Greek Art

First Things First...

A lesson on ancient Greek painting in the form of pottery as well as Greek sculpture offers a great opportunity for an expanded discussion on the artist’s quest to achieve real human proportions and postures. From the Geometric Period, the earliest period of Greek art, to the development of the anatomical canon of proportions in the High Classical period, you can use the evolution of figural form as a backbone for your discussion.

This lesson incorporates solely Greek works that span from 800 to 31 BCE (although some of the later examples are Roman copies after lost Greek originals, the dates provided relate to their Greek creation). It centers around the evolution of anatomical proportions and the human form. Through this theme you could also explore the importance in Greek culture of representing mythological figures and deities in idealized form, or the development the notion of humanism, an ideological approach centered on the immense potential of the human being to achieve greatness, particularly in the arts and sciences. Alternatively, you could relate the Greek study of the human form to to the idealized proportions of Greek architecture (Phideas, for example, and his efforts at the Parthenon, 447–432 BCE). The works in this lesson also evince a final parallel them of the emergence of the named artist. It is through Greek art that we witness for the first time in the Western art historical canon a sudden profusion of artists signing their works, suggesting a newfound pride-of-place in being a respected artist.

A great way to introduce your class to this theme is to start your lesson with an image of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Statue of a Kouros (590–580 BCE). If you’ve previously covered Egyptian art, you can begin by asking the students what this statue reminds them of, for example, King Menkaure and His Queen (2490–2472 BCE). You can then have them compare and contrast these two sculptures, or you can proceed by recruiting a student volunteer to the front of the classroom. Have that student assume a pose mimicking that of the Metropolitan Statue of a Kouros, and then ask your students for suggestions as to how the posed student could adjust his or her body to appear more naturalistic.

Background Readings

Polykleitos, Doryphoros (Spear Bearer), Roman copy of 440 BCE Greek original, marble.

Before class, The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s thematic essay on Greek art provides a great textual snapshot of the peak centuries of ancient Greek artistic production. You could combine this with the museum’s essay that focuses on Geometric period of artistic production as well to provide a more complete picture. Smarthistory’s synopsis is also a clever and quick overview that begins earlier in Greek artistic production and carries the viewer over into Roman art, which can also provide a convenient segue for a subsequent lecture’s topic.

Content Suggestions


Black Figure Style: a style of painted pot from the Archaic Period (600–480 BCE) in which figures and forms are created through the application of black slip before firing.

Contrapposto: posing of the human figure in which one part is turned in opposition to another part, typically with the weight of the body being thrown to one foot to create a counterbalance of the body about its central axis.

Geometric Style: a style of painted pot from the Geometric Period (900–700 BCE) dominated by abstract motifs (e.g. the meander pattern) and animals conveyed through black slip.

Humanism: an ideological or philosophical approach that stresses the importance of the human being, rather than divine or celestial forces, and the human being’s potential for achievement or greatness in all things.

Kore: Greek for “young woman”; statuary type depicting a young woman.

Kouros: Greek for “young man”; statuary type depicting a young man.

Krater: a large vessel used by the ancient Greeks to mix wine with water; also sometimes used as male funerary markers.

Red Figure Style: a style of painted pot from the Archaic Period (600–480 BCE) in which figures and forms are created through the absence of black slip, allowing the red of the terracotta to come through for greater design detail and finesse; appeared late sixth century BCE.

Symmetria: symmetry, including a sense of proportion and balance, as achieved by contrapposto poses.

White Ground Style: a style of painted pot from the Archaic Period (600–480 BCE) in which figures and forms are painted on white clay pot, allowing for greater detail and polychromy; also appeared late sixth century BCE.


From the rise of ancient Greek art around 800 BCE to its decline during the reign of Alexander the Great in the fourth century BCE, the artists of this period revolutionized the treatment of the human form. Ushered in with the early Geometric Period, which continued past conventions of stylized and abstracted forms, the rapid advancement of figural treatment and proportion became over the following centuries the hallmark of ancient Greek art and the feature most emulated by artists of both the subsequent Roman Empire and the Renaissance centuries later.

One important impetus for the development of anatomical proportions in Greek art was the emergence of humanism, an ideological or philosophical approach that stresses the importance of the human being, rather than divine or celestial forces. Humanism focuses on human experience and naturalistic perspectives, and emphasizes the human being’s potential for achievement or greatness in all things.

Here are some key works, organized by time period, that can be used to illustrate the progression of Greek artists rendering the human form during a one-hour-fifteen-minute class:

Geometric Period (800–700 BCE)
Orientalizing Period (700–600 BCE)
Archaic Period (600–480 BCE)
Early Classical Period (480–450 BCE)
High Classical Period (450–420 BCE)
Late Classical Period (420–323 BCE)
Hellenistic Period (323–31 BCE)

The Funerary Krater from the Dipylon Cemetery bears the essential hallmarks of the early Geometric Period, which gets its name from the repeated use of geometric patterns and motifs during this time. Here, clearly divided registers, or levels, of decoration alternate between different abstract geometric designs, including the meander pattern seen in the upper lip of the pot. The belly of the krater is decorated with two larger registers that are separated by geometric patterns and filled with a stylized representation of a funeral procession. The upper register reveals the deceased individual, laid out rigidly across a funerary bier, and to either side appear abstract female forms, whose crossed arms overhead are meant to signal their mourning. The lower register reveals a procession of soldiers with their horses, presenting additional examples of the tendency toward abstracted figures. The soldiers, for example, appear as if they are shields with limbs, while the chariot horses are melded into one horse-like shape with a multitude of legs.

This abstraction of form continued into the Orientalizing Period, as illustrated by the Mantiklos Apollo. Earning this name from the inscription across his thighs that reads: “Mantiklos donated me as a tithe to the far shooter, the bearer of the Silver Bow. You, Phoebus (Apollo) give me something pleasing in return,” this small bronze cast votive reveals stylized treatment of the human form similar to that of the Dipylon krater, with an inverted triangular torso, elongated neck, and oblong face.

Moving into the Archaic Period, one witnesses a profusion of painted pottery. These ceramic pieces reflect the talents of Greek painters for rendering figural naturalism. The skill required for these pieces is attested to by the fact that artists signed many of the pieces they painted. The first style to emerge was known as Black Figure Style pottery, so-called because figures appear through the application and subsequent kiln oxidation of applied silica slip. Exekias’ Achilles and Ajax Playing Dice illustrates this style of pot. Comparing this to the Dipylon funerary krater, one can see that the repeated geometric patterns and abstracted figures are here replaced with a narrative reduced to one central register and a clearer articulation of figures and compositional elements. It is as if Ezekias has caught Achilles and Ajax in a heated moment of the game, both hunched over the board in observation.

The same feeling can be attained from Red Figure Style pottery, as illustrated by Euphronios’ Death of Sarpedon Krater. Here figures are formed through the absence of the silica slip, with the advantage of allowing more intricate details within the composition. In the main narrative panel of the Death of Sarpedon Krater, for example, Euphronios’ mastery of the red figure technique allowed him to delineate musculature and bleeding wounds, details that add to the dramatic scene, wherein Sarpedon, defeated by the spear of Patroclus during the Trojan War, is carried off the battlefield by Sleep and Death.

The White Ground technique, the last of the three styles of Greek painted pottery, carried the field forward by introducing the element of polychromy, or multi-colored forms. This style, as illustrated in the Phiale Painter’s Hermes Bringing the Infant Dionysos to Papposilenos, involved painting narrative scenes in many colors on a white clay pot. The result, similar to a painting on a canvas, was imagery as intricate as seen in Red and Black Figure pots, but here the addition of vibrant color brings these stories to life.

Also during the Archaic Period, we find that artists become exponentially more adept at conjuring the naturalism of the human body. Statue of a Kouros reveals efforts, for example, to better convey the musculature of a male figure, with incised lines used to delineate abdominal and thigh muscles. This kouros, or “young man,” also exhibits greater facial expression, illustrating the tight, mannequin-like expression known as the “archaic smile,” a common feature of the sculpture of this period.

Compare the Metropolitan’s Statue of a Kouros to the Kroisos Kouros, carved forty years later, and you can get a sense of how quickly artists innovated their approach to the figure. While the Kroisos Kouros figure maintains the archaic smile, mat-like layer of braided hair, and rigid stance similar to the Metropolitan’s kouros, the kouros from Anavysos shows great advances in the Greeks’ understanding of anatomy and musculature. Contoured muscles have replaced incised lines, and the overall girth of the thighs and torso bring us even closer to a naturalistic human figure.

The Kritios Boy reflects the next step in this evolution during the transition to the Early Classical Period, commenced with the victory of the Greeks over Persian invaders and considered, along with the High Classical Period, the peak years of ancient Greek civilization. Though the Kritios Boy’s face is still relatively expressionless, the archaic smile is gone, and the carved eyes, which originally would have had inlaid stone, suggest a step toward imbuing the figure with personality. Also improved is the artist’s understanding of musculature, so much so that the sculpture gives a sense of the tactility of its flesh. What is most striking about this figure, however, is the effort to capture the naturalistic stance of contrapposto, wherein the shoulders shift opposite to the pelvis, allowing the figural weight to rest on one leg while the other bends slightly.

The development of naturalism was central to the transition from the Archaic to the Early Classical Periods, as demonstrated by a visual analysis of the Western Pediment Dying Warrior (500–490 BCE) and Eastern Pediment Dying Warrior (490–480 BCE) from the Temple of Aphaia at Aegina. Though these two figures were completed within a decade of each other, they reveal this essential transition. The Western Pediment Dying Warrior maintains the same characteristics of his Archaic predecessors (archaic smile, mannequin-like appearance) while revealing the limitations of this approach to sculptural representation. This figure is intended to be in the throes of death as he grips at the arrow that has pierced his chest; however, his expressionless face and rigid smile do not connote such agony. Added to this missing emotional context is the awkward position in which this warrior’s body has been folded. He balances on one hip while jauntily crossing his leg, a position difficult for anyone to assume, let alone a dying soldier. His Eastern Pediment Warrior counterpart, however, reveals a greater sense of naturalism not only in pose but also in expression.

The Greek sculptor Polykleitos was known for his perfection of the contrapposto stance in conjunction with his writing of the Canon, one of the most influential known ancient treatises on art. In this text, Polykleitos advocates for sculptural symmetria, which basically means that all parts of the sculpture should be designed in perfect proportion to each other. This principle is demonstrated in his Doryphoros (Spear Bearer), particularly in the counterbalance of the figure’s shoulders to his hips. With his weight resting on his right foot, this figure’s left leg is bent and his left foot is extended behind him, as if the spear bearer has been caught mid-stride. While this positioning of the legs causes the spear bearer’s left hip to dip downward, Polykleitos compensates for this by adjusting his left shoulder upward. This counterbalancing allows for the symmetria of the sculpture and thus fits Polykleitos’s canon for beauty. (A great clip illustrating Polykleitos’s canon, excerpted from the Nigel Spivey series mentioned below, can be found here.)

If Greek art of the High Classical Period is characterized by the refined idealism of the Doryphoros, the subsequent Late Classical Period, illustrated through sculptures such as Praxiteles’s Hermes and the Infant Dionysos, captures the period’s burgeoning interest in a more human approach to artistic depictions. This shift came in part due to the changing political atmosphere in Greece, where the relative calm of the preceding century had been replaced in the fourth century by upheaval and uncertainty. Most notable in this shift was the installation of Alexander the Great, whose father had gained control of Greek territories around 338 BCE yet met with death only two years later. While Alexander the Great’s military campaigns expanded Greece’s control to unprecedented borders, the atmosphere of unrest initiated artistic shifts.

In Hermes and the Infant Dionysos we see the figure of Hermes adopting a softened contrapposto stance as he cradles the infant Dionysos in the crook of his arm. Hermes’s gaze is gentler than that seen in Polykleitos’s Doryphoros, and his right arm would have once playfully held a bunch of grapes. In sum, the interaction seen here seems not the exchange between two gods but rather that between a caregiver and child, stressing the human qualities of these previously idealized deities.

The death of Alexander the Great in 323 BCE resulted in the division of his expansive empire among his top generals and signaled another artistic revolution as artists explored more novel means of expression. Building on the humanist qualities of Late Classical art, Hellenistic art emphasized emotion, drama, and theatricality. This was particularly apparent in those works reserved for military monuments, such as the Gallic Chieftain Killing Himself and His Wife. Originally part of a sculptural group erected on the acropolis of the kingdom of Pergamon, near present-day Bergama, Turkey, this dramatic grouping was intended to reinforce Pergamene victory over the Gauls while also expressing reverence for their nobility in defeat.

Here the Gallic chieftain stands poised to drive his sword into his own chest, the tip of his blade already piercing his skin and causing rivulets of blood below. He is depicted just after having killed his wife, whose body hangs limp next to him. His powerful pose, implying that death is more amenable than capture, provides a strong contrast to that of his wife’s lifeless body, and when observing this sculpture in the round it is as if you can envision what will happen next.

While Gallic Chieftain Killing Himself and His Wife conveys this strong sense of drama and theatricality, other sculptures from the Hellenistic Period offer greater subtlety of emotion. Such is illustrated by works like the bronze Defeated Boxer. Depicting a boxer who has presumably just lost a fight, this figure expresses a sense of total defeat, with hunched shoulders and a pitiful expression on his face. Thus, while not as immediately dramatic as works such as the Gallic Chieftain, in comparison the Defeated Boxer illustrates the truly remarkable range of emotional expression that Hellenistic sculptors were able to achieve.

At the End of Class

To reinforce some of the themes discussed in this class, you can have your students watch clips or the entirety of the first episode of Nigel Spivey’s How Art Made the World, entitled “More Human Than Human”. This installment is a great complement to a lecture on Greek art, as it discusses the evolution of the human form from the Woman of Willendorf to the Greek era. It also provides a great visual explanation of Polykleitos’s canon.

A discussion of ancient Greek art also presents the opportunity to incorporate the current “hot topic” of cultural patrimony and the longstanding question: “who owns the past?” This question is particularly relevant to some of the objects included in this lesson, such as Euphronios’s Death of Sarpedon Krater, which was repatriated in Italy in 2008 following a long legal battle (one article on the topic is here; however, articles on related cases can be found readily and might be more current). You could have your students read some recent news articles on the issue, and then either write a brief response paper or incorporate them into a class debate.

Further Resources

Smarthistory on Greek Art

Alexis Culotta (author) is a PhD Candidate at the University of Washington.

Jon Mann (editor) is an Adjunct Lecturer at Lehman College, a Senior Contributor at Artsy, and a lecture contributor and editor at Art History Teaching Resources and Art History Pedagogy and Practice.

Kaegan Sparks (editor) is a PhD student at the CUNY Graduate Center and a Publication Associate in Critical Anthologies at the New Museum, New York.