Greek Art Periods: Geometric, Archaic, Classical & Hellenistic

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught history, and has an MA in Islamic law/finance. He has since founded his own financial advice firm, Newton Analytical.

Despite the Dark Age, which destroyed two major Greek civilizations, the culture rebounded, creating works that surpassed anything ever seen before. Learn more about major Greek art periods.

What Is Greek Art?

The people of Greece have been making art for just about their entire history, from the earliest civilization to the present day. While all of it is Greek art, when historians use the term Greek art, they're really referring to a period following the Dark Age, which had begun in 1200 BC and destroyed earlier populations, including the Minoans and Mycenaeans.

The historical period of Greek art starts at the conclusion of the Dark Age, around 900 BC. Even though Greeks had been making art for almost 2,000 years before this point, the end of the Dark Age marked the beginning of a time of innovation and evolution, during which the identity of Greek art would change and grow. Starting with basic shapes, the art would continue to develop to create some of the most striking work in the ancient world.

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  • 0:00 What Is Greek Art?
  • 0:49 The Geometric Period
  • 1:38 The Archaic Form
  • 2:56 The Classical Period
  • 4:47 The Hellenistic Period
  • 6:30 Lesson Summary
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The Geometric Period

The Geometric period of Greek Art lasted from 900 to 700 BC. Art from this period tends to be, true to the period's name, especially geometric, confining itself to representations and repetitions of shapes rather than the more realistic work of the earlier periods. Human and animal forms are relatively rare, and when they do happen, they exhibit many of the same geometric characteristics.

During the Geometric period, the most common medium was painting on vases. However, a few limited works of sculpture and bronze casts survive. The Greek region wasn't yet fully recovered from the Dark Age, which had essentially destroyed most Mycenaean and Minoan influences. The vacuum of influence during this period meant that Greek Art began to distinguish itself from earlier styles of art.

The Archaic Period

Emerging from the Dark Age and the last vestiges of the Geometric period, Greek artists began using a number of new methods and tools in their work. For the first time in almost 800 years, artists began working to recreate more realistic human forms. New technologies enabled pottery to be more colorful and ornate than ever before. This period of innovation is known as the Archaic period, and it lasts roughly from 700 BC to 480 BC.

Some Archaic art shows an Egyptian influence, certainly in regard to the placement of the feet, but much of it seems to be original to the Greeks. One point of originality in particular is the smile seen on Archaic statues, almost always staring back to the viewer.

Also during this period, potters in Greece began applying colored glaze to their ceramic pieces, creating two brand new stylistic directions. Black-figure pottery came first, in which black glaze was applied to create designs on red pottery.

Following this came red-figure pottery, where black forms the background for designs in the clay's natural red.

Archaic-period artists consciously experimented with both of these techniques, a particularly notable early innovation.

The Classical Period

Around 480 BC, following the defeat of the Persians, the Greeks, especially the Athenians, came to dominate the Aegean region. This dominance would lead to the next major Greek period: the Classical period.

When many people think of Greek art, it is the images of the Classical period that immediately come to mind. During this time, roughly from 510 BC to 320 BC, the Greeks achieved their highest level of craftsmanship and pressed exploration of form and perspective in art to limits well beyond its previous bounds.

Classical art is perhaps most notable for its perfection of the human form in sculpture. Although many Greek pieces are now lost, Roman copies and written records from both Greek and Latin tell the modern observer a great deal about how the Greeks approached the human form. A favorite motif was that of the athlete, as the Greek style lent itself easily to the portrayal of musculature. Additionally, Greek artists undertook the scientific study of the human form for the sake of art; they found a number of ratios, including the Golden Ratio, that informed proportions throughout their work.

The Greek masters used their newfound discoveries outside sculpture as well. As architects, the Greeks used the ratios of nature to ensure that their buildings were in harmony with their surroundings. Perhaps the most famous example of this was with the Parthenon. The famous hilltop building was constructed with the Golden Ratio in mind, and that's not all. The temple's columns are built using a technique called entasis; a decrease in diameter toward the top causes a subtle convex curve in each column. Optical illusions can make straight columns look askew, so the Parthenon's architects used entasis to ensure that each column looks perfectly straight when the temple is viewed from the outside.

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