Ancient Greek Sculpture: History & Characteristics

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  • 0:02 Ancient Greek Sculpture
  • 1:12 The Ideal Man
  • 2:04 Early Greek Sculpture
  • 2:35 Contrapposto
  • 3:11 Hellenistic Styles &…
  • 4:11 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Cassie Beyer

Cassie holds a master's degree in history and has spent five years teaching history and the humanities from ancient times to the Renaissance.

In this lesson, we'll be looking at ancient Greek sculptures. You'll study their primary characteristics, their history, and even their impact on later cultures, including our own. Following this, you can test your knowledge with a quiz.

Ancient Greek Sculpture

Around 2,600 years ago, the Greeks were already building life-size, freestanding statues that attempted to mimic the human form at a time when other cultures had much more abstract and stylistic approaches. The reasons for doing so are mostly based in the values of Greek culture. Over the centuries, their techniques for creating realistic and idealistic representations improved, and even after Greece lost its independence, its culture continued to be widely influential.

Several core values of the ancient Greeks strongly influenced their artistic styles. First, they were fiercely devoted to the study of the natural world, which included both observation and experimentation. This interest led to a very realistic style of artwork. In short, the Greeks wished to be as visually accurate as they were scientifically accurate.

Second, they had several robust schools of philosophy, something not seen in other ancient cultures. One of the centerpieces of Greek philosophy was their dedication to the understanding of ideals. Thus, while their artwork was very realistic, it was also very idealistic realism. Rather than depicting an average human, it would depict their concept of an ideal human.

The Ideal Man

The Greeks had some very concrete ideas as to what made a perfect human being:

  • Male: Women were distinctly second class people in Greece and had a very limited role in art.
  • Well-built: Greek statues possess perfectly sculpted muscles. They were also commonly naked to fully show off their perfected state.
  • Young: When a sculpture is not meant to depict someone specific, the subject normally appears to be in his young 20s; basically the prime of his life. He has neither the infirmities of the old nor the immaturity of an adolescent.
  • Unemotional: For the Greeks, the perfect mind was a rational mind, and emotion was seen as decidedly irrational. It was also seen as something for women, with whom the perfect man would have little in common. To communicate this, Greek statues have little expression, and they tend to look very similar to one another.

Early Greek Sculpture

As early as the 7th century BCE, the Greeks were building life-size statues. While the proportions were awkward and the poses stiff, they already bore many traditional traits of Greek art: primarily male, nude, well-muscled, anonymous, and blank-faced.

By the 6th century BCE, the realism of the figures had vastly improved. The Anavysos Kouros is one of the best known examples of 6th century style. The proportions and details are so exact you might mistake it on first glance as being an actual person.

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