Phidias: Greek Art – Beacon Lights of History, Volume I : The Old Pagan Civilizations by John Lord

Beacon Lights of History, Volume I, The Old Pagan Civilizations by John Lord

Beacon Lights of History, Volume I : The Old Pagan Civilizations

Ancient Religions: Egyptian, Assyrian, Babylonian, and Persian
Religions of India: Brahmanism and Buddhism
Religion of The Greeks and Romans: Classic Mythology
Confucius: Sage and Moralist
Ancient Philosophy: Seeking After Truth
Socrates: Greek Philosophy
Phidias: Greek Art
Literary Genius: The Greek and Roman Classics

Beacon Lights of History, Volume I : The Old Pagan Civilizations
John Lord

Topics Covered
General popular interest in Art
Principles on which it is based
Phidias taken merely as a text
Not much known of his personal history
His most famous statues; Minerva and Olympian Jove
His peculiar excellences as a sculptor
Definitions of the word “Art”
Its representation of ideas of beauty and grace
The glory and dignity of art
The connection of plastic with literary art
Architecture, the first expression of art
Peculiarities of Egyptian and Assyrian architecture
Ancient temples, tombs, pyramids, and palaces
General features of Grecian architecture
The Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian orders
Simplicity and beauty of their proportions…
The horizontal lines of Greek and the vertical lines of Gothic architecture
Assyrian, Egyptian, and Indian sculpture
Superiority of Greek sculpture
Ornamentation of temples with statues of gods, heroes, and distinguished men
The great sculptors of antiquity
Their ideal excellence
Antiquity of painting in Babylon and Egypt
Its gradual development in Greece
Famous Grecian painters
Decline of art among the Romans
Art as seen in literature
Literature not permanent without art
Artists as a class
Art a refining influence rather than a moral power

Phidias: Greek Art

500-430 B.C.

I suppose there is no subject, at this time, which interests cultivated people in favored circumstances more than Art. They travel in Europe, they visit galleries, they survey cathedrals, they buy pictures, they collect old china, they learn to draw and paint, they go into ecstasies over statues and bronzes, they fill their houses with bric-á-brac, they assume a cynical criticism, or gossip pedantically, whether they know what they are talking about or not. In short, the contemplation of Art is a fashion, concerning which it is not well to be ignorant, and about which there is an amazing amount of cant, pretension, and borrowed opinions. Artists themselves differ in their judgments, and many who patronize them have no severity of discrimination. We see bad pictures on the walls of private palaces, as well as in public galleries, for which fabulous prices are paid because they are, or are supposed to be, the creation of great masters, or because they are rare like old books in an antiquarian library, or because fashion has given them a fictitious value, even when these pictures fail to create pleasure or emotion in those who view them. And yet there is great enjoyment, to some people, in the contemplation of a beautiful building or statue or painting,–as of a beautiful landscape or of a glorious sky. The ideas of beauty, of grace, of grandeur, which are eternal, are suggested to the mind and soul; and these cultivate and refine in proportion as the mind and soul are enlarged, especially among the rich, the learned, and the favored classes. So, in high civilizations, especially material, Art is not only a fashion but a great enjoyment, a lofty study, and a theme of general criticism and constant conversation.

It is my object, of course, to present the subject historically, rather than critically. My criticisms would be mere opinions, worth no more than those of thousands of other people. As a public teacher to those who may derive some instruction from my labors and studies, I presume to offer only reflections on Art as it existed among the Greeks, and to show its developments in an historical point of view.

The reader may be surprised that I should venture to present Phidias as one of the benefactors of the world, when so little is known about him, or can be known about him. So far as the man is concerned, I might as well lecture on Melchizedek, or Pharaoh, or one of the dukes of Edom. There are no materials to construct a personal history which would be interesting, such as abound in reference to Michael Angelo or Raphael. Thus he must be made the mere text of a great subject. The development of Art is an important part of the history of civilization. The influence of Art on human culture and happiness is prodigious. Ancient Grecian art marks one of the stepping-stones of the race. Any man who largely contributed to its development was a world-benefactor.

Now, history says this much of Phidias: that he lived in the time of Pericles,–in the culminating period of Grecian glory,–and ornamented the Parthenon with his unrivalled statues; which Parthenon was to Athens what Solomon’s Temple was to Jerusalem,–a wonder, a pride, and a glory. His great contribution to that matchless edifice was the statue of Minerva, made of gold and ivory, forty feet in height, the gold of which alone was worth forty-four talents,–about fifty-thousand dollars,–an immense sum when gold was probably worth more than twenty times its present value. All antiquity was unanimous in its praise of this statue, and the exactness and finish of its details were as remarkable as the grandeur and majesty of its proportions. Another of the famous works of Phidias was the bronze statue of Minerva, which was the glory of the Acropolis, This was sixty feet in height. But even this yielded to the colossal statue of Zeus or Jupiter in his great temple at Olympia, representing the figure in a sitting posture, forty feet high, on a throne made of gold, ebony, ivory, and precious stones. In this statue the immortal artist sought to represent power in repose, as Michael Angelo did in his statue of Moses. So famous was this majestic statue, that it was considered a calamity to die without seeing it; and it served as a model for all subsequent representations of majesty and repose among the ancients. This statue, removed to Constantinople by Theodosius the Great, remained undestroyed until the year 475 A.D.

Phidias also executed various other works,–all famous in his day,–which have, however, perished; but many executed under his superintendence still remain, and are universally admired for their grace and majesty of form. The great master himself was probably vastly superior to any of his disciples, and impressed his genius on the age, having, so far as we know, no rival among his contemporaries, as he has had no successor among the moderns of equal originality and power, unless it be Michael Angelo. His distinguished excellence was simplicity and grandeur; and he was to sculpture what Aeschylus was to tragic poetry,–sublime and grand, representing ideal excellence, Though his works have perished, the ideas he represented still live. His fame is immortal, though we know so little about him. It is based on the admiration of antiquity, on the universal praise which his creations extorted even from the severest critics in an age of Art, when the best energies of an ingenious people were directed to it with the absorbing devotion now given to mechanical inventions and those pursuits which make men rich and comfortable. It would be interesting to know the private life of this great artist, his ardent loves and fierce resentments, his social habits, his public honors and triumphs,–but this is mere speculation. We may presume that he was rich, flattered, and admired,–the companion of great statesmen, rulers, and generals; not a persecuted man like Dante, but honored like Raphael; one of the fortunate of earth, since he was a master of what was most valued in his day.

Phidias, From the relief by Giotto in the Campanile, Florence

But it is the work which he represents–and still more comprehensively Art itself in the ancient world–to which I would call your attention, especially the expression of Art in buildings, in statues, and in pictures.

“Art” is itself a very great word, and means many things; it is applied to style in writing, to musical compositions, and even to effective eloquence, as well as to architecture, sculpture, and painting. We speak of music as artistic,–and not foolishly; of an artistic poet, or an artistic writer like Voltaire or Macaulay; of an artistic preacher,–by which we mean that each and all move the sensibilities and souls and minds of men by adherence to certain harmonies which accord with fixed ideas of grace, beauty, and dignity. Eternal ideas which the mind conceives are the foundation of Art, as they are of Philosophy. Art claims to be creative, and is in a certain sense inspired, like the genius of a poet. However material the creation, the spirit which gives beauty to it is of the mind and soul. Imagination is tasked to its utmost stretch to portray sentiments and passions in the way that makes the deepest impression. The marble bust becomes animated, and even the temple consecrated to the deity becomes religious, in proportion as these suggest the ideas and sentiments which kindle the soul to admiration and awe. These feelings belong to every one by nature, and are most powerful when most felicitously called out by the magic of the master, who requires time and labor to perfect his skill. Art is therefore popular, and appeals to every one, but to those most who live in the great ideas on which it is based. The peasant stands awe-struck before the majestic magnitude of a cathedral; the man of culture is roused to enthusiasm by the contemplation of its grand proportions, or graceful outlines, or bewitching details, because he sees in them the realization of his ideas of beauty, grace, and majesty, which shine forever in unutterable glory,–indestructible ideas which survive all thrones and empires, and even civilizations. They are as imperishable as stars and suns and rainbows and landscapes, since these unfold new beauties as the mind and soul rest upon them. Whenever, then, man creates an image or a picture which reveals these eternal but indescribable beauties, and calls forth wonder or enthusiasm, and excites refined pleasures, he is an artist. He impresses, to a greater or less degree, every order and class of men. He becomes a benefactor, since he stimulates exalted sentiments, which, after all, are the real glory and pride of life, and the cause of all happiness and virtue,–in cottage or in palace, amid hard toils as well as in luxurious leisure. He is a self-sustained man, since he revels in ideas rather than in praises and honors. Like the man of virtue, he finds in the adoration of the deity he worships his highest reward. Michael Angelo worked preoccupied and rapt, without even the stimulus of praise, to advanced old age, even as Dante lived in the visions to which his imagination gave form and reality. Art is therefore not only self-sustained, but lofty and unselfish. It is indeed the exalted soul going forth triumphant over external difficulties, jubilant and melodious even in poverty and neglect, rising above all the evils of life, revelling in the glories which are impenetrable, and living–for the time–in the realm of deities and angels. The accidents-of earth are no more to the true artist striving to reach and impersonate his ideal of beauty and grace, than furniture and tapestries are to a true woman seeking the beatitudes of love. And it is only when there is this soul longing to reach the excellence conceived, for itself alone, that great works have been produced. When Art has been prostituted to pander to perverted tastes, or has been stimulated by thirst for gain, then inferior works only have been created. Fra Angelico lived secluded in a convent when he painted his exquisite Madonnas. It was the exhaustion of the nervous energies consequent on superhuman toils, rather than the luxuries and pleasures which his position and means afforded, which killed Raphael at thirty-seven.

The artists of Greece did not live for utilities any more than did the Ionian philosophers, but in those glorious thoughts and creations which were their chosen joy. Whatever can be reached by the unaided powers of man was attained by them. They represented all that the mind can conceive of the beauty of the human form, and the harmony of architectural proportions, In the realm of beauty and grace modern civilization has no prouder triumphs than those achieved by the artists of Pagan antiquity. Grecian artists have been the teachers of all nations and all ages in architecture, sculpture, and painting. How far they were themselves original we cannot tell. We do not know how much they were indebted to Egyptians, Phoenicians, and Assyrians, but in real excellence they have never been surpassed. In some respects, their works still remain objects of hopeless imitation: in the realization of ideas of beauty and form, they reached absolute perfection. Hence we have a right to infer that Art can flourish under Pagan as well as Christian influences. It was a comparatively Pagan age in Italy when the great artists arose who succeeded Da Vinci, especially under the patronage of the Medici and the Medicean popes. Christianity has only modified Art by purifying it from sensual attractions. Christianity added very little to Art, until cathedrals arose in their grand proportions and infinite details, and until artists sought to portray in the faces of their Saints and Madonnas the seraphic sentiments of Christian love and angelic purity. Art even declined in the Roman world from the second century after Christ, in spite of all the efforts of Christian emperors. In fact neither Christianity nor Paganism creates it; it seems to be independent of both, and arises from the peculiar genius and circumstances of an age. Make Art a fashion, honor and reward it, crown its great masters with Olympic leaves, direct the energies of an age or race upon it, and we probably shall have great creations, whether the people are Christian or Pagan. So that Art seems to be a human creation, rather than a divine inspiration. It is the result of genius, stimulated by circumstances and directed to the contemplation of ideal excellence.

Much has been written on those principles upon which Art is supposed to be founded, but not very satisfactorily, although great learning and ingenuity have been displayed. It is difficult to conceive of beauty or grace by definitions,—as difficult as it is to define love or any other ultimate sentiment of the soul. “Metaphysics, mathematics, music, and philosophy,” says Cleghorn, “have been called in to analyze, define, demonstrate, or generalize,” Great critics, like Burke, Alison, and Stewart, have written interesting treatises on beauty and taste. “Plato represents beauty as the contemplation of the mind. Leibnitz maintained that it consists in perfection. Diderot referred beauty to the idea of relation. Blondel asserted that it was in harmonic proportions. Leigh speaks of it as the music of the age.” These definitions do not much assist us. We fall back on our own conceptions or intuitions, as probably did Phidias, although Art in Greece could hardly have attained such perfection without the aid which poetry and history and philosophy alike afforded. Art can flourish only as the taste of the people becomes cultivated, and by the assistance of many kinds of knowledge. The mere contemplation of Nature is not enough. Savages have no art at all, even when they live amid grand mountains and beside the ever-changing sea. When Phidias was asked how he conceived his Olympian Jove, he referred to Homer’s poems. Michael Angelo was enabled to paint the saints and sibyls of the Sistine Chapel from familiarity with the writings of the Jewish prophets. Isaiah inspired him as truly as Homer inspired Phidias. The artists of the age of Phidias were encouraged and assisted by the great poets, historians, and philosophers who basked in the sunshine of Pericles, even as the great men in the Court of Elizabeth derived no small share of their renown from her glorious appreciation. Great artists appear in clusters, and amid the other constellations that illuminate the intellectual heavens. They all mutually assist each other. When Rome lost her great men, Art declined. When the egotism of Louis XIV. extinguished genius, the great lights in all departments disappeared. So Art is indebted not merely to the contemplation of ideal beauty, but to the influence of great ideas permeating society,–such as when the age of Phidias was kindled with the great thoughts of Socrates, Democritus, Thucydides, Euripides, Aristophanes, and others, whether contemporaries or not; a sort of Augustan or Elizabethan age, never to appear but once among the same people.

Pericles and Aspasia in the Studio of Phidias After the painting by Hector Le Roux

Now, in reference to the history or development of ancient Art, until it culminated in the age of Pericles, we observe that its first expression was in architecture, and was probably the result of religious sentiments, when nations were governed by priests, and not distinguished for intellectual life. Then arose the temples of Egypt, of Assyria, of India. They are grand, massive, imposing, but not graceful or beautiful. They arose from blended superstition and piety, and were probably erected before the palaces of kings, and in Egypt by the dynasty that builded the older pyramids. Even those ambitious and prodigious monuments, which have survived every thing contemporaneous, indicate the reign of sacerdotal monarchs and artists who had no idea of beauty, but only of permanence. They do not indicate civilization, but despotism,–unless it be that they were erected for astronomical purposes, as some maintain, rather than as sepulchres for kings. But this supposition involves great mathematical attainments. It is difficult to conceive of such a waste of labor by enlightened princes, acquainted with astronomical and mathematical knowledge and mechanical forces, for Herodotus tells us that one hundred thousand men toiled on the Great Pyramid during forty years. What for? Surely it is hard to suppose that such a pile was necessary for the observation of the polar star; and still less probably was it built as a sepulchre for a king, since no covered sarcophagus has ever been found in it, nor have even any hieroglyphics. The mystery seems impenetrable.

But the temples are not mysteries. They were built also by sacerdotal monarchs, in honor of the deity. They must have been enormous, perhaps the most imposing ever built by man: witness the ruins of Karnac–a temple designated by the Greeks as that of Jupiter Ammon—with its large blocks of stone seventy feet in length, on a platform one thousand feet long and three hundred wide, its alleys over a mile in length lined with colossal sphinxes, and all adorned with obelisks and columns, and surrounded with courts and colonnades, like Solomon’s temple, to accommodate the crowds of worshippers as well as priests. But these enormous structures were not marked by beauty of proportion or fitness of ornament; they show the power of kings, not the genius of a nation. They may have compelled awe; they did not kindle admiration. The emotion they called out was such as is produced now by great engineering exploits, involving labor and mechanical skill, not suggestive of grace or harmony, which require both taste and genius. The same is probably true of Solomon’s temple, built at a much later period, when Art had been advanced somewhat by the Phoenicians, to whose assistance it seems he was much indebted. We cannot conceive how that famous structure should have employed one hundred and fifty thousand men for eleven years, and have cost what would now be equal to $200,000,000, from any description which has come down to us, or any ruins which remain, unless it were surrounded by vast courts and colonnades, and ornamented by a profuse expenditure of golden plates,–which also evince both power and money rather than architectural genius.

After the erection of temples came the building of palaces for kings, equally distinguished for vast magnitude and mechanical skill, but deficient in taste and beauty, showing the infancy of Art. Yet even these were in imitation of the temples. And as kings became proud and secular, probably their palaces became grander and larger,–like the palaces of Nebuchadnezzar and Rameses the Great and the Persian monarchs at Susa, combining labor, skill, expenditure, dazzling the eye by the number of columns and statues and vast apartments, yet still deficient in beauty and grace.

It was not until the Greeks applied their wonderful genius to architecture that it became the expression of a higher civilization. And, as among Egyptians, Art in Greece is first seen in temples; for the earlier Greeks were religious, although they worshipped the deity under various names, and in the forms which their own hands did make.

The Dorians, who descended from the mountains of northern Greece, eighty years after the fall of Troy, were the first who added substantially to the architectural art of Asiatic nations, by giving simplicity and harmony to their temples. We see great thickness of columns, a fitting proportion to the capitals, and a beautiful entablature. The horizontal lines of the architrave and cornice predominate over the vertical lines of the columns. The temple arises in the severity of geometrical forms. The Doric column was not entirely a new creation, but was an improvement on the Egyptian model,–less massive, more elegant, fluted, increasing gradually towards the base, with a slight convexed swelling downward, about six diameters in height, superimposed by capitals. “So regular was the plan of the temple, that if the dimensions of a single column and the proportion the entablature should bear to it were given to two individuals acquainted with this style, with directions to compose a temple, they would produce designs exactly similar in size, arrangement, and general proportions.” And yet while the style of all the Doric temples is the same, there are hardly two temples alike, being varied by the different proportions of the column, which is the peculiar mark of Grecian architecture, even as the arch is the feature of Gothic architecture. The later Doric was less massive than the earlier, but more rich in sculptured ornaments. The pedestal was from two thirds to a whole diameter of a column in height, built in three courses, forming as it were steps to the platform on which the pillar rested. The pillar had twenty flutes, with a capital of half a diameter, supporting the entablature. This again, two diameters in height, was divided into architrave, frieze, and cornice. But the great beauty of the temple was the portico in front,–a forest of columns, supporting the pediment above, which had at the base an angle of about fourteen degrees. From the pediment the beautiful cornice projects with various mouldings, while at the base and at the apex are sculptured monuments representing both men and animals. The graceful outline of the columns, and the variety of light and shade arising from the arrangement of mouldings and capitals, produced an effect exceedingly beautiful. All the glories of this order of architecture culminated in the Parthenon,–built of Pentelic marble, resting on a basement of limestone, surrounded with forty-eight fluted columns of six feet and two inches diameter at the base and thirty-four feet in height, the frieze and pediment elaborately ornamented with reliefs and statues, while within the cella or interior was the statue of Minerva, forty feet high, built of gold and ivory. The walls were decorated with the rarest paintings, and the cella itself contained countless treasures. This unrivalled temple was not so large as some of the cathedrals of the Middle Ages, but it covered twelve times the ground of the temple of Solomon, and from the summit of the Acropolis it shone as a wonder and a glory. The marbles have crumbled and its ornaments have been removed, but it has formed the model of the most beautiful buildings of the world, from the Quirinus at Rome to the Madeleine at Paris, stimulating alike the genius of Michael Angelo and Christopher Wren, immortal in the ideas it has perpetuated, and immeasurable in the influence it has exerted. Who has copied the Flavian amphitheatre except as a convenient form for exhibitors on the stage, or for the rostrum of an orator? Who has not copied the Parthenon as the severest in its proportions for public buildings for civic purposes?

The Ionic architecture is only a modification of the Doric,–its columns more slender and with a greater number of flutes, and capitals more elaborate, formed with volutes or spiral scrolls, while its pediment, the triangular facing of the portico, is formed with a less angle from the base,–the whole being more suggestive of grace than strength. Vitruvius, the greatest authority among the ancients, says that “the Greeks, in inventing these two kinds of columns, imitated in the one the naked simplicity and aspects of a man, and in the other the delicacy and ornaments of a woman, whose ringlets appear in the volutes of the capital.”

The Corinthian order, which was the most copied by the Romans, was still more ornamented, with foliated capitals, greater height, and a more decorated entablature.

But the principles of all these three orders are substantially the same,–their beauty consisting in the column and horizontal lines, even as vertical lines marked the Gothic. We see the lintel and not the arch; huge blocks of stone perfectly squared, and not small stones irregularly laid; external rather than internal pillars, the cella receiving light from the open roof above, rather than from windows; a simple outline uninterrupted,–generally in the form of a parallelogram,–rather than broken by projections. There is no great variety; but the harmony, the severity, and beauty of proportion will eternally be admired, and can never be improved,–a temple of humanity, cheerful, useful, complete, not aspiring to reach what on earth can never be obtained, with no gloomy vaults speaking of maceration and grief, no lofty towers and spires soaring to the sky, no emblems typical of consecrated sentiments and of immortality beyond the grave, but rich in ornaments drawn from the living world,–of plants and animals, of man in the perfection of physical strength, of woman in the unapproachable loveliness of grace of form. As the world becomes pagan, intellectual, thrifty, we see the architecture of the Greeks in palaces, banks, halls, theatres, stores, libraries; when it is emotional, poetic, religious, fervent, aspiring, we see the restoration of the Gothic in churches, cathedrals, schools,–for Philosophy and Art did all they could to civilize the world before Christianity was sent to redeem it and prepare mankind for the life above. Such was the temple of the Greeks, reappearing in all the architectures of nations, from the Romans to our own times,–so perfect that no improvements have subsequently been made, no new principles discovered which were not known to Vitruvius. What a creation, to last in its simple beauty for more than two thousand years, and forever to remain a perfect model of its kind! Ah, that was a triumph of Art, the praises of which have been sung for more than sixty generations, and will be sung for hundreds yet to come. But how hidden and forgotten the great artists who invented all this, showing the littleness of man and the greatness of Art itself. How true that old Greek saying, “Life is short, but Art is long.”

But the genius displayed in sculpture was equally remarkable, and was carried to the same perfection. The Greeks did not originate sculpture. We read of sculptured images from remotest antiquity. Assyria, Egypt, and India are full of relics. But these are rude, unformed, without grace, without expression, though often colossal and grand. There are but few traces of emotion, or passion, or intellectual force. Everything which has come down from the ancient monarchies is calm, impassive, imperturbable. Nor is there a severe beauty of form. There is no grace, no loveliness, that we should desire them. Nature was not severely studied. We see no aspiration after what is ideal. Sometimes the sculptures are grotesque, unnatural, and impure. They are emblematic of strange deities, or are rude monuments of heroes and kings. They are curious, but they do not inspire us. We do not copy them; we turn away from them. They do not live, and they are not reproduced. Art could spare them all, except as illustrations of its progress. They are merely historical monuments, to show despotism and superstition, and the degradation of the people.

But this cannot be said of the statues which the Greeks created, or improved from ancient models. In the sculptures of the Greeks we see the utmost perfection of the human form, both of man and woman, learned by the constant study of anatomy and of nude figures of the greatest beauty. A famous statue represented the combined excellences of perhaps one hundred different persons. The study of the human figure became a noble object of ambition, and led to conceptions of ideal grace and loveliness such as no one human being perhaps ever possessed in all respects. And not merely grace and beauty were thus represented in marble or bronze, but dignity, repose, majesty. We see in those figures which have survived the ravages of time suggestions of motion, rest, grace, grandeur,–every attitude, every posture, every variety of form. We see also every passion which moves the human soul,–grief, rage, agony, shame, joy, peace. But it is the perfection of form which is most wonderful and striking. Nor did the artists work to please the vulgar rich, but to realize their own highest conceptions, and to represent sentiments in which the whole nation shared. They sought to instruct; they appealed to the highest intelligence. “Some sought to represent tender beauty, others daring power, and others again heroic grandeur.” Grecian statuary began with ideal representations of deities; then it produced the figures of gods and goddesses in mortal forms; then the portrait-statues of distinguished men. This art was later in its development than architecture, since it was directed to ornamenting what had already nearly reached perfection. Thus Phidias ornamented the Parthenon in the time of Pericles, when sculpture was purest and most ideal In some points of view it declined after Phidias, but in other respects it continued to improve until it culminated in Lysippus, who was contemporaneous with Alexander. He is said to have executed fifteen hundred statues, and to have displayed great energy of execution. He idealized human beauty, and imitated Nature to the minutest details. He alone was selected to make the statue of Alexander, which is lost. None of his works, which were chiefly in bronze, are extant; but it is supposed that the famous Hercules and the Torso Belvedere are copies from his works, since his favorite subject was Hercules. We only can judge of his great merits from his transcendent reputation and the criticism of classic writers, and also from the works that have come down to us which are supposed to be imitations of his masterpieces. It was his scholars who sculptured the Colossus of Rhodes, the Laocoön, and the Dying Gladiator. After him plastic art rapidly degenerated, since it appealed to passion, especially under Praxiteles, who was famous for his undraped Venuses and the expression of sensual charms. The decline of Art was rapid as men became rich, and Epicurean life was sought as the highest good. Skill of execution did not decline, but ideal beauty was lost sight of, until the art itself was prostituted–as among the Romans–to please perverted tastes or to flatter senatorial pride.

But our present theme is not the history of decline, but of the original creations of genius, which have been copied in every succeeding age, and which probably will never be surpassed, except in some inferior respects,–in mere mechanical skill. The Olympian Jove of Phidias lives perhaps in the Moses of Michael Angelo, great as was his original genius, even as the Venus of Praxiteles may have been reproduced in Powers’s Greek Slave. The great masters had innumerable imitators, not merely in the representation of man but of animals. What a study did these artists excite, especially in their own age, and how honorable did they make their noble profession even in degenerate times! They were the school-masters of thousands and tens of thousands, perpetuating their ideas to remotest generations. Their instructions were not lost, and never can be lost in a realm which constitutes one of the proudest features of our own civilization. It is true that Christianity does not teach aesthetic culture, but it teaches the duties which prevent the eclipse of Art. In this way it comes to the rescue of Art when in danger of being perverted. Grecian Art was consecrated to Paganism,–but, revived, it may indirectly be made tributary to Christianity, like music and eloquence. It will not conserve Christianity, but may be purified by it, even if able to flourish without it.

I can now only glance at the third development of Grecian Art, as seen in painting.

It is not probable that such perfection was reached in this art as in sculpture and architecture. We have no means of forming incontrovertible opinions. Most of the ancient pictures have perished; and those that remain, while they show correctness of drawing and brilliant coloring, do not give us as high conceptions of ideal beauties as do the pictures of the great masters of modern times. But we have the testimony of the ancients themselves, who were as enthusiastic in their admiration of pictures as they were of statues. And since their taste was severe, and their sensibility as to beauty unquestioned, we have a right to infer that even painting was carried to considerable perfection among the Greeks. We read of celebrated schools,–like the modern schools of Florence, Rome, Bologna, Venice, and Naples. The schools of Sicyon, Corinth, Athens, and Rhodes were as famous in their day as the modern schools to which I have alluded.

Painting, being strictly a decoration, did not reach a high degree of art, like sculpture, until architecture was perfected. But painting is very ancient. The walls of Babylon, it is asserted by the ancient historians, were covered with paintings. Many survive amid the ruins of Egypt and on the chests of mummies; though these are comparatively rude, without regard to light and shade, like Chinese pictures. Nor do they represent passions and emotions. They aimed to perpetuate historical events, not ideas. The first paintings of the Greeks simply marked out the outline of figures. Next appeared the inner markings, as we see in ancient vases, on a white ground. The effects of light and shade were then introduced; and then the application of colors in accordance with Nature. Cimon of Cleonae, in the eightieth Olympiad, invented the art of “fore-shortening,” and hence was the first painter of perspective. Polygnotus, a contemporary of Phidias, was nearly as famous for painting as he was for sculpture. He was the first who painted woman with brilliant drapery and variegated head-dresses. He gave to the cheek the blush and to his draperies gracefulness. He is said to have been a great epic painter, as Phidias was an epic sculptor and Homer an epic poet. He expressed, like them, ideal beauty. But his pictures had no elaborate grouping, which is one of the excellences of modern art. His figures were all in regular lines, like the bas-reliefs on a frieze. He took his subjects from epic poetry. He is celebrated for his accurate drawing, and for the charm and grace of his female figures. He also gave great grandeur to his figures, like Michael Angelo. Contemporary with him was Dionysius, who was remarkable for expression, and Micon, who was skilled in painting horses.

With Apollodorus of Athens, who flourished toward the close of the fifth century before Christ, there was a new development,–that of dramatic effect. His aim was to deceive the eye of the spectator by the appearance of reality. He painted men and things as they appeared. He also improved coloring, invented chiaroscuro (or the art of relief by a proper distribution of the lights and shadows), and thus obtained what is called “tone.” He prepared the way for Zeuxis, who surpassed him in the power to give beauty to forms. The Helen of Zeuxis was painted from five of the most beautiful women of Croton. He aimed at complete illusion of the senses, as in the instance recorded of his grape picture. His style was modified by the contemplation of the sculptures of Phidias, and he taught the true method of grouping. His marked excellence was in the contrast of light and shade. He did not paint ideal excellence; he was not sufficiently elevated in his own moral sentiments to elevate the feelings of others: he painted sensuous beauty as it appeared in the models which he used. But he was greatly extolled, and accumulated a great fortune, like Rubens, and lived ostentatiously, as rich and fortunate men ever have lived who do not possess elevation of sentiment. His headquarters were not at Athens, but at Ephesus,–a city which also produced Parrhasins, to whom Zeuxis himself gave the palm, since he deceived the painter by his curtain, while Zeuxis only deceived birds by his grapes. Parrhasius established the rule of proportions, which was followed by succeeding artists. He was a very luxurious and arrogant man, and fancied he had reached the perfection of his art.

Zeuxis Choosing Models from among the Beauties of Kroton for his Picture of Helen After the painting by E. Pagliano

But if that was ever reached among the ancients it was by Apelles,–the Titian of that day,–who united the rich coloring of the Ionian school with the scientific severity of the school of Sicyonia. He alone was permitted to paint the figure of Alexander, as Lysippus only was allowed to represent him in bronze. He invented ivory black, and was the first to cover his pictures with a coating of varnish, to bring out the colors and preserve them. His distinguishing excellency was grace,–“that artless balance of motion and repose,” says Fuseli, “springing from character and founded on propriety.” Others may have equalled him in perspective, accuracy, and finish, but he added a refinement of taste which placed him on the throne which is now given to Raphael. No artists could complete his unfinished pictures. He courted the severest criticism, and, like Michael Angelo, had no jealousy of the fame of other artists; he reposed in the greatness of his own self-consciousness. He must have made enormous sums of money, since one of his pictures–a Venus rising out of the sea, painted for a temple in Cos, and afterwards removed by Augustus to Rome–cost one hundred talents (equal to about one hundred thousand dollars),–a greater sum, I apprehend, than was ever paid to a modern artist for a single picture, certainly in view of the relative value of gold. In this picture female grace was impersonated.

After Apelles the art declined, although there were distinguished artists for several centuries. They generally flocked to Rome, where there was the greatest luxury and extravagance, and they, pandered to vanity and a vitiated taste. The masterpieces of the old artists brought enormous sums, as the works of the old masters do now; and they were brought to Rome by the conquerors, as the masterpieces of Italy and Spain and Flanders were brought to Paris by Napoleon. So Rome gradually possessed the best pictures of the world, without stimulating the art or making new creations; it could appreciate genius, but creative genius expired with Grecian liberties and glories. Rome multiplied and rewarded painters, but none of them were famous. Pictures were as common as statues. Even Varro, a learned writer, had a gallery of seven hundred portraits. Pictures were placed in all the baths, theatres, temples, and palaces, as were statues.

We are forced, therefore, to believe that the Greeks carried painting to the same perfection that they did sculpture, not only from the praises of critics like Cicero and Pliny, but from the universal enthusiasm which the painters created and the enormous prices they received. Whether Polygnotus was equal to Michael Angelo, Zeuxis to Titian, and Apelles to Raphael, we cannot tell. Their works have perished. What remains to us, in the mural decorations of Pompeii and the designs on vases, seem to confirm the criticisms of the ancients. We cannot conceive how the Greek painters could have equalled the great Italian masters, since they had fewer colors, and did not make use of oil, but of gums mixed with the white of eggs, and resin and wax, which mixture we call “encaustic.” Yet it is not the perfection of colors or of design, or mechanical aids, or exact imitations, or perspective skill, which constitute the highest excellence of the painter, but his power of creation,–the power of giving ideal beauty and grandeur and grace, inspired by the contemplation of eternal ideas, an excellence which appears in all the masterworks of the Greeks, and such as has not been surpassed by the moderns.

But Art was not confined to architecture, sculpture, and painting alone. It equally appears in all the literature of Greece. The Greek poets were artists, as also the orators and historians, in the highest sense. They were the creators of style in writing, which we do not see in the literature of the Jews or other Oriental nations, marvellous and profound as were their thoughts. The Greeks had the power of putting things so as to make the greatest impression on the mind. This especially appears among such poets as Sophocles and Euripides, such orators as Pericles and Demosthenes, such historians as Xenophon and Thucydides, such philosophers as Plato and Aristotle. We see in their finished productions no repetitions, no useless expressions, no superfluity or redundancy, no careless arrangement, no words even in bad taste, save in the abusive epithets in which the orators indulged. All is as harmonious in their literary style as in plastic art; while we read, unexpected pleasures arise in the mind, based on beauty and harmony, somewhat similar to the enjoyment of artistic music, or as when we read Voltaire, Rousseau, or Macaulay. We perceive art in the arrangement of sentences, in the rhythm, in the symmetry of construction. We see means adapted to an end. The Latin races are most marked for artistic writing, especially the French, who seem to be copyists of Greek and Roman models. We see very little of this artistic writing among the Germans, who seem to disdain it as much as an English lawyer or statesman does rhetoric. It is in rhetoric and poetry that Art most strikingly appears in the writings of the Greeks, and this was perfected by the Athenian Sophists. But all the Greeks, and after them the Romans, especially in the time of Cicero, sought the graces and fascinations of style. Style is an art, and all art is eternal.

It is probable also that Art was manifested to a high degree in the conversation of the Greeks, as they were brilliant talkers,–like Brougham, Mackintosh, Madame de Staël, and Macaulay, in our times.

But I may not follow out, as I could wish, this department of Art,–generally overlooked, certainly not dwelt upon like pictures and statues. An interesting and captivating writer or speaker is as much an artist as a sculptor or musician; and unless authors possess art their works are apt to perish, like those of Varro, the most learned of the Romans. It is the exquisite art seen in all the writings of Cicero which makes them classic; it is the style rather than the ideas. The same may be said of Horace: it is his elegance of style and language which makes him immortal. It is this singular fascination of language and style which keeps Hume on the list of standard and classic writers, like Pascal, Goldsmith, Voltaire, and Fénelon. It is on account of these excellences that the classical writers of antiquity will never lose their popularity, and for which they will be imitated, and by which they have exerted their vast influence.

Art, therefore, in every department, was carried to high excellence by the Greeks, and they thus became the teachers of all succeeding races and ages. Artists are great exponents of civilization. They are generally learned men, appreciated by the cultivated classes, and usually associating with the rich and proud. The Popes rewarded artists while they crushed reformers. I never read of an artist who was persecuted. Men do not turn with disdain or anger in disputing with them, as they do from great moral teachers; artists provoke no opposition and stir up no hostile passions. It is the men who propound agitating ideas and who revolutionize the character of nations, that are persecuted. Artists create no revolutions, not even of thought. Savonarola kindled a greater fire in Florence than all the artists whom the Medici ever patronized. But if the artists cannot wear the crown of apostles and reformers and sages,–the men who save nations, men like Socrates, Luther, Bacon, Descartes, Burke,–yet they have fewer evils to contend with in their progress, and they still leave a mighty impression behind them, not like that of Moses and Paul, but still an influence; they kindle the enthusiasm of a class that cannot be kindled by ideas, and furnish inexhaustible themes of conversation to cultivated people and make life itself graceful and beautiful, enriching our houses and adorning our consecrated temples and elevating our better sentiments. The great artist is himself immortal, even if he contributes very little to save the world. Art seeks only the perfection of outward form; it is mundane in its labors; it does not aspire to those beatitudes which shine beyond the grave. And yet it is a great and invaluable assistance to those who would communicate great truths, since it puts them in attractive forms and increases the impression of the truths themselves. To the orator, the historian, the philosopher, and the poet, a knowledge of the principles of Art is as important as to the architect, the sculptor, and the painter; and these principles are learned only by study and labor, while they cannot be even conceived of by ordinary men.

Thus it would appear that in all departments and in all the developments of Art the Greeks were the teachers of the modern European nations, as well of the ancient Romans; and their teachings will be invaluable to all the nations which are yet to arise, since no great improvement has been made on the models which have come down to us, and no new principles have been discovered which were not known to them. In everything which pertains to Art they were benefactors of the human race, and gave a great impulse to civilization.


Müller’s De Phidias Vita, Vitruvius, Aristotle. Pliny, Ovid, Martial, Lucian, and Cicero have made criticisms on ancient Art. The modern writers are very numerous, especially among the Germans and the French. From these may be selected Winckelmann’s History of Ancient Art; Müller’s Remains of Ancient Art; Donaldson’s Antiquities of Athens; Sir W. Gill’s Pompeiana; Montfançon’s Antiquité Expliquée en Figures; Ancient Marbles of the British Museum, by Taylor Combe; Mayer’s Kunstgechicte; Cleghorn’s Ancient and Modern Art; Wilkinson’s Topography of Thebes; Dodwell’s Classical Tour; Wilkinson’s Ancient Egyptians; Flaxman’s Lectures on Sculpture; Fuseli’s Lectures; Sir Joshua Reynolds’s Lectures; also see five articles on Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture, in the Encyclopaedia Britannica, and in Smith’s Dictionary.

Literary Genius: The Greek and Roman Classics

Beacon Lights of History, Volume I : The Old Pagan Civilizations