The Evolution of Art in Ancient Greece

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  • 0:08 Art in Ancient Greece
  • 0:49 Evolution of Architecture
  • 2:29 Evolution of Art
  • 4:41 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Expert Contributor
Sasha Blakeley

Sasha Blakeley has a Bachelor's in English Literature from McGill University. She has been teaching English in Canada and Taiwan for six years.

In this lesson, you will explore the evolution of art across several periods of Ancient Greek history. Then, test your understanding with a brief quiz on painting, sculpture, and architecture.

Art in Ancient Greece

If you've ever been to an art museum, you've seen the impact of Greek art. Ancient Greece was the first major European civilization, lasting from roughly 900 to 31 BC. The artistic achievements of this civilization set the standards for Western art, greatly influencing ideas about beauty, form, style, and the use of art that still impact us today. However, Ancient Greece did not span nearly a millennium without ever changing their artistic styles. Ancient art grew and was refined and altered by hundreds of artists over time, crafting it into a body of work that defined their civilization.

Evolution of Architecture

The first major developments in Greek architecture were during the Archaic Period, roughly 600 to 480 BC. This was the first time that Greek architects learned to make massive temples out of stone, generally using soft white stones like marble or limestone. During the Archaic Period, two orders of Greek architects emerged. First was the Doric Order, with smooth capitals on the tops of each column and decorations in the superstructure that resembled the ends of wooden beams; a nod to earlier temples. After that came the Ionic Order, with capitals that looked like scrolls and thinner columns.

While these styles were defined during the Archaic Period, they were improved upon in the Classical Period, which ran 480 to 323 BC. In this period, architects looked to math and claimed that aesthetic beauty came from ideal geometric ratios. Temples were built to reflect these perfect relationships between parts.

Around 447 BC, construction was started on the Parthenon, a gigantic temple to Athena that was amongst the grandest buildings of Greece and a nearly perfect example of the Doric style. Later in the Classical Period, another architectural order was developed, called the Corinthian Order and defined by capitals designed to look like foliage.

After the Classical Period, architects began challenging these traditions in the Hellenistic Period of 323 to 31 BC. Hellenistic temples did not rely on ideal ratios and also incorporated foreign styles, which architects discovered after Alexander the Great's empire stretched into Asia.

Evolution of Art

In the oldest period of ancient Greece, the era before Greek architecture, most Greek art was in the form of painted vases called 'amphorae'. This was called the Geometric Period of 900 to 600 BC, so called because these vases were covered in geometric designs, and occasionally featured abstract human figures.

By the Archaic period, when architects were first developing temples, vase art grew tremendously, using the red color of clay and black slip to create silhouetted human figures in scenes from history or mythology. This Black Figure style was extremely popular, but was replaced in the later Archaic period by Red Figure style, which used the black slip to create the background and left the figures in the natural color of red clay. Greek vase painting remained popular throughout Greek history, but the styles rarely changed after this.

Greek sculpture was one of the most notable areas of artistic development. Throughout the Geometric Period, the Greeks made miniature statues in bronze, usually only a few inches tall, that depicted humans in abstract form. The first life-size stone statues were developed in the Archaic period. They were stiff and rigid, modeled heavily on ancient Egyptian styles, but had thin smiles, a uniquely Greek trait.

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Additional Activities

Deepen Your Understanding

Now that you have learned some of the basics of different Ancient Greek art styles, from the early Geometric Period to the refined and idealized Hellenistic Period, it's time to dig a little deeper. Use the following prompts as a guide to do further research into the different art periods. Choose a topic that interests you that you want to learn more about! You can write up your findings however you choose, in an essay, a timeline, or even a PowerPoint presentation.

Art and Myth

Do further research into a period of your choice, with particular attention to how this period chooses to engage with the myths and legends of Ancient Greek culture. How does art from your chosen period contribute to our understanding of these myths today? What choices did artists make in their treatment of mythology and how does their portrayal of figures from myths and legends differ from other periods of Greek art? Do they differ?

Tools and Materials

Choose an Ancient Greek art period and look specifically at the materials and tools used to achieve the final products. In what ways do you think the available tools and material of the time impacted the way that different art styles evolved? What innovations can you see in later art styles that would have been impossible in the earlier periods and why do you think these changes happened in the first place? This prompt looks specifically at the form of Ancient Greek Art, so make sure you describe the tools and materials used thoroughly.

Ancient Greek Influence

Ancient Greek art has been widely influential throughout history on many different artistic periods. From the Romans to the Neo-Classicists, the reach of Ancient Greek art spans across history, even to today. Choose another famous period of art that you think was influenced heavily by Ancient Greek art. How do you see these influenced manifest? What periods of Greek art do you see being used as inspiration? Why do you think Ancient Greek art was so pervasive in its impact on Western art throughout history?

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