `Hermes Carrying the Infant Dionysus,' of marble, the work of Praxiteles." On May 8, 1877, German explorers found, buried in a mass of bricks and clay in the midst of the ruins of the Temple of Hera, near the pedestal on which it had stood, and almost in the same spot where Pausanias had described it, this `Hermes.'
The date of the execution of the statue remains a matter of discussion. Some critics are inclined to consider it a youthful work. The grouping of Hermes, the national god of the Arcadians, with Dionysus, the divinity of Elis, may have some allusion to the peace concluded between Elis and Arcadia; and the statue may possibly have been dedicated as a symbol of reconciliation after the close of their sanguinary struggle, of which the sacred en-closure had been the scene in 363. On the other hand, the form of the base of the statue--a form rarely used except during the second half of the fourth century—leads Furtwangler to advocate a more recent date. This hypothesis is strengthened by the fact that the group might have been set up at Olympia in 343, to mark the occasion when the aristocratic party of Elis, seconded by the Arcadians, triumphed over the popular party, and concluded a defensive league with Philip of Macedon.
From the list of his works, we find that it was neither heroes nor athletes that Praxiteles commonly chose as subjects for his chisel, but the gods; and among the gods not the more august of the Olympians seem to have been his favorites, but rather the laughter-loving Aphrodite, and her son Eros, the youthful Apollo, Hermes, and the merry Dionysus and his train of fauns and satyrs. None of these works appear to have been chryselephatitine; but Praxiteles worked in both bronze and marble, though we are expressly told that he was most successful in marble.
Two not very trustworthy anecdotes will complete our meager knowledge of the life of the greatest of the Athenian masters after Phidias. Once when some one asked Praxiteles which of his statues he most esteemed he answered with great modesty, "Those which the painter Nicias has touched;" and from this we may draw the inference that most of his marble statues were tinted, a conclusion fortified by the fact that traces of color still cling among the curls and to the thongs of the sandal of the `Hermes.'
It is also related that Praxiteles executed a charioteer for a group by the sculptor Calamis, who excelled in the rendering of horses but was not so accomplished in the carving of the human figure, in order that Calamis might not appear less able to represent men than horses. It should be added, how-ever, in this case, that it is quite possible that an elder Praxiteles, who may perhaps have been the grandfather of our master, is meant.
The date of Praxiteles' death is unknown; but it is probable that it occurred, or at least that he had ceased working, before the coming of Alexander—that is, before 332 B.C. It would otherwise be difficult to explain why the Macedonian monarch should have intrusted works to the less celebrated Leochares, instead of to the greatest of the Athenian masters. If, then, we set the period of Praxiteles' activity within the thirty-eight years intervening between 370 and 332 B.C. we shall probably be not very wide of the truth. What we know of his sons Cephisodotus and Timarehos confirms this conclusion, for their works belong to the end of the fourth century, and their period of greatest productiveness appears to have been during the ten years of peace which the government of Demetrius of Phalerus brought to Athens.
To determine an accurate chronology for the shadowy life of Praxiteles from the scanty knowledge which we possess is, of course, impossible, and no pretence of exactitude is claimed for the dates arrived at in the foregoing ac-count; but the synopsis thus arranged may at least serve as a point of departure for the more important study of his art and works.
( Originally Published 1902 )
The Art Of Praxiteles
The Works Of Praxiteles
A List Of The Principal Works Of Praxiteles Mentioned By Greek Or Roman Writers