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Three Millennia of Greek Literature

F. B. Tarbell, A History of Ancient Greek Art

The Hellenistic Period of Greek Sculpture. 323-146 B.C.


The reign of Alexander began a new era in Greek history, an era in which the great fact was the dissemination of Greek culture over wide regions to which it had been alien. This period, in which Egypt and western Asia were ruled by men of Greek or Macedonian blood and gradually took on more or less of Greek civilization, is often called the Hellenistic period. Under the new political and social order new artistic conditions were developed. For one thing, Athens and the other old centers of artistic activity lost their pre-eminence, while new centers were created in the East, The only places which our literary sources mention as seats of important schools of sculpture in the two centuries following the death of Alexander are Rhodes and Pergamum.

Then again a demand now grew up for works of sculpture to be used as mere ornaments in the interiors of palaces and private houses, as well as in public buildings and places. This of course threw open the door for subjects which had been excluded when sculpture was dominated by a sacred purpose. Sculptors were now free to appeal to the lower tastes of their patrons. The practice of "art for art's sake" had its day, and trivial, comical, ugly, harrowing, or sensual themes were treated with all the resources of technical skill. In short, the position and purposes of the art of sculpture became very like what they are to-day. Hence the untrained modern student feels much more at home in a collection of Hellenistic sculpture than in the presence of the severer, sublimer creations of the age of Phidias.

It is by no means meant to pass a sweeping condemnation upon the productions of the post-classical period. Realistic portraiture was now practiced with great frequency and high success. Many of the genre statues and decorative reliefs of the time are admirable and delightful. Moreover, the old uses of sculpture were not abandoned, and though the tendency toward sensationalism was strong, a dignified and exalted work was sometimes achieved. But, broadly speaking, we must admit the loss of that "noble simplicity and quiet grandeur" – the phrase is Winckelmann's – which stamped the creations of the age of Phidias. Greek sculpture gained immensely in variety, but at the expense of its elevation of spirit. 

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