In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Greek Art

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Journals
  • Painting

Classics Greek Art
Ioannis Mylonopoulos
  • LAST REVIEWED: 14 December 2009
  • LAST MODIFIED: 14 December 2009
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0088


Greek art is all about images: images of gods, images of heroes, and images of humans. The self-awareness of the Greeks is reflected in the ways they decided to visualize themselves and the world, both real and imaginary, surrounding them. For a long period of time, the study of Greek art followed the interpretive path of Johann Joachim Winckelmann, who understood Greek artistic expression in an almost biological way: just like a living organism, Greek art had its early formative period, a time of vigor, and a final moment of decay. Strongly influenced by the Renaissance concept of artistic genius, generations of scholars devoted themselves to the recognition and analysis of the styles of artists known mainly through literary sources, following the methods founded by Adolf Furtwängler and John D. Beazley. Nowadays, although stylistic analysis remains a conditio sine qua non for the understanding of Greek art, scholars have moved toward a more contextual appreciation of art as a historical and cultural phenomenon firmly rooted in its own social, political, and intellectual frame. Statues, reliefs, and vases are no longer considered mere objects of art, an aesthetic delight in a museum showcase, but evidence for the ways a culture visualized and artistically reinvented abstract philosophical ideas, political concepts, religious beliefs, or social constructs. One should always take into consideration, however, that there is nothing like the all-encompassing Greek art, but rather many different artistic expressions in the many separate political and geographical entities of the Greek Mediterranean world.

General Overviews

There are a great many introductions to Greek art that present a vast amount of material in a comprehensive way. However, one should keep in mind that oversimplification is an inherent feature of every introductory book. In most cases, scholars and students are dealing either with very general introductions to Greek art that tend to begin with the Geometric period—or in rare cases with the arts of the Bronze Age (e.g., Pedley 2007)—or with introductions to the art of specific periods (Betancourt 2007, Burn 2004, Coldstream 2003). Strangely enough, the practical aspects of artistic production are rarely discussed (but see Ling 2000). The still unwritten introduction to the economics of Greek art would be an invaluable addition to our knowledge and appreciation of artistic expression in the Greek world. For practical reasons, the majority of introductory studies concentrate on Athenian art, and there are almost no general introductions with a strong comparative approach, although Coldstream 2003 does this for the Geometric period.

  • Betancourt, Philip P. 2007. Introduction to Aegean art. Philadelphia: INSTAP Academic Press.

    A chronological and geographical survey of art and architecture of the Minoan, Mycenaean, and Cycladic cultures, intended for students and the general public, so that complex and problematic issues such as the scholarly dispute on the high or low chronology are only superficially mentioned. The approach is strictly “art historical,” with no attempt to embed Bronze Age art into anthropologically reconstructed social systems. The book complements rather than replaces Sinclair Hood’s The arts in prehistoric Greece (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1978), which is structured according to categories of artistic expression and not chronologically or geographically.

  • Burn, Lucilla. 2004. Hellenistic art: From Alexander the Great to Augustus. London: British Museum Press.

    A concise, up-to-date introduction to the art of the Hellenistic Age. The book does not follow the usual pattern of a thematic structure based on strict categories of artistic expression; instead, art is presented within specific topographical contexts such as city, sanctuary, house, or tomb. The important issues of workshops, art collections, and the interaction between artist and clientele are addressed in a separate chapter. An excellent supplement to the more thematically arranged Pollitt 1986.

  • Coldstream, John N. 2003. Geometric Greece: 900–700 BC. 2d ed. London: Routledge.

    The main part is unchanged from the 1st edition (London: Benn, 1977), with additions only at the end. The approach is clearly art historical, not anthropological. The structure of the book is geographical (Macedonia is the big absentee). In every chapter, pottery, architecture, and minor arts, as well as burial customs of a specific region, are briefly discussed. More general chapters are dedicated to settlements, sanctuaries, visual and literary traditions, and possible Eastern influences.

  • Furtwängler, Adolf. 1964. Masterpieces of Greek sculpture: a series of essays on the history of art. Edited by Al N. Oikonomides. Chicago: Argonaut Publishers.

    Available online in both English and German (Meisterwerke der griechischen Plastik. Kunstgeschichtliche Untersuchungen. Leipzig: Giesecke & Devrient, 1893).

  • Langdon, Susan. 2008. Art and identity in Dark Age Greece, 1100–700 B.C.E. New York: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    A long overdue analysis of the Geometric figurative art as a reflection of and, more importantly, as a powerful means for constructing age, gender, and social identity via images. It offers the best contextual iconological appreciation of Geometric art. This is definitely not an introduction to Geometric art and culture in the sense Coldstream 2003 is, but these two studies combined are the best way to enter the world of Geometric art.

  • Ling, Roger, ed. 2000. Making Classical art: Process and practice. Stroud, UK: Tempus.

    The first part is dedicated to the production processes of Greek and Roman art. Practical aspects associated with working practices, techniques, materials, and tools are discussed in brief papers on stone and bronze sculpture, wall painting, mosaics, and Greek painted pottery. The second part is an introduction to various categories of artistic expression, such as colossal statues, the Parthenon, Greek funerary monuments, and Macedonian tomb painting.

  • Pedley, John Griffiths. 2007. Greek art and archaeology. 4th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education.

    Indispensable for anyone teaching a survey course on Greek art and architecture. The structure is strictly based on chronology, so that sometimes an almost evolutionist pattern arises. Refreshingly, the artistic production of Bronze Age Greece is also explored, so that the reader is presented with a more holistic approach to the term “Greek.” Illustrations are numerous and of excellent quality.

  • Pollitt, Jerome J. 1972. Art and experience in Classical Greece. New York: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    Perhaps the most influential general book on Greek art of the Classical period. The fascinating transitions from Archaic to Classical and from Classical to Hellenistic art are also insightfully discussed. Based on formal and stylistic analyses of the monuments explored, the book embeds art in a broader cultural context. Classical literature is often referred to as a means for understanding art. The study attempts, however, to understand the reasons why rather than the ways in which art and literature are interrelated.

  • Pollitt, Jerome J. 1986. Art in the Hellenistic Age. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    An invaluable, helpful survey of material that is extremely complicated in terms of both chronology and stylistic analysis. The book deals mainly with sculpture, architecture, painting, and mosaics. In a geographically defined chapter, the art of Alexandria is briefly discussed. The anachronistic use of the terms baroque and rococo as descriptive characterizations of specific parts of the Hellenistic sculptural tradition appears problematic but does not lessen the high quality of the text.

  • Stewart, Andrew. 2008. Classical Greece and the birth of Western art. New York: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    Conceived as a successor to Pollitt 1972, this is the most recent and perhaps one of the best introductions to Classical Greek art readily available. Although roughly chronologically structured, the book does not offer a decontextualized analysis of the various artistic expressions. On the contrary, the art of the 5th and 4th centuries BCE is firmly placed in social, political, and cultural context. Art is conceptualized and presented not as a series of “important” museum objects but as an integral part of the ancient Greek Lebenswelt.

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