EVOLUTION OF SCULPTURE
Praxiteles (375-335 BCE)
One of the most famous and greatest sculptors of ancient Greece, Praxiteles career bridged the Late Classical Period and the Hellenistic Period of Greek art. One of his main concerns as an artist was to introduce as much realism as possible into his work, and this approach helped to determine the direction of Greek sculpture. He is best known for his smaller scale works of female subjects, including the famous Hermes with the Infant Kionysos (Olympia Archaeological Museum) and his Aphrodite of Cnidus (Knidos).
Ranked in importance alongside Myron (active 480-444 BCE) and Polykleitos (5th century BCE), his contemporaries during the 4th century BCE included Skopas (active 395-350 BCE), Lysippos (395-305 BCE) and Leochares (active 340-320 BCE). During the 19th-century Praxiteles achieved additional if temporary fame as the presumed creator of the famous marble statue of the Venus de Milo (100 BCE, Louvre).
Born in 375 BCE, Praxiteles was either the son or a close relative of the famous artist Kephisodotos (5th century - 360 BCE), from whom he learned the art of sculpture.
Praxiteles was obsessed with pushing the boundaries of his art - he was constantly trying new techniques to make his artwork 'ripple with life' and to be as natural as possible. To achieve this sort of naturalism he worked the stone and bronze to create curves, light and shadow. He used a special technique for polishing his marble sculpture, which gave it a life-like appearance. His style was seen as delicate, luminous and sensual.
Statue of Hermes with the Infant Kionysos
In 1877 Praxiteles' statue of Hermes with the Infant Kionysos (Olympia Archaeological Museum) was discovered in Olympia, although it is now regarded as a copy. Hermes is a masterpiece: the surface plays light beautifully, the head is sensuously rounded and the expression radiates health and happiness. As the mythological story goes, Hermes was carrying the child Dionysus to the nymphs who were charged with his rearing. Hermes looks past the child, conveying the impression of inward dreaming. Her pose became known as the 'Praxitlean curve'. This 'curve' influenced generations of futures sculptors.
Other popular copies of Praxiteles work includes Apollo Sauroktonos (lizard-slayer), a youth leaning against a tree and idly striking with an arrow at a lizard and the Aphyodite of Cnidus (Vatican Museum), a copy of the original which Praxiteles made for the people of Cnidus. Apparently the citizens loved the marble statue so much, they refused to sell it to King Nicomedes, who, according to Pliny, was willing to discharge the city's entire debt in return.
Aphrodite of Cnidus
Aphrodite of Cnidus was regarded by the Roman writer Pliny as not only the finest statue by Praxiteles but the best in the whole world. Highly influenced by the women in his life, and his relationship with a beautiful courtesan, Praxiteles was one of the first sculptors to truly work with the female form. His Aphrodite is naked, a bold innovation at the time. Although the original no longer exists, from reproductions on Roman coins it was possible to identify copies today which still exist, one of which is in the Vatican museum.
Praxiteles' biggest ambition was to create a graphic illusion of life. He strived to make his art as realistic as possible. To this end, like many Greek sculptors, he often employed a painter (Nicias) to colour his statues to give them a more lifelike veneer. According to the Roman writer Pliny, when Praxiteles was asked which of his statues he preferred, he replied 'those to which Nicias has put his hand'. As such, it is well to remember when looking at copies today, how much better they must have looked in their original with paint applied. (See also: Greek Architecture: 900-27 BCE.)
Although Praxiteles cast bronze sculpture and marbles of Gods, under his hand, they became more human - vulnerable to displays of emotion. The element of awe of reverence is missing - and this break was as important in his time as Impressionism was in modern times. His immediate predecessors produced works which were detached and majestic in style, while Praxiteles introduced a more humanistic, gentle grace into Greek sculpture. No other sculptor had come as close to achieving this, before him.