Greek Sculpture: Hellenistic Period
Characteristics, Pergamene School, Laocoon, Apoxyomenos, Venus De Milo.

Hellenistic Greek Sculpture (c.323-27 BCE)

Venus de Milo (c.130-100 BCE)
Louvre, Paris.


The Hellenistic Styles
Portraying Emotion
Sculptural Poses
Copies of Statues
Sculptural Techniques
Dating and Chronology

For other forms of sculpture from the wider Aegean area,
see the Art of Classical Antiquity (c.1000 BCE - 450 CE).

Note: among the most famous items of Hellenistic Greek sculpture was the Colossus of Rhodes (292-280 BCE) - one of the Seven Wonders of the World, as compiled by the Greek poet Antipater of Sidon.

The Hellenistic Styles

The era of Hellenistic Art (323-27 BCE) occupied a time-span nearly as long as that of all previous Greek sculpture put together.

Since it was no longer in fashion when serious academic study began and is also bewilderingly diverse, its course is much less understood. At the beginning there was some continuation and development of Late Classical trends, in the middle the so-called Pergamene school shows an originality that may loosely be described as baroque, and towards the end a Classicizing movement became strong. But these distinct styles are not confined each to one part of the period and there is much more that has to be fitted in. Nor can the confusion be explained away by different local traditions: although Athens, it seems, tended to be conservative and at Alexandria some use was made of stucco, a material which invites soft modelling, still sculptors travelled as much as or more than before and Athenians, for example, could work in the full Pergamene style. 'Pergamene', incidentally has here a stylistic and not a local sense. The Hellenistic kings of Pergamum, who grabbed much of western Asia Minor, were patrons of sculpture, collecting old works and commissioning new ones; and the style of the most famous of their new monuments has been called after them, though that style was not peculiar to Pergamum nor the only style fostered there.


Subjects were as diverse as styles, and the extremes of the Laocoon and the sitting Boy with a Goose, one a demonstration of heroic agony and the other of sentimental innocence, do not give its full range. Traditional figures of deities and athletes continue. There are realistic studies, straight or comic, of lower class life - the old fisherman, for instance, or the drunken old woman - of ethnic types, of Satyrs and other sub-human creatures, and even of animals. Personifications, as of the Muses, become commoner. Coy, playful and erotic figures (including the young hermaphrodite) cater for other tastes.

Portraiture flourished more freely. This enlargement of the sculptor's repertory and aims is often said to reflect the spiritual changes that followed Alexander's conquest of the Persian Empire. Big centralized monarchies superseded independent city states, the centres of power and wealth shifted from European Greece to the new capitals in Asia and Egypt, old notions of political equality gave way to a more rigid stratification of classes, and ordinary people turned from civic to personal interests. Yet there is no reason to suppose that the course of Greek sculpture would have been much different if the old order had continued. The Hellenistic rulers were determined for political reasons to spread traditional Greek culture. In Greece itself, the city states (which still kept considerable autonomy) looked conscientiously towards the past, and sculptors had a bigger market for their work. Nor does it seem that demand for sculpture in private houses affected the creation of new types and versions. The Boy with a Goose may look as if it was designed specifically for domestic enjoyment. Yet according to Herondas, who was writing in the first half of the third century, a statue at least of this type was on view in a sanctuary of Asklepios. And around 100 BCE the statues fashionable in houses on Delos included copies of reputable old masters. A style as confident and powerful as that of Classical sculpture is likely to have had its own momentum, and the Hellenistic styles can he explained as proceeding from the Classical tradition by evolution or reaction. After all, tendencies to naturalism, expression of emotion, and sentimentality are visible already in the fourth century.

CHRONOLOGY NOTE: After Daedalic Greek Sculpture (650-600) comes Archaic Greek Sculpture (600-480), followed by Early Classical Greek Sculpture (480-450), and then High Classical Greek Sculpture (450-400) and finally Late Classical Greek Sculpture (400-323).


Whatever one may think of the aesthetic value of their products, the leading Hellenistic sculptors were more accomplished than their Classical predecessors and added substantially to the knowledge they inherited. They improved the understanding of anatomy, both in the detailed configuration of the surface of the body and also in its response to tension and relaxation, but this understanding was used selectively according to the subject and character of the work. In the late fourth and early third centuries the followers of Praxiteles achieved an even softer modelling of flesh, which continued to be a favourite technique where sensuous or sentimental effects were wanted - for instance, in female nudes, hermaphrodites and small children. Other early
Hellenistic sculptors concentrated on the type of the athletic male as remodelled by Lysippus or his contemporaries and, though they kept the lean forms and the leathery appearance of the skin, sometimes enlivened the effect by a dose of pathos. This type, of course, remained useful for commemorative nude statues of victors in the games, of heroic princes and notables, and even of private individuals, though later on there was competition from a revived Polykleitan standard. Another trend which developed in the early third century was towards a dry unclassical style that relied for emphasis on linear design rather than modelling, but this was more suited to drapery and portrait heads, than to naked bodies. More ambitious was the attempt to re-use old Classical forms and devices for violently dramatic effects, most notably on the main frieze of the Pergamon Altar of Zeus, where on some of the torsos the musculation looks like a kind of cuirass. This Pergamene style of Hellenistic sculpture had its beginning well back in the third century, but blossomed in the second and, to judge by Laocoon and His Sons, was still practised in the middle of the first. For cult statues of gods, Classical types had always had a continuing influence and finally, in the later second century, a reaction set in and many sculptors turned back to works of the fifth and fourth centuries as models of correctness.

[Note: for architectural styles of Ancient Greece, see: Greek Architecture].

In the rendering of anatomy, Hellenistic sculptors did not often escape from Classical formulas, since these were already fairly true to nature and there was no need to make a fresh start. Nor did they alter the systems of proportions for the male figure, though soon an alternative female canon was accepted, with narrower shoulders, higher waist and broader hips. In drapery there was more radical change. Here High Classical sculptors had worked out a system of devices which elucidated the forms and action of the body but, while optically effective, did not conform closely to nature. And this system remained valid in the fourth century, in spite of tendencies to arrange folds more naturally and to give the drapery importance in itself. These tendencies were taken further by some early Hellenistic sculptors, and there seems even to have been a deliberate rejection of Classical standards, perhaps more for novelty than from artistic principle.

NOTE: For later sculptors and movements inspired by the Hellenistic sculpture of ancient Greece, see: Classicism in Art (800 onwards).


In a favourite scheme, still popular in late Hellenistic statuary, the female figure is dressed in a chiton, often hiding the feet, and a fine tightly stretched cloak which runs diagonally from below one knee to above the other, is gathered in at the hip, and either rolls up across the waist or chest or - more often - covers the shoulders and sometimes the head as well. This cloak is patterned with thin sharp ridges, in part radiating from the hip, in part erratic and casually interrupted; and if there is a roll, it is usually narrow and twisted like a rope. In contrast the folds of the chiton are mostly close and vertical and, with a dexterity that becomes hackneyed, they are prolonged to show, suitably a little blurred, through the cloak that covers them. At the same time a basically Classical tradition persisted, especially in statues of gods. This tradition was re-used eclectically by sculptors of the Pergamene style and revived with more fidelity by the Classicizers of the later second and the first centuries.

Portraying Emotion

The Classical masters had preferred to suggest emotion by simple gestures and, though by the middle of the fourth century some intensity of aspect was allowed, it was left to the minor craftsmen who carved grave reliefs to show faces contorted with grief. Hellenistic sculptors had other standards. In work of traditional character they kept the old impassivity, but where the aim was naturalistic or dramatic they enjoyed their virtuosity. Pain, fear, pleasure, amusement, drunkenness, lassitude, sleep and death were within their range by the second century, so too were all the gradations of age and, when they wanted, they could produce plausibly differentiated racial types. As might be expected, portraiture became more vivid, though of course some regard for dignity was usually expected by the customer.

[Note: For biographies of important sculptors from ancient Greece, see: Phidias (488-431 BCE), Myron (Active 480-444), Polykleitos/Polyclitus (5th century), Callimachus (Active 432-408), Skopas/Scopas (Active 395-350), Lysippos/Lysippus (c.395-305 BCE), Praxiteles (Active 375-335), Leochares (Active 340-320).]

Sculptural Poses

The wider range of subjects needed a wider range of poses. So there appear sprawling, crouching and lying figures; for upright figures momentary or trivial attitudes become more usual. And in the Pergamene style violent contortions were welcomed. Many of these poses had been used by Classical or even Archaic sculptors in pediments, but not in free-standing statuary, where the standard of decorum had been strict. Groups too became commoner and more systematically designed. But the most radical innovation was in composition. Classical statues had normally been constructed from a front and a side elevation, so that they presented four distinct principal views. And though during the fourth century, there was some tentative variation of the strictly frontal view, as in the Apoxyomenos, this was managed primarily by the placing of the arms. Hellenistic sculptors thought more deeply. Their first solution was to give a spiral twist to the figure, so that from any point of view some important part of it appeared more or less in frontal or profile elevation. Yet, effective as it is, so strong a twist is not easily justified, if one expects the action of a statue to have a logical purpose. Dancing and fighting offer satisfactory reasons, but for some spiralling Hellenistic figures the only excuse is flippant, as in Aphrodite lifting her skirt to contemplate her bottom or the young Satyr who tries to inspect his tail. By the beginning of the second century a more sophisticated formula had been found, by which the spiral is reversed or stopped at the waist. The Venus de Milo is the most famous example here. Still, at all times most Hellenistic statues were designed in the old way, with emphasis on the frontal view.

Copies of Statues

The Classical revival of Greek art during the later second century not only produced new interpretations and adaptations of Classical forms, such as the Venus di Milo, but led also to an industry of copying that lasted through the era of Roman art till the fourth or even the fifth century CE. From the Archaic period onwards, duplicates had been made, like Kleobis and Biton, and the Penelope, but the habit of reproducing masterpieces of the past seems to have started in the early or middle second century, when the kings of Pergamum, who were the first great collectors of works of Greek art, supplemented the acquisition of earlier originals by commissioning copies. Their example was followed by private individuals, including many Romans and Italians, who were in sympathy with the Classicizing trend but hankered after old masters. The copies found at Pergamum, even when in spirit fairly true to the originals, render detail freely and in a contemporary manner and were evidently carved by sculptors capable of independent work. But later, a more mechanical style and technique became regular, with craftsmen working from a master copy. Master copies could be made either from memory and sketches, as must have been those of the cult statue of Athena in the Parthenon; or, if the original was accessible, molds might be taken from it, whether partial or complete, and casts made from the molds. For copies of bronze sculpture, this system could, by recasting, provide exact replicas of the original, and for that reason it is difficult or impossible - and probably unimportant - to distinguish by style between an original and a good copy.

For copies of stone sculpture (mainly marble), a pointing process was in use by the early first century. The copyist set up an open framework round his model and an identical one round the block he was working on, measured the distance from the framework of chosen points on his model and again by measurement marked their position on or in his block, and then carved by eye the surfaces between the points, more or less completing one part of the figure before going on to the next. Since ancient copyists used far fewer points than their modern counterparts, the accuracy of the detail was less. There are a few excellent marble copies, but most are hackwork, harshly neglecting all subtleties in the modelling of the surface.

Presumably for cheapness, bronze originals were often reproduced in marble, with some consequent adjustments. Since the lashes of the eye cannot be carved in marble, the edges of the lids were made heavier, tufts of hair tended to be flattened, and probably the musculation was given higher relief. Possibly too, some poses were modified, though the copyists were free enough in their use of struts and stumps, as much for safety in transport as to give stability to the figure or to prevent outstretched parts from breaking by their unsupported weight. To judge by the location of their originals and by the kinds of marble that were used, most of the earlier copies were made in Greece and the Aegean, particularly at Athens.

For a list of the best statues, statuettes and reliefs produced during the period of Classical Antiquity, see: Greatest Sculptures Ever. For a guide to Neoclassicism, see: Neoclassical sculptors.

Sculpting Techniques

Hellenistic sculptors made no change in the technique of carving marble, except for the new procedure for working from a model, which may in the first century have been used for some original works as well as for copies. At its best, the standard of finish was still equal to that of Classical work, though the marks of the running drill often show more obtrusively. With minor sculpture much more negligence was tolerated, in design as well as in execution, partly perhaps because the Italian and Roman customers, who were becoming important in the later second century had little artistic experience or discrimination. For the colouring of marble there is evidence from sarcophagi and caskets (or 'urns') made in Etruria and Carthage, and from Greek statues and reliefs found in Delos and Alexandria. As might be expected, practice was not uniform; some sculpture was fully coloured, some more discreetly, and it seems that the two systems were concurrent. There was also more gilding of marble, especially for hair. (See: Metalwork for more on gilding.) In bronze statuary the only innovation claimed, is that in some bronze portrait heads the features show the effects of modelling rather than of carving, and from this it has been inferred that a softer medium than before was used in the preliminary work.

[Note: For information about ceramics from ancient Greece, including the Geometric, Black-figure, Red-figure and White-ground technique, see: Greek Pottery: History & Styles.]

Dating and Chronology

As with much ancient art, we are short of fixed dates for Classical sculpture, but shorter still for Hellenistic. Nor have we as much information recorded about sculptors and their works, since Pliny leaves a gap in his account between 296 and 156 BCE, when he says the art was in abeyance. The Tyche (or Fortune) of Antioch, of which we have three miniature versions, should have been made very soon after the foundation of that city in 300 BCE. The marble statue of Themis from Rhamnus, an original work of Chairestratos, son of Chairedemos, may be put in the late fourth or early third century, if (as is likely) it was the sculptor's father who is mentioned in an inscription of 315 BCE. The posthumous portrait of Demosthenes, of which copies have survived, was made around 280 BCE, according to literary sources. The seated Dionysus from the monument of Thrasyllos at Athens ought to be a dedication for a victory in the dramatic festival of 271 BCE. The Nike of Samothrace was set up about 200 BCE, to judge by pottery found round its base, and some fragments of pedimental sculpture from the same island have been dated, also by pottery, to the later second century. Delos acquired a sudden prosperity after 166 BCE and still more after 146, and was sacked in 88 and ruined finally in 69, so that much of its sculpture can be dated to the late second or early first century and some of it because of inscriptions still more closely. The sculptors of the Laocoon, unless there was an improbably complex repetition of names, were (so inscribed records show) well known by 21 BCE.

Note About Art Evaluation
In order to appreciate Greek sculptors, see: How to Appreciate Sculpture. For later works, please see: How to Appreciate Modern Sculpture.

A little help, especially for draped female statues, can be obtained from comparisons with terracotta figurines found in datable contexts, and there is some vague utility in the style of lettering on bases of statues and for architectural sculpture in the style of the buildings they adorned. All considered it is not surprising that, at present, experts may differ by a hundred years or more in their dating of particular pieces, and because of the character of much Hellenistic production it would even be suspicious if there was ever full agreement.

For articles about the visual arts of Ancient Greece, see:

Sculpture of Ancient Greece (Introduction)
Archaic Greek Painting (c.600-480)
Greek Painting of the Classical Era (c.480-323 BCE)
Hellenistic Style Statues and Reliefs (c.323-27 BCE)
Hellenistic Greek Painting (c.323-27 BCE)
Greek Painting Legacy
Greek Metalwork Art (8th century BCE onwards)

• For the origins and evolution of three-dimensional art, see: Sculpture History.
• For more about the evolution of the visual arts, see: History of Art.
• For more about Hellenism in Ancient Greek sculpture, see: Homepage.

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