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Classical Greece and Early Twentieth Century Art

The classical Greek period of art is between 480 – 323 B.C. This era is believed to be the most influential time in the history of western art. It was during this period that artists sculpted statues of perfectly proportioned and flawless bodies. The faces on these figures displayed a sense of serenity and human dignity. The meticulous attention to detail of the human anatomy set the standard for flawless beauty. In addition to sculpture, the Classic Greek artists were master painters. The majority of paintings told a story and were displayed on black and red-figure vases.

Painted murals adorned the walls of some buildings during this time and, like the painted vases, they too illustrated a story. Another influential period in art is that of the first half of the twentieth century. Many new styles of art emerged during this time, the ever-changing moral and social climate allowed sculptors and painters to abandon traditional artistic concepts for more unconventional methods.

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Art movements such as the surrealist, cubist, and Harlem renaissance produced works that were considered disturbing, expressive, and thought-provoking. Although these two eras of art are separated by style, technique, and two thousand years, the study of art would be incomplete without emphasizing the importance of sculpture and painting produced in the periods of classical Greek and early twentieth century.

The brief period of time between the close of the Archaic period and the height of the Classical period brought a remarkable transformation of style and tone known as the Severe Style. Facial features that represented the dignity, self-control and moral ideals of the time characterize sculpture created during this era. Unlike the pointed features of the Archaic period, the severe style is constructed with a broad nose, wide-open eyes, full lips, and a rounded firm jaw and chin. The most important change in style during this time was that of the mouth; the tight slim smile so prominent in archaic pieces has been replaced by an expression of harmony.

As stated by art historian, Frederick Hartt, “The firm beauty of the features and facial proportions preferred by the severe style is seen at its grandest in the Blond Youth.”(159). (Illustration 1) The blond color that could once be seen in the hair gives this statue its name. The hair is meticulously detailed, framing the young boy’s face with individual tresses that fall into curls at the forehead and temples. The eyes are wide and heavy-lidded. The softly blended lips, nose, and chin give the face a serene expression typical of the artwork of this time.

Not unlike the transformation of art from Archaic to Classic, is that of the Harlem Renaissance. Beginning in the 1920’s black artists flocked to Harlem, New York where they produced artwork that expressed their identity and lifestyle. As David Driskell writes, “In the 1920s, Harlem, the cultural capital of Black America, was host to some of the finest and most daring writers, actors, musicians, and artists. Almost every Harlemite seemed to be writing, producing sizzling shows on Broadway, or leaving for Paris to paint and sculpt.

Alongside writers Langston Hughes and Claude McKay and musicians Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong, black artists contributed to Harlem’s excitement by creating art which expressed their identity and introduced Black themes into American modernism.” (1) Prior to this period, artwork often depicted blacks with exaggerated stereotypical facial features. As the success of the Harlem Renaissance grew many talented sculptors created pieces of meticulous detail, the facial expressions represented not only the true physical characteristics of African Americans but also provided some insight into the hardships of their culture.

One such piece is that of Richmond Barthe, The Negro Looks Ahead. (Illustration 2) This plaster sculpture, created in 1940, gets its name from the far off gaze of the woman. A prominent brow crowns her deep-set, heavy-lidded eyes. Her nose is broad and her cheekbones are high and chiseled. Her full lips tilt down at the corners of her mouth. This extraordinary sculptor successfully captured the troubled expression of sadness and hardship that plagued so many black women during this time.

The statues of the Blonde Youth and The Negro Looks Ahead are both excellent examples of art representing the culture of the time. The Blond Youth, with his perfectly coifed hair, was quite possibly a young man of noble means; while The Negro Looks Ahead, with her hair long and matted, was probably a workingwoman with more to worry about than a stylish hairdo. The serene and dignified expression on the face of the Blond Youth is in stark contrast to the expression of The Negro Looks Ahead, however, comparatively they both portray true emotions. Each piece is equally meticulous in detail portraying the emotional and social aspects of each of the subject’s respective cultures.

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In the year of 470 B.C. Polyzalos, tyrant of the Greek city-state of Gela in Sicily was the victor of the chariot races in the Delphic games. In honor of his victory, an artist was commissioned to produce the statue Charioteer of Delphi. (Illustration 3) This statue is one of the earliest examples of the rare Greek life-size bronzes. The six-foot form of the male charioteer originally stood in a bronze chariot pulled by four large horses.

Today remains only the male statue holding the horse’s bridles. Typical of Greek classical art, this polished bronze statue portrays a dignified and calm man. The lips and eyelashes are made of inlaid copper and the eyes are made of glass paste. The folds of the charioteer’s long tunic seem to drape softly across his chest and fall to the floor in realistic tubular folds, looking very similar to the Doric columns so often seen in the architecture of the time.

The nature of sculpture changed dramatically in the first half of the twentieth century. The work of Alberto Giacometti is considered among the most provocative and brilliant of this time. Giacometti became interested in many styles of art including primitive and pre-historic as well as cubism and surrealism. According to Robert Hughes, “Giacometti tended increasingly to think of sculpture as a means of connecting points in space, rather than setting volume imposingly before the eye.” (63)

In 1950 Giacometti stayed true to his form when he created The Chariot. (Illustration 5) One of his later works, The Chariot is typical of his strangely elongated forms with rough, irregular features. It is painted bronze measuring 56-1/4 x 24-1/4 x 27 inches. An extremely thin figure stands on a platform between two disproportionately large wheels. The figure is void of any facial features or realistic human anatomy. The work has been compared to an eighteenth-century Egyptian battle chariot, however, Alberto Giacometti wrote that the inspiration came from “a pharmacy wagon being wheeled around a room” that he observed in a clinic.

For the exception of the names, it is difficult to compare the Charioteer of Delphi with Alberto Giacometti’s The Chariot. Realistic perspective was the favored art form during the period of Classical Greek. The sculpture was expected to represent a flawless and beautiful human form, depicting the high ideals of the period. During the early twentieth century, an incredible shift occurred in the art world. Artists during this time became more interested in psychological insightfulness and expression than with naturalism and realism.

In the middle of the fourth century B.C. a frieze was carved on the mausoleum, Halikarnossos. A portion of this marble frieze, entitled Battle of Greeks and Amazons, (Illustration 5a-5b) currently resides at the British Museum in London and is believed to be the work of famous Greek sculptor, Skopas. Skopas was born on the island of Paros and professionally trained in Athens. He is well known for his ability to convey drama and a sense of movement in his works.

This quality is quite apparent in the Battle of Greeks and Amazons. In this section of the frieze, two Greek warriors are about to kill an Amazon woman that has fallen to her knees, while another Greek warrior pulls an Amazon woman from her horse. The sense of speed implied in this sculpture is achieved by the wide spacing of the figures. A considerable area of blank background is left between the forms forcing the viewer to follow the carving horizontally, giving a sense of animation to the work.

In celebration of the return of World War I soldiers a victory arch was constructed in Newport News, Virginia. Architect Thomas Hastings who commissioned many prominent artists, as well as promising young artists, to design relief panels for the project designed the arch. American sculptor and art patron, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, designed one such panel. Her bronze sculpture stands twenty-four inches high and sixty-four inches wide.

On one side of the panel is a soldier standing at attention as he salutes. The opposite side of the panel depicts five men with their rifles drawn engaged in battle. This section of the monument clearly shows the horrors of war and the heroics of American soldiers.(Illustration 6)

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Both, the Battle of Greeks and Amazons and Whitney’s relief panel for The Victory Arch, depict realistic scenes of battle. Artistic commemoration of war and battle has been an important part of every culture since the beginning of time. Although both pieces of work are historically important, the Battle of Greeks and Amazons is artistically superior. The scene is more than a sculpted portrait, it captures the attention of the viewer with its perception of motion and it’s a dramatization of the horrific scene.

A calyx-krater is a large-mouthed bowl with two handles and afoot. These bowls were used to mix wine with water during ceremonial dinners. One of the leading vase painters of the severe style was known as the Niobid Painter, He painted his figures with attention to detail similar to that of the sculptors of the severe style. Although he did not use shadowing to show detail in his figures, he accomplished realistic human form by his mastery of line.

One of the finest works by the Niobid Painter is believed to be a calyx-krater found in Orvieto, Italy, which now resides at The Louvre in Paris, France. (Illustration 7) This is the earliest example of a new style of space and perspective. The figures on this calyx-krater are scattered freely at different points to indicate depth. Each is standing on a separate patch of ground and is connected by a single wavy line. Also present on this vase are human forms shown in profile, and for the first time in the history of art, these profiled figures are shown with the eyes drawn in profile rather than in full face.

The painting was as important as sculpture during the Harlem Renaissance and one of the most celebrated painters was Palmer Hayden. Early in his career, Hayden was criticized for portraying blacks as cultural stereotypes. Later in his career, due to his sensitivity to this criticism, his paintings began to depict black people in a more sympathetic manner. The Dress She Wore Was Blue (Illustration 8) was a piece from the John Henry series produced between 1944 and 1954. It is an oil on canvas painting of people working on the railroad. The use of one-point linear perspective shows the depth of the railroad tunnel in which the figures stand.

On the left side of the picture are several women glancing over their shoulders and smiling at the hard-working men, their faces in profile creates an implied line spanning the picture plane in an upward diagonal direction. The bottom of the skirt worn by the woman in the forefront of the picture, (the woman in the blue dress) blows to the left creating a sense that a light breeze is blowing in through the tunnel opening. Another sense of motion can be seen on the right side of the picture, created by the swinging sledgehammers held by the men; yet another use of applied line.

The Niobid Painter was a great innovator in Classical Greek painting. He introduced new concepts in the use of visual perspective. Although the calyx-krater he painted paved the way for future artists to free themselves from age-old conventions, it cannot be equally compared with the lively Palmer Hayden painting, The Dress She Wore Was Blue. The myriad of formal elements in Hayden’s work successfully holds the attention of the viewer. You feel as though you just entered the hot, steamy tunnel yourself and welcome the cool breeze that rustles the hem of the lady’s blue dress.

In 1968, a vast burial ground was discovered in Paestum, Italy. Approximately fifty of these tombs contain paintings and are the only classical Greek frescoes ever found. The oldest of the painted tombs, believed to be from the fifth century B.C., is that of the Tomb of the Diver. (Illustration 9) The inside of the slab that forms the covering of the tomb depicts a man executing a high dive from a platform between two trees. According to Walter Penrose, Department of History, City University of New York, “…The painting on the inside lid depicts a diver leaping into a body of water which scholars have suggested signifies the passage from life to death.” (Screen) The figure of the man is suspended between sky and sea, creating an implied line as well as a sense of motion.

The trees located on either side of the painting span the horizon line, as do the ladder climbing to the platform from which the diver leaps. A new style to the artists of classical Greece is that of depth and perspective. In the painting of the Tomb of the Diver, this is achieved by the presence of a low mountain range in the distance, giving a sense that the diver is at the forefront of the painting.

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Joan Miro was one of the most original painters of the twentieth century. Although he is often associated with the Surrealist movement, it is impossible to categorize his works in one particular style. His early works around the 1920s use bright colors and patterns representative of folk art from his native Cataluna, Spain as well as broken forms commonly associated with the cubist style. Both of these elements appear in his famous landscape, The Farm. (Illustration 10) The painting consists of an infinite abundance of details. The ground is made of sharp lines and a multitude of geometric shapes similar to the qualities of the cubist style. The ground tilts upwards making the individual forms in the scene appear parallel to the picture plane.

The bright colors and disproportionate scale of the objects in the painting make the work seem whimsical and fantasy-like. The horizon line of tree-topped mountains separates the clear bright blue sky from the cluttered earth. In the center is a tree that spans the horizon line and continues beyond the picture plane. The curved shape of the treetop forms an implied line, and the sparse branches adorned with only a few small leaves may also represent the time of year as being spring.

The use of the horizon line as the primary tool in creating a perception of depth is demonstrated in both the Tomb of the Diver and The Farm. Another similar element is that of implied line, the leaping man in the Tomb of the Diver and the curved treetop in The Farm. Although these two pieces of work have some similarities they are truly different in style and form. The Tomb of the Diver is a fresco and the artwork is very simplistic, monochromatic, and sparse in detail. The Farm, on the other hand, is an oil on canvas painting, it is composed of many lines and shapes, the colors are extraordinarily vibrant, and the landscape is filled with many interesting details. Joan Miro’s The Farm is an incredibly interesting and lively painting. The viewer can spend a lifetime observing this work of art and continue discovering something new.

Sculpture and painting have been favored art forms in every culture since the beginning of time. During the classical Greek period artists were commissioned to enhance some of the world’s most beautiful architecture. Temples and tombs were adorned with ornate frescos and meticulously sculpted statues. Homage was paid to gods and prominent members of society by immortalizing them in marble and bronze sculptures. The bodily structure of these sculptures was realistically detailed depicting man with great strength, resilience, and harmony.

During the first half of the twentieth century, the artists began to experiment in many different styles. A changing social and political climate greatly contributed to the quest of a deeper understanding of life. Art became less of a representation of the human form and became more of a representation of human emotion. New materials were used such as iron and synthetic paints, surrealism, and cubism made their debut, and the Harlem Renaissance brought a new culture and identity to the formal art world.

In studying the works of Classical Greek and the early twentieth century, it is quite apparent that humans are capable of creating masterpieces in several different styles and forms. These masterpieces stir our thoughts, pull on our hearts, and fill us with awe. One period cannot be considered more influential or more important than the other. They have each produced a wealth of artwork and may forever set the standard for beauty.

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Classical Greece and Early Twentieth Century Art. (2021, Jan 19). Retrieved February 8, 2023, from