Ancient Hellenistic Art

Although the classical art of the Golden Age of Greece, particularly Athens, seems to get all the glory, the art of the Hellenistic period is rich, varied, and dramatically humanistic. Hellenistic Greek art began with the death of Alexander in 323 B.C. and most scholars concur that it lasted until 31 B.C. Some of the world’s most treasured sculpture, like Venus de Milo and Winged Victory of Samothrace, dates from this era.

Alexander and his ruling generals brought Greek culture to the vast lands it conquered. Regional artistic traditions merged with this new Greek influence to produce art that was stylistically different from region to region. Thus, it would be difficult to define Hellenistic art without noting the wide variations of art under its mantle. In many ways, Hellenistic art grew from the strong foundation of classical Greek art. Yet, classical art often focused on gods and religion, while Hellenistic art appears more concerned with the human form and human expression. As Greek armies transformed the political and cultural landscape of their world, artists transformed art with the incredible historic feats of armies to commemorate them in the world’s first museums and libraries.

Religious subject matter was important to Hellenistic artists, but a whole new range of subject material was open to them. People of all ages, and especially the newly introduced peoples of different ethnicities, became favorite subjects for artists. Also, rather than beauty, Hellenistic artists strove to convey human emotions through their works. Artists continued to render their forms with great attention to detail and to showcase them as close to nature as they could. Especially in sculpture, artists wanted to create works that could be admired from all sides such as the Bronze Statuette of a Veiled and Masked Dancer (created between the third and second centuries B.C.).

Art and architecture were extraordinarily important to the planners of new city states that were cropping up all over the Mediterranean. Pergamon, for example, illustrates the Hellenistic ideal to work with the natural terrain of the landscape and to build accordingly. Hellenistic builders and artists were compelled to build large and in a style of grandeur. And while public works were produced for new cities, temples, etc…private art was also being created to adorn the homes of wealthy patrons.

Mosaic art rose to great heights during the Hellenistic period as evidenced by artists like Sosos of Pergamon and scholars believe that painting was equally important in this period, but few examples of painting have survived the ravages of time. A recent archaeological find in the former kingdom of Macedonia depicts a tomb frieze of royal hunt that has been termed magnificent for its attention to scale and remarkable realism.

Although ceramic art, like vase painting, declined during the Hellenistic period, many minor arts thrived. Glass blowing, jewelry making, and metallic art were just some of the favorite minor arts practiced by Greek artisans. Hellenistic art, as applied to places like Syria, Persia, Babylonia, and Egypt, witnessed strong Greek influence on all of the art forms—an influence that would continue to strongly influence the subsequent evolution of Western art.