Archaic and Classical Greek Art
Archaic andClassical GreekArt CHAPTER 1
Archaic and Classical Greek Art
Archaic andClassical GreekArt CHAPTER 1
Seven centuries of art
Heading towards Ancient Greece

Ancient Greek art is characterized by the idea that it may be perfected: you can always do better to satisfy the gods!


This partly explains why it changed and developed so quickly, because in the space of seven centuries Greek artists changed their style from highly geometrical small-scale art to giant naturalist statues. 


We should be attentive to the fact that Western art during the next few centuries was rooted in Ancient Greek art. The latter is therefore essential to our understanding of everything that happened later.

Idol’s Head from Cyclades
2700 – 2300 BC, marble, 10.6 x 5.5 x 4 inches, Louvre Museum, Paris
In a nutshell

Ancient Greek art, on which Western art is founded, has greatly changed during the last seven centuries.

Archaic art

Let’s start with the first large-scale movement: Archaic art.


It is generally situated between the end of the 7th century and the beginning of the 5th century BC. La Dame d’Auxerre (The Lady of Auxerre) is one of the very first examples of this. Greek artists began to produce large sculptures for the first time. These were known as kouros for a statue of a young man, or korê for a young woman. 

On the left: Korah, known as “the Berlin goddess” of Attica, 580 – 560 BC, painted marble, 70 inches (height), Pergamum Museum, Berlin
On the right: Kouros, 590 – 580 BC, marble, 76 inches (height), Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

If we observe them, we find all the characteristics of archaic art.


  • What about posture? Fairly stiff, with movement suggested by the leg moving forward
  • What material did artists prefer? Marble
  • What about anatomy? Sometimes it was still not very precise, remaining schematic
  • How was the face portrayed? With a slight smile, but with very few strong characteristics
  • What was the best angle, from which to observe it? Directly opposite
  • The male body was naked and the female body wore clothes
In a nutshell

During the Archaic period, artists created large sculptures representing young women or young men.

Classical art

Greek art developed very quickly and during the 5th century BC it was already moving towards classical art.

On the left: Polykleitos, Statue of Diadumenos, 440 – 430 BC, marble, 73 inches (height), marble copy of the Greek original, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York On the right: Myron, Discus Throw, marble, 67 inches (height), marble copy of the Greek original in bronze, now lost, dating from the 5th century BC, British Museum, London. Photo: © The Trustees of the British Museum

Here are its characteristics in the field of sculpture:


  • What about posture? More natural, lent movement by a slight swing of the hips or the tension of an athlete stopped in full action
  • What material did artists prefer? Marble and bronze
  • What about anatomy? Muscles were portrayed much more naturally
  • How was the face portrayed? It was completely idealized, with no visible emotion
  • What was the best angle from which to observe it? Directly opposite

Classical Greek art remained an absolute reference for Western artists for centuries.


It was the timeless model for Renaissance artists like Michelangelo and even for some painters and sculptors during the 19th century.

The Belvedere Torso,
1st century BC, marble, 62.5 inches (height), Vatican Museums, Rome. Photo: Yair Haklai, CC BY-SA 3.0
Michelangelo, Ignudo,
1508 – 1512, fresco, Sistine Chapel Ceiling, Vatican. Photo: Jörg Bittner Unna, CC BY 3.0
Jacques-Louis David, Academy said to be of Patroclus,
1780, oil on canvas, 48 x 67 inches, Thomas-Henry Museum, Cherbourg-en-Cotentin
In a nutshell

Classical Greek art was a model for Western art for centuries.

The Greek canon

The reason for which classical sculptures seemed so close to a real human body is because they respected a “canon”. What’s that? 


The word “canon” describes an ideal beauty that changes from era to era, defining the “perfect” human  body in terms of a system of proportions.


For example, classical sculptors considered that the head must be a seventh or an eighth of the height of the body, which is close to anatomical reality. 


This canon, which may be found in all classical art, is also known as the “Canon of Polykleitos”, from the name of the sculptor Polykleitos.

Polykletos, Doryphoros,
First century BC – First century AD, 79 inches (height), marble copy of the Greek original, Museum of Archaeology, Naples. Photo: Own work, CC BY 2.5
In a nutshell

The Greek ideal of beauty, known as the “canon”, describes a body with certain proportions.


The other great name to remember is Praxiteles, who used all the classical characteristics, adding his own personal touch: the bodies that he sculpted had increasingly natural, curvaceous postures…


He also created several sculptures of nude women, making a mark on the next few generations.


Unfortunately, we have no original work that we can attribute to him with certainty: everything that we know about his art is based on copies and reinterpretations of these lost originals.  

Aphrodites of Cnidos,
1st century, Roman copy in marble of the 4th century Greek original by Praxiteles, with restored parts: head, arms, legs and base (hammer and hydra), National Roman Museum – Palazzo Altemps, Rome.
Apollo Sauroctonus,
First century, 58.6 inches (height), Roman marble copy of the Greek original by Praxiteles, Louvre Museum, Paris. Photo: Own work, CC BY 2.5
Hermes and the Infant Dionysus,
330 BC, marble, 83.4 inches (height), Olympus Museum, Athens. Photo: Roccuz CC BY-SA 2.5 it
In a nutshell

Sculptures by Praxiteles repeated the classical codes, but in more natural postures. 

The Greek gods

How can we make sense of the gods and goddesses sculpted by all of these artists? The Ancient Greeks were actually polytheistic, meaning that they revered many deities. There were twelve main deities, each of whom had very specific tasks. Here are a few of them.

Zeus, Amphora with neck and red figures,
around 480 and 470 BC, ceramic, 12.2 inches (height), Louvre Museum, Paris. Photo: © RMN-Grand Palais (musée du Louvre) / Stéphane Maréchalle


Distinctive Sign : Is never without his eagle nor his thunder, a flash of lightning in his hands
Profession : God of the gods and father of human beings
Key fact : He constantly changes form to escape the watchful eye of his wife, Hera, when he wants to have sex with other women and has many children out of wedlock.

Athena holding an owl, Plat,
6th century BC, ceramic, 1 x 0.9 inches, Antikensammlung, Berlin. Photo: © BPK, Berlin, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Johannes Laurentius


Distinctive Sign : She wears a helmet, carries a lance and is often accompanied by an owl
Profession : God of wisdom and warrior strategy and protectress of the city of Athens
Key fact : Her out-of-the-ordinary birth: her mother was swallowed by her father, Zeus. Seized by an awful headache, Zeus called a blacksmith god to the rescue, who split his head open: Athena emerged, already wearing her armour!

Poseidon, Pelike with red figures,
5th century BC, ceramic, 13.7 inches (height), Louvre Museum, Paris. Photo: © RMN-Grand Palais (musée du Louvre) / Hervé Lewandowski


Distinctive Sign : Holds a trident and is often accompanied by horses or fish
Profession : God of the sea, navigation and horses
Key fact : A very powerful, quarrelsome god, feared by the Greeks who live in an archipelago with hundreds of islands.

In a nutshell

The Greeks, who were polytheists, revered twelve main deities, including Zeus, Poseidon and Athena.

In summary, you have discovered:

  • Seven centuries of art
  • Archaic art
  • Classical art
  • The Greek canon
  • Praxiteles
  • The Greek gods
To train

Ancient Greek art is characterised by the idea that it is …

You have to choose an answer

Name the three periods in Ancient Greek art, in order.

You have to choose an answer

To which classical sculptor do we owe these natural postures?

You have to choose an answer

You have unlocked the next chapter in your course Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome.


From the Parthenon to Alexander the Great