Greek Painting: Hellenistic Period (323-27 BCE)
A piece of mosaic art (a 50 CE copy of an original created 300 BCE) depicts the encounter of Alexander the Great and the Persian king Darius at the battle of Issus in 333. The accurate depiction of contemporary Persian costume is strong evidence that the mosaic is a faithful copy, executed in the four-colour system. The background is a white void and the single object in it is a lopped and leafless tree, inserted to balance Darius more than to suggest landscape. The foreground too is blank, except for a little debris from the fighting. The artist's interest is concentrated on his figures, modelled with bold light and shade, expressive of feeling and arranged in a crowded but carefully controlled composition.
The mosaicist who made this copy in the first century must have coarsened the effect of the original picture, since its fluent lines and gradations of colour had to be rendered by square tesserac, each of uniform tone; but even so, it is an extraordinary feat of virtuosity, and all the more valuable because among our remains of ancient painting there is nothing comparable to this battle piece. Without this Alexander mosaic, few students would have believed that there were pictures of this kind in Greek art from the late fourth century.
Painting during the Hellenistic era seems at first to have exaggerated the pathos exhibited in the Alexander mosaic, and to have developed a more richly pictorial style, of which the main frieze of the Great Altar at Pergamum (c.170 BCE), is a counterpart in Greek sculpture. (See also: Greek Architecture: 900-27 BCE.) But in the second century, an academic reaction began, and with it intensive adaptation and copying.
Of new kinds of painting, landscape was probably the most important, though again we have only one good example, the incomplete set of illustrations of the Odyssey (c.150 BCE), found in a house on the Esquiline hill in Rome. The Odyssey landscapes were painted in the first century, but may be copies of pictures a hundred years or so earlier. Here the figures are dominated by the setting, which is emphasized by strong light and shade, the brush-work is competently sketchy, and in the distance the colours fade with a skill that shows established practice.
Curiously, in this 'sophisticated illusionism some old-fashioned conventions are cherished. Many of the figures have their names written neatly beside them, so that we know at once whom Odysseus is meeting. Yet the Alexander mosaic and the 'Perseus freeing Andromeda' had managed without this labelling. Odyssey landscapes were, Vitruvius says, a favourite subject of late Hellenistic painting, and the Esquiline set is too slick to have been pioneering work.
Both the 'Astragalizusae' and the Alexander mosaic are copies of good quality, but presumably their originals were better. How much better we are never likely to know, since the chances of finding an original Greek masterpiece from this era are no better than from the Archaic or Classical periods. It is clear though that the general standard of competence was high, even in provincial studios. Here the Fayum Mummy Portraits are a better guide than the interior decorations of Pompeii. Though of the Roman period, they still continue the Hellenistic traditions of portraiture and brushwork.
ENCYCLOPEDIA OF ART and CLASSICAL ANTIQUITIES