Late Classical Period
By the end of the Classical period Athens, Sparta, and their mutual allies were embroiled in the Peloponnesian War, a bitter conflict that lasted for several decades and ended in 404 BCE. Despite continued military activity throughout the “Late Classical Period” (400-323 BCE), artistic production and development continued apace.
In addition to a new figural aesthetic in the fourth century known for its longer torsos and limbs, and smaller heads (for example, the Apoxyomenos), the first female nude was produced. Known as the Aphrodite of Knidos, c. 350 BCE, the sculpture pivots at the shoulders and hips into an S-Curve and stands with her right hand over her genitals in a pudica (or modest Venus) pose. Exhibited in a circular temple and visible from all sides, the Aphrodite of Knidos became one of the most celebrated sculptures in all of antiquity.
By the end of this module you will be able to:
- Discuss the form, content, and context of key Late Classical works
- Define critical terms related to Late Classical art
- Distinguish Early, High, and Late Classical works
By the end of the High Classical style, the development of Greek sculpture had been mainly uniform. Afterwards, because of the success of that style, even leading masters tended to look back to it – and its exemplary works, such as the Parthenon – as a sort of standard, repeating its formulas in varying degree, and making equally selective use of the innovations of their contemporaries. Since also there are few usefully dated originals or copies either, the history of the Late Classical style has not yet been worked out in convincing detail and historians disagree widely on the chronology and assessment of important pieces.
The High Classical tradition in Greek art remained dominant till the 370s BCE, sometimes fairly pure and sometimes in a mannered exaggeration, but later new trends asserted themselves more insistently. These trends were not ubiquitous nor were they all combined in any one work, but on the whole, their direction was towards a closer imitation of nature in the flesh, facial expression, drapery and pose, though the requirements of ideal art were not forgotten. The end of the Late Classical style is usually put at the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BCE, but the most significant changes may have occurred some thirty or forty years earlier and perhaps the conventional periods of Greek sculpture ought to be revised.
By the end of the fourth century, so Pliny says, some sculptors were taking plaster casts from human models, but advances in superficial anatomy had of course been appearing earlier. The Aberdeen head, which should not be much later than 350 BCE, is an admirable example of a successful new type. The face has become rounder and the flesh is more delicately and credibly modelled, so much so that one might expect the cheeks to quiver if the statue was shaken; the eyes are more deep-set, the lower eyelid merges imperceptibly into the cheek, and the brow above is padded comfortably with fat. The lips are slightly parted and the hair is tousled and more deeply carved. The effect, though still ideal, is softer and more sensuous than that of any fifth-century face, and the expression suggests an intensity of feeling that High Classical sculptors would have thought embarrassing. The Marathon Boy is also softly modelled, though – partly because of its material – less palpably than the Aberdeen head, but here the treatment of the body can be studied. While the linear definition of the parts is still clear, the transitions between them are smoother and more fluid. Yet in other figures of this period, the modelling of bodily forms keeps an old-fashioned emphatic firmness. For a movement away from naturalism there is the Apoxyomenos, or the grave relief from Rhamnus, where a new canon of proportions makes the head noticeably smaller, one eighth instead of one-seventh of the total height of the figure: the aim like that of the Berlin painter more than a century earlier was greater elegance.
Late Classical Sculptures
Of original Late Classical works, most are again reliefs – architectural, on gravestones or votive, though the two last categories are mostly poor in quality. A few fragments from pediments survive along with a number of fairly complete free-standing statues (some of them made for architectural settings) and also several good heads. Copies from Roman art are numerous, but not altogether representative. Athletic statues, in particular, are comparatively few, presumably because the later purchasers of copies preferred High Classical versions of the type. There are also four or five good originals in bronze.
Standing Male Nudes
Standing male nudes differ widely. The Hennes of the column base from Ephesus, which can hardly be earlier than 350 BCE, follows such High Classical models as the Doryphorus both in pose and in structure of the body, though the face is softer. The Marathon Boy, usually dated about 340 BCE, is more progressive. It is an original bronze four feet three inches high, which was fished up from an ancient wreck off Marathon, and is designed with an emphatically frontal view, but the modelling is softer and the pose is more sinuous so that the figure’s centre of gravity falls near the slack right foot and its balance appears to be only momentary. The lateral sway is even more pronounced in other works of the time and often the figure has to have a support to lean on, a device occasionally used by High Classical masters, though more discreetly. This type of pose, so copies show, was exploited by Praxiteles and may have been his invention, but others used it too. What the Marathon Boy was represented as doing can only be guessed. Originally some object, at which he was looking, was secured by a pin to his left palm, but the position of the right arm and of its fingers should also have some active intention.
The Apoxyomenos, or man scraping himself, is a mediocre marble copy, almost six feet nine inches high, of a presumably bronze statue of about 330 BCE and perhaps by Lysippus. The dullness of the detail, which shows especially in the expression of the face, may be the fault of the copyist, but primarily the Apoxyomenos seems to be an exercise in composing a statue that is no longer dependent on the four cardinal elevations – front, two sides and back. This is done by extending both arms in a direction noticeably different from that of the trunk, so that it is not immediately obvious which front view is intended as the principal one. To modern spectators the pose may seem purposeless and contrived; but originally the left hand held a strigil, a sort of long thin scoop of bronze with which athletes scraped themselves clean after exercise, and the Apoxyomenos is using it on his right arm. This is an obviously momentary, though balanced, pose and the position of the feet are in harmony. In its proportions, the Apoxyomenos follows the new system, attributed to Lysippus, of smaller heads and long legs, so making the figure appear more elegant. Indeed, if one looks separately at the Doryphorus and the Apoxyomenos – or casts of them – the usual impression is that the Apoxyomenos is taller, though by measurement – excluding the plinth – their height is almost exactly the same.
Draped Female Statues
Sinuous poses are much rarer for standing statues of draped goddesses and women, perhaps because they would have disturbed the effects desired in drapery or from prejudice against indolent attitudes in women. Generally, the progressive Late Classical sculptors were more interested in the drapery than the body. Among minor works, some small statues of ‘Bears’ (or young girls) from Brauron are curious as precocious essays in sentimentality. Draped male statues too usually stand erect, some – like the famous ‘portrait’ of Sophocles – with more than a suggestion of posturing. Still, to the Greeks, it was an essential sign of good breeding to wear their un-tailored dress with correct formality and Sophocles, though a poet, was a gentleman.
Aphrodite of Knidos
From the era of Early Classical Greek sculpture onwards, reliefs and figurines had occasionally represented the female nude, but it was not accepted as a subject for full-size statues till about the middle of the fourth century. Perhaps the first and certainly the most famous example was Praxiteles’ Aphrodite of Knidos, which Pliny, a knowledgeable if insensitive judge, described as the greatest statue in the world.
The original, which is known through copies, was of marble, about six feet nine inches high, and designed to be seen only from the front and the back. The goddess stands upright and quite naked, with thighs together and the slack left leg slightly turned out. The left arm is dropping her clothing onto a water jar, the head is turned to the left, and the right hand is brought across in front of the pudenda – a gesture that from repetition now seems prudish or banal, though here there is no hint of self-consciousness. Unfortunately, the numerous copies are too poor to show the quality of the treatment of surface detail, which must have given the original most of its sensuous effect. The Knidian Aphrodite fixed the sculptural canon for the Greek female nude, with mature figure and, to the anatomist, startlingly immature breasts – in these particulars following earlier Greek tradition – but there was more variation in the pose. An early example was the half-naked figure, where the drapery has slipped down almost to the groin; this allowed contrast of texture and perhaps freer movement of the legs without offence to current standards of decency. The Leconfield head comes from one of these naked or half-naked figures. It is life-size, of Parian marble, and probably an original – even, some claim, a late work of Praxiteles himself. Certainly, the grave, calm expression, which avoids both the sensual and the sentimental, is characteristic of that master. So too, though are the soft modelling and the impressionistic treatment of the hair.
- By the end of the Classical period Athens, Sparta, and their mutual allies were embroiled in the Peloponnesian War, a bitter conflict that lasted for several decades and ended in 404 BCE. Despite continued military activity throughout the “Late Classical Period” (400-323 BCE), artistic production and development continued apace.
- From the era of Early Classical Greek sculpture onwards, reliefs and figurines had occasionally represented the female nude, but it was not accepted as a subject for full-size statues till about the middle of the fourth century.
Adapted from “Boundless Art History” http://www.visual-arts-cork.com/antiquity/greek-sculpture-late-classical-period.htm License: CC BY-SA: Attribution-ShareAlike