Classical Greek Art Portraiture by: Melanie Lumpkin


Classic Greek Art was the beginning of a change in portrait art. They created sculpture portraits that were three-dimensional and alive with movement. The Classic Greek Period can be split into three periods: Early Classical, High Classical, and Late Classical: each one having different elements as the artists continued to develop their style. The Greeks’ art was greatly affected by their culture and religion, and also the political environment and beliefs of the time. These aspects of Greek culture will be examined to see the effect they had on the change in portrait art.





Kouros statue of Kroisos
Anavysos, Greece, c. 530 BC



Prior to Greek portrait art, the Egyptians had been doing portraits, all of which were very stiff. They were to be viewed only from the front and most were put in tombs. Their depictions were usually simplifications of the people and the artists followed a general form when making the sculptures (Hinks, 9). Originally the Greeks created kouros, which were stiff and frontal portrait sculptures that looked very much like the Egyptians portraiture. The kouros were three-dimensional and the bodies were well portrayed, but there was no movement to them (Fullerton, 44). However by 480 BC, their sculptures began to show movement. This method was called a contrapposto stance, which means that there was the appearance of a weight shift by positioning the body so that one side takes on the weight and the other side relaxes. This was the beginning of the Early Classical period, 480 BC (Chow).

A contrapposto stance was usually done by extending a resting foot in front of the weight bearing foot as shown in the sculpture Kritios Boy, created in 480 BC (Chow). Because of the weight shift in this sculpture it seemed as if the boy had come alive, you could sense his movement. He was no longer a tense, stiff portrait. The position of his hips and shoulders were regulated by his weight shift. Another thing that sets the Kritios Boy apart from the old kouros is his gaze. He looks to the side and this is a departure from the normal frontal pose and gaze of the kouros (Fullerton, 116). This beginning of the early classical period was indeed a big difference than the previous stiff portraits, the art started to come alive and this really set the Greek artists apart from past portrait artists.

Kritian Boy, c. 479-475 BC
Athens, Acropolis Museum


As time passed the Greek artists continued to move toward realism. The idea of individualized portraiture also continued to develop. This was not only a result of the artists testing out new ideas, but also from the culture of the Greeks. The Greeks believed that the soul left a man when he died and hovered and that these spirits had only memory of their old life (Hinks, 10). So when doing funerary art portraits, the men, although realistic, were idealized. However, A new concept of the soul began to be developed. Previously it was thought that a person was his body, but due to many of the philosophies of Socrates, the concept of a soul being who the person really was began to develop. With this thought the artists began trying to put more emotion into the art so that the persons soul could be depicted (Hinks, 18). Thus the portraits began to gain even more personality.

The portraits were still somewhat idealized, though. This was due in part to the nature of the portraits. The wars with Persia had finally ended and war heroes and political leaders were given a great amount of attention. These men were idolized, and it was of these men that most portraits were done. They were put up in public places and in sanctuaries and tombs to be seen by all (Richter, 15). Many portraits were done of great men of the past, and these were also idealized because the artists did not truly know what they looked like, and they merely tried to portray the personalities of those men (Boardman, 136).

Thinking of the time also contributed to the idealistic portraits, such as Plato’s philosophies that dealt with the idea of human perfection. He thought that there was a perfect form of beauty and good in the human body. The artists then tried to create this form. These portraits were typical of the High Classical Period, 450 to 430 BC. The Greeks also had many gods which were human in form, but with perfect bodies. This form also seeped into their portraits where they idealized the men to be almost god-like. These gods were mythical and the people of the time idolized them and tried to be like them. Thus, this idealism was also conveyed in the portraits of the people (Chow). Athletics were also a large part of society, where the human body was idealized with its muscular fitness. Artists especially tried to depict the body in their portraits. The artist would study the whole personality of the person posing and all this would be taken into account when sculpting (Richter, 15). To get the full idea of a portrait the whole body of the sculpture must be looked at, as the artist took great care to represent personality in all of the body. This aspect of the portraits was something that truly set Greek art apart from previous portrait art. This was the beginning of the Late Classical period, 430 - 323 BC (Chow).

Statue of Mausolus
British Museum
The Late Classical period was known for the cannon of proportions, which developed an idealized system for showing the symmetry and balance of the portrait. They became even less tense and more graceful and flowing with their bodies curving, as especially shown through their stance and proportions (Chow). One of the great portraits of this period was that of a Carian prince, Mausolus. It is thought to have been made around 350 BC. His head is tilted slightly to the side and his hair is swept back and hangs long against his shoulders. He has a beard and long mustache. He also has a somber look to him with his protruding brow adding to the effect (Haynes, 88). There is also movement in his body and in the folds of his clothes. This portrait has been referred to as the first portrait that can be called a masterpiece (Hinks, 17). This portrait seems realistic in representing Mausolus' actual features because they are not extremely idealized. And through his expressions and body language, his personality can be sensed.


From viewing the early images of the kouros and the later one of Mausolus, it becomes clear how much Greek portrait art advanced from its beginnings, both in realism and in its ability to express personality. The artists became better and more experimental. Portrait art went from stiff, lifeless sculptures to ones that looked as if they were going to move any minute. They showed feeling, emotion, and the personality of the sitter, which was expressed through the whole body of the sculpture. The more realistic artists along with the contribution of philosophy of the time lead to this beautiful portrait art. As time passed, the Greeks would continue to grow in realism, creating masterful portraits.


Works Cited

Kramer, Cheryl. "Art 100." Online. 30 Sept. 2002.
Chow, Rosalind. "Classical Greek Sculpture." Think Quest. Online.
Boardman, John. Greek Art. London: Thames and Hudson Ltd., 1985.
Fullerton, Mark D. Greek Art. Hong Kong: Calmann & King Ltd., 2000. 01 Oct. 2002.
"Art History Page." Department of Art Georgia Southern University. Online.
Richter, Gisela M. A. The Portraits of the Greeks. Stockbridge: Phaidon Press Limited, 1984.
Gill, David. "Akropolis." Online. 01 Oct. 2002.
Haynes, Denys. Greek Art and the Idea of Freedom. London: Thames and Hudson Ltd.,1981
Hinks, R. P. Greek and Roman Portrait Sculpture. London: British Museum Publications Ltd., 1976.

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