Classical Greek

450 BC - 323 BC

The Classical period is considered, traditionally, the peak of artistic perfection. It represents, in many respects, a Golden Age of splendor. The Greeks had emerged from the Persian and Peloponnesian wars with Athens as a model of excellence for the other Greek city-states. To enjoy the amenities of life and indulge a little ceased to be considered softness. Life became easier and more opulent, at least for the wealthy.

This was the epoch of naturalism in art, showing men and women as they really looked and felt. Freestanding sculptures predominated--usually at least life size, often greater and grander than life. The pure white that is such a well-known trademark of Classical sculpture is not, however, true to the period. Most statues and reliefs were painted with colourful pigments and adorned with metal jewelry in a fashion we might today consider garish.

Nudity is a distinguishing characteristic of Classical Greek art. The ancient Greeks inhabited a very hot climate, and were also renowned for their athletic prowess. They found that clothing stilfed and encumbered movement, and it became traditional to wear nothing at all when competing. (The English word gymnasium is derived from the Greek word gymnos, meaning “unclothed.”) More importantly, the Greeks believed that men and women were made in the likeness of the gods. The human body was itself considered a thing of great beauty and was much admired. It was therefore the aim of the sculptor to represent man at his idealized best, to create the image of the perfect individual. It then became natural to portray gods, heroes, and athletes without clothing.

Providing a one-word definition for the art of this period is difficult, as it continued to progress over the course of about a century. For example, nudity of the female figure postdates that of the male (and only really develops fully in the Hellenistic period). Gods and goddesses appeared more and more in humanly relaxed attitudes. Sentiment was expressed by gesture and posture, action by complex composition and the suggestion of mobility: all restraint in attitude was soon eliminated.