Hellenistic Art – What is it ?, Characteristics and Concepts

We can call the Hellenistic period a historical stage of antiquity, which chronologically speaking are marked by two important political events: the death of Alexander the Great (323 BC) and the suicide of Cleopatra VII of Egypt, and her lover Marco Antonio, after its defeat in Batalla de Accio (30 a. C.). It is a culture of transition between classical Greek and full Roman.

The conquest of the East by Alexander the Great gave artists the possibility of expanding their panorama in terms of themes and ethnic characters different from those customary in classical Greece. The Hellenistic art was long rejected at the time, but today we see thousands of famous works from this period such as the Venus de Milo, the Laocoon and his sons from the Vatican or the Victory of Samothrace.

During the Hellenistic period, great requests were made to develop works of painting, architecture and sculpture. This demand for works of art was mainly due to the competition that existed between different kings and the great desire to magnify and beautify their respective cities with numerous works that tried to reflect the rivalry that the “great lords” had. For this reason, Hellenistic art gradually triumphed and spread to various places.

Characteristics of Helinistic art

  • They stopped relying on ideal models to do more naturalistic models according to the direct perfection of reality, the artists dealt with all aspects of the human figure.
  • Works of dimensions superior to the natural ones stood out, compared to the proportions established in the classical period.
  • Decorative and ornamental abundance of great monuments, such as the Zeus Altar in Pergamon.
  • Hellenistic cities were designed according to a geometric plan with regular shapes, some circular in shape, with a center radiating streets linked by concentric circles.
  • It made way for an exaggerated reality, in which the forms inherited from classical Greece were emphasized and sophisticated, as the example of the Colossus of Rhodes.
  • The figures changed, their pose was more relaxed and indolent.
  • Portraits of characters turned into heroes appeared.
  • The dynamic structure that produced a feeling of instability stands out.
  • Dynamism in expressions wanting to achieve moods and the interest to reflect anatomy and dramatic expression.
  • They preferred the use of decorative elements of the Corinthian order.

Hellenistic architecture

Hellenistic architecture continues to use the three traditional orders, the Doric order, which transforms into something rarer, lengthens its forms and adopts thinner columns that suppress the ribbed decoration of its lower part, the Ionic order, but they certainly prefer in the Hellenistic art  the decorative qualities of the Corinthian order, which since the construction of the temple dedicated to Zeus, the Corinthian order is widespread.

One of the most important differences between classical and Hellenistic architecture lies in the internal organization of groups of religious constructions. During this period, buildings intended for collective leisure multiplied, such as theaters that are an indispensable element for each city and enrich the scenic architecture. Gymnasiums, stands and stadiums are also being built, acquiring greater importance in urban life.

At this time, the architecture undergoes a great change and you can see great urban works. Therefore, a new objective is produced when creating the works, this new objective consists of correcting the defects, adapting to the nature of the building and trying to show the virtues of the building. With this new urbanism, various public gardens and theaters were created, in fact one of the most outstanding things of Hellenistic architecture were the acropolis and the agora.

Hellenistic sculpture

The classical balance is lost in favor of a new sensitivity, which is pleased to seek more the reality of the individual, than physical perfection and prefers dramatic expression to spiritual serenity and violent attitudes to calm.

The Hellenistic art  balance of the classical period is lost, seek a new sensibility, the reality of the individual, dramatic expression and violent attitudes. The main objective of this sculpture is to try to find the atmosphere and expressiveness, this type of search focused mainly on portraits that tried to show and convey the character that the model had. In addition, they tried to seek the emotions and feelings of the models for this reason, in great works you can see feelings of old age, pain or sleep. The main theme of Hellenistic sculpture was always the gods, the Amazons and the giants, but also the pleasures of life, the ugly, the grotesque and the anecdotal are of interest to artists of this time.

The sculptures lose the frontal point of view in favor of their visibility from all angles, so that it can be seen from any perspective, while also having a perfect knowledge of anatomy.

Hellenistic mosaics and painting

It has completely disappeared, but the descriptions of the painting that Polignoto, Parraisio, Zeuxis and Apeles made polychrome the walls in some Athenian constructions are preserved.
The only pictorial manifestations that have come down to us are of a decorative nature of vases of various shapes and some Roman paintings that reflect the influence of Greek models.

Contrary to Hellenistic architecture and sculpture, there are few works of art found in painting, they have disappeared, but the descriptions of the painting that Polignoto, Parraisio, Zeuxis and Apeles made polychrome the walls in some Athenian constructions are preserved, also we have the pictorial manifestations that have come down to us of a decorative nature of vases of various shapes and some Roman paintings that reflect the influence of Greek models. However, we can see Hellenistic painting in various mosaics and thanks to these we can get an idea of ​​what Hellenistic painting was like in its time. With this it has been known that this painting had its own characteristics as a composition of certain colors, a great expressiveness on the faces of the models.

Among the mosaics of the Hellenistic period, the Egyptian themes are the most abundant with landscapes, flora and fauna and Nilotic affairs, one of the most famous being the mosaic called the Barberini mosaic, found in Palestrina and preserved in the Barberini palace in this city. It was discovered around 1600 and decorated the apse of one of the temples of the sanctuary ordered to be redone by the Roman general and politician, Lucio Cornelio Sila.

Hellenistic pottery

In the Hellenistic period, ceramics achieved great prominence and for this reason there were various ornate vessels. These containers were adorned with smooth and dark colors, such as black, and they were finished with a bright touch, using mainly the varnish to achieve that shine. In short, the decorations of these vessels used to be simple, although a setback appears and it is that at this time the vessels with relief begin to appear. These relief vessels are taking center stage and are gradually based on themes such as mythological monsters and animals, although there were also vessels whose main theme was women who were represented in large dresses in yellow, white or blue colors.

In Hellenistic art, ceramics were very rich and varied in their forms and perfect in their finishes. It was especially characterized by the stylization and expression of the figures, with an exquisite aesthetic sensitivity, which for Hellenic artists, ceramics was the best way to express themselves artistically, ceramics being the only sample of Greek painting that we have.


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