Ancient Greek art differs from other ancient cultures, because of its reliance on depictions of human anatomy. While there were innovations in the field of painting, many did not survive the turbulent wars that the Greek empire faced. Therefore, ancient Greece is survived today by its sculptures and pottery. Stylistically, ancient Greek art is classified into four different epochs: the Geometric, the Archaic, the Classical and the Hellenistic periods.
The geometric period was marked by two forms of art, pottery and sculpture.
Although pottery was an art on its own, it was the inscriptions on them that influenced Greek art in the years that followed. Thus, the earliest forms of painting in Greece were found on potteries. In the Protogeometric period, the vases were large and were decorated with abstract designs. The geometric period that followed saw the introduction of human and animal forms. They were often depicted in battles and in funeral processions.
Eventually, the painters settled for mythical forms, such as the sphinx and animals that were not native to Greece, such as the lion, as a result of influences from the east and Egypt.
Ancient Greeks made pottery for their daily usage and were not for display as we do it today in museums. They were used for domestic purposes, such as storing and drinking liquids, or keeping perfumes. There were special vessels known as krater and amphora that were deposited in cemeteries and used as grave markers. The potters became more advanced and made architectural or sculptural vases known as terracottas.
They were predominantly human faces and bodies made from clay. While most terracottas were statues, others were designed as normal vessels that were used for domestic purposes. With the terracottas, human sculpturing was at its initial phase in Greece.
Sculpturing in Greece began around the 7th century BC, which marked the beginning of the archaic period. Eastern civilizations such as Egyptians, Hittites and Lydians influenced the archaic art in Greece. Made from stone, Greek sculptures depicted young, muscular males in their nudity (kouros) and clothed young women referred to as kore. It is widely believed that male nudity was appropriate in public settings in ancient Greece, while female nudity was not permitted in public. It is due to this reason that most male sculptures during this period were nude, while females were covered.
These sculptures are entirely similar to their Egyptian counterparts, including their angular posture with one leg slightly ahead of the other. However, they differ with other sculptures because of their lifelike features. Greek sculptors developed what has come to be referred to as the Archaic Smile. Many of them wore a distinct smile that became a signature feature of the archaic sculptures. Their hair was also ropelike and braided, with little resemblance to human hair. Owing to the fact that Greeks believed that all gods had human form (albeit more powerful), these sculptures were assumed to be representations of both humans and gods. As the archaic period drew to a close, the Greek artists grew more creative. Their sculptures displayed more artistic skill and there was clear differentiation between human sculptures and gods. This bold artistic transformation is referred to as the Severe Style and it ushered in the Greek classical art era.
The Greek empire reached its peak in terms of power and prosperity during this period. Apart from winning wars against Persia and in the process securing their freedom from Persian rule, it was also the time of prominent individuals like Pythagoras, Hippocrates, Socrates, Aristophanes and Pericles, who changed the world in various fields such as mathematics, medicine, philosophy, literature and democracy respectively. It was also the time when Greek art went through complete transformation.
Sculptures became more naturalistic and they depicted human forms in a variety of postures. The artists made statues of real people, who were prominent at the time. Funeral statuary also evolved during this period. Instead of kouros or the impersonal statues, artists made sculptures of real life members of the departed that were laid out in the cemeteries. Some notable sculptures during this period depict the departed members taking their leave, as their mothers and kin mourn. It was also the first time that Greek sculptors immortalized their names on their sculptures. For instance, Phidias is credited with building the Parthenon, while Praxiteles was the pioneer of the female nudity genre during the late classical period.
Hellenistic period began with the death of Alexander the Great and lasted up to the time that the Greek empire was overthrown by the Romans around 31 B.C. Following the conquests of Alexander the Great and his army that saw the Greek empire extend up to India, the Greek artistic culture was exposed to exotic influences. Hellenistic art was therefore diverse in terms of stylistic development and subject matter.
While they did not abandon the spirit of naturalism of the classical artists, Hellenistic artists embodied a global perspective when it came to art. Unorthodox subjects, such as common people, children, women, animals and domestic scenes became popular concepts of sculpturing during this period. Emotions were more expressive and at times pushed to the extremes; a good example would be the Dying Gaul, a sculpture of a dying gladiator (Capitoline Museums, Rome) or the Jockey of Artemision, the sculpture of a young boy riding a horse (National Archaeological Museum of Athens). There were also depictions of ethnic people, especially of the African descent and of gods, such as Dionysos- god of wine, Eros- god of love, depicted as a young boy and Hermes- god of commerce.
As the power of the Greek armies gradually grew in strength during the four eras, so did the influence of the Greek art on its subjects in the vast Greek empire. And while the power of ancient Greece declined during the Hellenistic period, the power of the Greek art continued its dominance, with the romans picking where the Greeks left. Most of the Greek culture, especially art and philosophy was adopted by the romans and as a result, classical Greece is considered the founder of modern western culture.