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The Art Of Praxiteles


COULD we be carried back to Athens at the beginning of the fifth century B.C. we should find that great changes had come over the Greek state and people since the time of Phidias. The civil war which had ravaged the land for nearly thirty years had humbled and demoralized the victorious Athens of the Periclean age. Thucydides laments that the manly race of old Athens had been swept away, and a worse one left behind. The Athenian state remained a mere shadow of her former self. The cities which had paid their annual contributions into her coffers now refused their tribute; her colonies were in the hands of her enemies. Patriots, indeed, sought to raise her to the place she had once occupied, but their efforts were spasmodic; and after each vain endeavor she sank back politically weaker than before, and more prone to give herself up to the pleasures abundantly provided by wily politicians in search of public favor. Consequently during the fourth century, Athens, as a state, offered little stimulus to great and monumental works; and her artists were forced to look for commissions to private individuals or to foreign states. Well-nigh all the Athenian sculptors of this period whose names are preserved to us left their city at some time in their lives to find employment elsewhere. Indeed, the most celebrated works of Scopas and Praxiteles were executed for Asia Minor.

These changes in the national fortune were reflected in the character of the people and in subsequent works of art. The old gods, they easily came to believe, had deserted them, and religious faith was weakened. The repeated and radical revolutions in the state had shaken their national pride; and the great misfortunes befalling them led each man to look to his own interests, regardless of the public weal.

The Phidian age, with its sublime ideals and golden colossi of Zeus, Athena, and Hera, had been left behind, and from the Olympian heights of majesty and repose the road sloped downward, but amid the haunts of men and scenes of quiet, peaceful beauty, which have a charm that is all their own. In the former age the individual was merged in the whole, the private weal was subservient to the state; but now the individual man attained to completer development, and the pathos of individual human sorrow, joy, and despair, and all the other emotions which move the individual heart, pressed into the foreground. The severer tragedies of AEschylus and Sophocles yielded in the people's preference to the pathetic power of Euripides

"...the human,
With his droppings of warm tears,
And his touches of things common
Till they rose to touch the spheres";

and as poetry assumed a more human character, so sculpture also descended from its height and took on more familiar forms.

Fully to appreciate what is expressed in the sublime figures of Phidian art, fully to enter into their spirit and the devotion which, produced them, some-thing seems to tell us that we must be Greeks. But not so with this art of the fourth century. Its ideal conceptions of rarest freshness and beauty come to us expressing traits common to all humanity, and appeal to us to-day as strongly as they did to the Greeks of old. This change in the conception of people and sculptors is evident in the choice of subjects, and in the different mode of treatment. Instead of the sterner gods, Zeus, Athena, Hera, and their peers, we meet a fluctuating throng in which we see the figures of the maternal Demeter, gentle Apollo, charming Aphrodite, bewitching Eros, and pleasure-loving Dionysus, in which every familiar chord of human feeling is touched; and these Greek forms of more than twenty-two hundred years ago express our own joys and sorrows. To these figures, with their various charms of mood and feeling, the Attic sculptors of this time added an elegance and captivating grace of form, stimulated by the lighter spirit of the people; for after the stern days of the Peloponnesian War, and in contrast to the severe heroic spirit of the older age, there had come as a reaction an unwonted desire for what was pleasurable and diverting.

How the sculptors of this age caught its changing spirit, and with what exquisite grace and nobility they gave expression to the pleasurable in art, will be evident when we consider their works. But while swerving from the paths of their predecessors, the ideal tendencies of the earlier age were still inherited by the later Athenian artists. No cold realism yet disturbed the dreamland in which they lived. Apollo singing to his lyre is not any individual lyre-player, but the very personification of musical inspiration; Hermes is no chance-met youth buried in pleasant thoughts, but the incorporation of all that is possible of joy and beauty in the soul, caught and made eternal in marble. Thus though the sterner Phidian ideals of the highest gods had been abandoned, the art of Praxiteles and his contemporaries was equally ideal in its own way, catching and expressing the momentary or lasting emotions of the soul in varied forms, and so widening and deepening the current of eternal beauty.


PRAXITELES belonged to a generation in which the growth of luxury, comfort, and the sophistications of intellectual culture had refined away the natural passions and extinguished the enthusiasms of the preceding age. To use the apt phrase of Reinach, "The time was a period in which Greece still preserved the grace of youth, though she had lost youth's illusions." Phidias had represented the gods of high Olympus with a reverential awe which set them in sovereign majesty above all touch of human joy or misery. But the sculptors of the fourth century had not religious faith enough to be able to conceive such exaltation of divinity as this. In their eyes the gods were no longer superhuman beings whose figures should be carved only with religious respect; and the chisel of Praxiteles became familiar. He reduced their proportions to mortal stature, endowed them with all the passions of humanity; Apollo became a youth idly playing with a lizard; Aphrodite a beautiful girl letting her garments fall before the bath. Praxiteles did not require, indeed, that they should evoke the higher moral sentiments, but only that they should express the most exquisite human loveliness—the charm of transitory moods which move the heart gently, the fairness of youth, the suppleness of life, the fresh softness of young flesh. But these human graces and gentle emotions he did express so perfectly, by means so simple, and with so masterly a skill, that we lose all trace of effort; and results which must have cost long reflection, patient study, and laborious toil seem to have sprung into being as if by nature under the touch of his delicate chisel.

To depict the harmonious grace and flexibility of the youthful body, as in his `Hermes,' his `Aphrodite of Cnidus,' his `Apollo Sauroctonus,' and his `Satyr,' Praxiteles had recourse to constantly the same procedure. The figure is thrown out of the perpendicular by resting the weight upon one leg; and in the two latter statues the leaning posture is maintained by the sup-porting trunk of a tree. By means of this careless pose he broke the vertical lines of the torso and legs, and the squareness of the shoulders, diversified the aspect of the symmetrical parts, gave especial value to that portion of the frame in the exquisite rendering of which he seems to have taken an especial delight—the rounding of the hips and the joining of the thighs—and imparted to the whole figure a graceful undulation. Such attitudes are indeed characteristic of his work.

Flexibility and grace thus attained in the main lines, Praxiteles continued to add flexibility and grace in every detail. And this he accomplished by methods not less striking, nor seemingly less original. The `Satyr' is a lad surely not older than eighteen or nineteen, and the `Apollo Sauroctonus' is still more adolescent, sixteen to seventeen at most. But none of the Athenian youths whom Praxiteles might have seen daily exercising in the Academe or at the Lyceum, their limbs grown supple and their every attitude made one of grace by the habit of nudity and the training of the palestra, could have shown him forms as softly harmonious as those with which he has endowed these statues. The `Apoxyomenus' of Lysippus, in the grace of his young strength and beautifully modeled as he is, would seem but a rustic beside these youths of Praxiteles. Nay, it must have been from some young girl that he borrowed the rounder elbow and more swelling flank of his `Satyr,' the purer oval of face, the more graceful curve of hip, and the delicacy of hand and foot of his `Apollo Sauroctonus.' But these delicate femininities are so skilfully blended in that adolescent grace that the harmony is perfect, the unity convincing, and the result infinitely charming in its union of the subtlest beauties of both sexes.

What the ancients admired above all else in the works of Praxiteles were his heads; and in truth he did exhibit in them a power of expressing temperament, mood, and the more constant and gentler emotions in a degree unapproached by any other sculptor of antiquity. The half-perceptible smile that parts the lips of the `Aphrodite of Cnidus' and the tender gaze of her eye admirably renders the alluring charm of the laughter-loving goddess. The fixed look of subtle malice, the dilated nostrils, the lips, mocking for all their repose, perfectly betray the ardently mischievous nature of the `Satyr,' "who in some deep woodland has stopped to catch the echoes of his solitary fluting." A more innocent mischief shines on the face of the `Apollo Sauroctonus'; there is nothing malicious in the playful readiness with which he watches the lizard, ready to strike or tease it, but only a pleased confidence in his own dexterity.

It seems almost humanly impossible that any carven figures could be endowed with greater loveliness of animated charm than these of Praxiteles. But there is a shadow over our delight in them; for the master, though he did not overstep it, has brought us almost to the bound where grace ends and artifice begins; and we have some foreboding of the depths to which the unrestrained passion for mere grace that he inspired was to lead his successors. -FROM THE FRENCH


THE most important of the antique comments upon the art of Praxiteles is that of Diodorus, in which he says that the artist "imbued his works in marble with the pathe of the soul." By "pathe" here is not meant emotion nor any temporary frame of mind, but that constant mood of the soul which permeates and changes the whole physical form. A list of Praxiteles' works will show that he knew his vocation well enough to concentrate his powers on subjects which, like Dionysus, the Satyrs, Aphrodite, Eros, and Apollo, illustrated in their persons certain natural moods of the soul, and with whom, as representatives of these moods, his contemporaries had been made familiar in their dramas and poems. There were in Athens everywhere to be seen ancient statues of the gods fashioned on the large ideal of majesty in form; and since they had been carved many attempts had been made to add grace and beauty of attitude and accessories but without essentially changing the older ideals. The tendency and result of these efforts seem to have been rightly perceived by Praxiteles; and it fell to his lot to devise new types of divine forms in which the moods of the soul could be fittingly expressed. His ideal seems to have been evolved in the endeavor—an endeavor not confined to him alone, although we may regard him as the leader in the movement—to infuse a permanent, characteristic, and pervading sentiment into the large and noble forms of the earlier age of sculpture; the results as regards these forms being a change from impressiveness toward expressiveness, or, in other words, from massiveness and simplicity toward refinement and subtlety.


HE achievement of Praxiteles was of such a character that we may Tread the man through his works. His avowed predilections for certain subjects and methods of presentment are equivalent to confessions of his tastes, his temperament, and his inner inclinations. Feminine beauty with all its most alluring seductions, masculine beauty in the April of its youth—these, of all the world of human forms, were those which attracted the sculptor of Aphrodite, of Eros, and of young Satyrs. He was, above all others, the master of grace; and since there are underlying affinities between material and the manner, we see him little by little abandoning bronze to devote him-self entirely to works in marble, for in marble his chisel was most free to evolve the subtlest curves of the supple bodies of youth. "Praxiteles quoque marmore felicior ideo et clarior fuit," writes Pliny.

The dictum of Diodorus of Sicily, "Praxiteles imbued his marbles with the passions of the soul," is a eulogy sufficiently vague to apply with equal truth to Phidias or to Scopas. We must be clearer than this about his emotional quality. It would seem that he never attempted to express very stirring or violent emotions, or the more profound and dramatic feelings. Those sentiments which he did set himself to interpret have nothing deeply passionate in them, but are rather light and pervasive moods-the chaste coquetry of Aphrodite, the nonchalant content of the Satyr, or the alluring charm of Eros.

The ancient historians and makers of epigrams bear abundant witness to the admiration which Praxiteles' statues inspired, but there is no testimony that they ever evoked anything corresponding to the grave religious sentiments which moved the beholders before the great `Zeus' of Phidias. Praxiteles was, in fact, the worthy representative of a skeptical generation, refined to excess, fond of the graces of life, in which the more strenuous passions had been refined away—which, in a word, demanded of art rather delicate pleasurableness than powerful emotion.

To present the human form lovingly, with a soul alive to all the infinite seductions of its grace, and in this presentation to attain new triumphs in art such seems to have been the dominant preoccupation of Praxiteles. It was he who revealed in Greek sculpture the consummation 'of grace which attitude could impart. But, though an innovator, he was a prudent one, and on the whole a man of tradition, holding himself well in restraint. Indeed, it was only by applying new rhythms to already well-known themes that he created his `Satyr,' his unveiled `Aphrodite,' and his `Hermes'; but these rhythms were so novel, so peculiarly his own, that even in the basest copies of his works we may discern some echoes of the style that we have come to recognize as Praxitelean.

A sculptor whose most celebrated statues were, without exception, single figures must certainly have been a transcendent master both in style and execution. Indeed, had we no other proofs, the texts of the ancient writers would assure us that under Praxiteles' hands technique in marble reached its highest perfection. Happily we have evidence more convincing than any written testimony in the one original from his hand which has survived—the `Hermes' of Olympia. No master before him, and certainly none since, has modeled the delicate roundnesses of the flesh with a softer caress, polished the skin with such loving care to contrast with the loose texture of the hair, nor had a more exquisite feeling for the play of light and shade.

The ancients were wont to speak of the heads by Praxiteles with especial praise; and in them perhaps more than elsewhere the individuality of his genius becomes apparent. His remarkably effective method of using the drill to produce the texture of the hair has been widely noted, but he also modified the classic dressing of the locks, allowing them to flow in long ringlets over the neck of the Thespian `Eros', making the arrangement almost feminine in the `Apollo Sauroctonus,' and arriving at what seems the perfect simplicity of grace in the hair of the `Aphrodite of Cnidus.' Above all, he imparted a hitherto unknown degree of expressiveness to his faces, not by reproducing strongly characteristic or ephemeral expressions, but by introducing the finest subtleties of drawing and modeling—giving the eyes, by a peculiar drawing of the lids, that veiled and swimming look which was admired in the `Aphrodite of Cnidus,' or touching the lips with the half-detected smile that haunts the tenderly malicious face of the 'Apollo Sauroctonus.'

It is easy to trace the immense influence of Praxiteles on the art of Greece. His works seem to have been an inexhaustible source of inspiration. The Attic steles show us leaning figures in which his favorite rhythms are reproduced; the eyes of the `Aphrodite of Cnidus' look out from many female heads, and the terra-cotta figures of Tanagra owe no little of the easy grace of their attitudes and fall of drapery to his influence. His spirit lived long after him, and for many years inspired Greek art with the same gracious charm which had emanated from his works.-FROM THE FRENCH

( 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

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