Classical sculpture  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Classical sculpture refers to the forms of sculpture from Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome and the Hellenized, and Romanized civilizations under their rule or influence from about 500B.C. to fall of Rome in AD 476. It also refers stylistically to modern sculptures done in a classical style. Classical sculptures have been popular since the Renaissance. Only those works that closely follow the canon of classical forms would fall under the term.

In addition to free standing statues, the term classical sculpture incorporates relief work (such as the famous Elgin marbles of the Parthenon) and the flatter bas-relief style. Whereas sculptural works emphasized the human form, reliefs were employed to create elaborate decorative scenes.

There are several periods:


Archaic period

In the Archaic Period the most important sculptural form was the kouros (plural kouroi), the standing male nude (See for example Biton and Kleobis).

Archaic Greek sculptors originally were influenced stylistically by the Egyptians. Early Greek sculpture can be seen as almost provincial Egyptian. However some critical differences seem to have arisen at even a very early date; particularly, male figures tended to be represented in the nude, whereas this appears not to occur in ancient Egyptian art at any time (except when slaves or enemies were depicted). Female subjects however, were still shown clothed in Archaic work.

In this period, the later emphasis on naturalistic bone and muscle anatomy had not yet developed, which can be seen in observing details such as the knees and other critical joints. Some details seem to be "incised" rather than fully modeled, a relict of more ancient traditions. Nor did figures stand or move naturally. However, as the Archaic style gradually transformed into what is known as the Classical style, a clear progression displaying more and more technical knowledge and skill can be detected.

Classical period

The Classical period saw changes in both the style and function of sculpture. Poses became more naturalistic (see the Charioteer of Delphi for an example of the transition to more naturalistic sculpture), and the technical skill of Greek sculptors in depicting the human form in a variety of poses greatly increased. From about 500 BC statues began to depict real people. The statues of Harmodius and Aristogeiton set up in Athens to mark the overthrow of the tyranny were said to be the first public monuments to actual people.

As Greek artists began to study human movement and anatomy, they discovered that living humans tend to display a "weight shift" or contraposition when standing.

The first Greek statue to exhibit contrapposto is the famed Kritios Boy, dating circa 480 BC. Contrapposto soon became a defining element of Greek sculptural technique, culminating in the Canon of the Doryphoros ("spear-bearer"), which adopted extremely dynamic and sophisticated contrapposto in its cross-balance of rigid and loose limbs.

Most of the sculptures made at this time were created to show appreciation to the gods for showing them good fortune, and also to help bring good fortune in the future, and to also gain favor from the gods. Greek temples were specially made to fit the large cult statues. They believed that placing shrines around the areas that were said to be holy would please the gods. Because Greek gods were mostly myths based on real peoples lives this created mixed feelings about the sculptures therefore more man-like sculptures were created. Most sculptures created can be understood to represent myth, archetype or purpose in life.

During the classical period sculptors were not only creating works for temples, but also mortuary statues to show tribute to deceased loved ones. The sculptures would often show the deceased person in a relaxed pose. Successful athletes and rich families would commission statues of themselves for temples to show respect to the gods. In the 5th century BC portraits became popular and busts featuring generals, philosophers and political leaders appeared.

The high quality of Greek work attracted Italian interest, and greatly influenced both Etruscan, and later, Roman art. The enthusiasm with which Rome greeted Greek art has proven important not merely because of the transmission of classical Greek style, but also because most of the extant classical Greek works survive mainly in the form of Roman marble copies of Greek bronze originals. As bronze has always been a valuable metal, most of the originals were likely long ago melted down, and the few genuine survivals have been mostly found in the context of shipwrecks.

However, Greeks did carve marble, and a number of classical Greek marbles have come down to us; the famed Parthenon Marbles (also known as the Elgin Marbles), lasted in situ until the beginning of the 19th Century. In fact, many of the surving classical Greek marbles are from an architectural context.

Hellenistic period

The transition from the Classical to the Hellenistic period occurred during the 4th century. Sculpture became more and more naturalistic. Common people, women, children, animals and domestic scenes became acceptable subjects for sculpture, which was commissioned by wealthy families for the adornment of their homes and gardens. Realistic portraits of men and women of all ages were produced, and sculptors no longer felt obliged to depict people as ideals of beauty or physical perfection. Most Greek men were sculpted standing with their hips slightly to the side. When human beings stand this way it uses more muscles. The Greeks wanted to show themselves as a next to God figure.

Roman period

Roman sculpture began with the copying of Greek sculpture, but then evolved into a form of sculpture which more emphasised the individual. There are many surviving sculptures of Roman emperors.


Greeco-Roman sculpture had a profound influence on Western art. With it, the Greco-Roman style established the possibility and potential of realism in art. Because of the relative durability of sculpture, it has managed to survive and continue to influence and inform artists in varying cultures and eras, from Europe to Asia, and today, the whole world.

While classical art gradually fell into disfavor in Europe after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, it's rediscovery during the early Italian Renaissance proved decisive. One of the most important sculptors in the classical revival was Donatello. Many other sculptors such as Michelangelo also made works which can be considered classical. Modern Classicism contrasted in many ways with the classical sculpture of the 19th Century which was characterized by commitments to naturalism (Antoine-Louis Barye) -- the melodramatic (François Rude) sentimentality (Jean Baptiste Carpeaux) -- or a kind of stately grandiosity (Lord Leighton) Several different directions in the classical tradition were taken as the century turned, but the study of the live model and the post-Renaissance tradition was still fundamental to them.

See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Classical sculpture" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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