Hellenistic sculpture is one of art history's most prized practices. Celebrated for its unprecedented naturalism, this movement introduced a skillful sculptural approach that artists would emulate for years to come.
Today, Hellenistic antiquities can be found in top collections across the globe, with world-famous works like the Winged Victory of Samothrace leading the way. While you may be familiar with these awe-inspiring marble sculptures, you may not know much about the very movement that they shaped.
What was the Hellenistic Period?
The Hellenistic period was an era in Ancient Greece that lasted from 323 BCE to 31 CE. During this period, sculptors pursued and perfected naturalism—an artistic interest that Greek artists had been developing over hundreds of years.
A fascination with naturalistic sculpture can be traced back to Ancient Greece’s Archaic period, which lasted from the 8th century until 500 BCE. Though sculptures crafted during this time conveyed more realism than those that preceded them, their poses are stiff and their expressions are stoic. Similarly, Archaic sculptors typically stuck to two types of figures: “the male kouros, or standing nude youth, and the female kore, or standing draped maiden” (the Metropolitan Museum of Art).
This changed in 500 BCE, however, when the Classical period emerged. With an increased attention to detail and idealized perception of human anatomy, Classical sculptors strived for perfection in their work. Consequently, they shifted their focus from kouros and kore figures to a diverse and divine cast of characters from mythology.
This approach was taken a step further in 323 BCE. At this time, sculptors adapted Classical techniques to render realistic figures. This trend lasted for nearly 200 years and culminated in what is now known as the Hellenistic period.
In order to achieve this lifelike aesthetic, Hellenistic sculptors skillfully incorporated three characteristics into their work: expressive movement, realistic anatomy, and ornate details.
In order to make their sculptures look as human as possible, sculptors employed dynamic silhouettes and sinuous forms to suggest motion. This emphasis on expressive and exaggerated movement is particularly apparent in Laocoön and His Sons, one of the period's most famous masterpieces.
Inspired by a Greek epic, the statue depicts three figures—Laocoön, a priest from Troy, and his two sons, Antiphantes and Thymbraeu—as they desperately try to escape from a pair of coiled serpents. As they dramatically twist and turn, they appear to entangle themselves even more, culminating in the swirling, action-packed scene that perfectly illustrates the Hellenistic interest in movement.
This preoccupation with movement also informed the Hellenistic focus on anatomy. Breaking from “the universal, emotionless, and often rigid poses of the Archaic” (Google Arts & Culture) and building on Classical models, Hellenistic artists crafted sculptures inspired by real human postures. Rather than posed in unrealistically erect positions, figures like the Venus de Milo were rendered in an asymmetrical stance. Known as contrapposto (“counterpose”), this pose implies movement through the use of realistic weight distribution and an S-shaped body.
In addition to natural poses, Hellenistic artists sought to replicate the bodies of real humans. While this is evident in the unidealized sculptures of gods that were prevalent during the period, it also manifested as statues of ordinary people. “One of the immediate results of the new international Hellenistic milieu was the widened range of subject matter that had little precedent in earlier Greek art,” the Metropolitan Museum of Art explains, “There are representations of unorthodox subjects, such as grotesques, and of more conventional inhabitants, such as children and elderly people.”
A final characteristic of Hellenistic sculpture is a striking attention to detail. In addition to realistic anatomical features, this is evident in drapery—a sculptural element that proved particularly popular during this time.
Sculptors opted to adorn their figures with “fabric” for three main reasons: to accentuate the suggested movement of the figure, emphasize the contours of its lifelike anatomy, and to showcase their sculpting skills. Known as “wet drapery,” this technique first appeared during the Classical period and was adopted and adapted by Hellenistic artists.
Over the course of several centuries, Hellenistic sculpture has remained one of the practice's most influential genres. Throughout the Renaissance, its emphasis on anatomy was emulated by Italian artists like Michelangelo; during the Baroque movement, Bernini found inspiration in its dynamic movement; and, in the 19th century, Giovanni Strazza employed the “wet drapery” technique to craft the amazing Veiled Virgin.
Spanning movements, genres, and even centuries, these pieces—among many more—have proven the lasting legacy of Hellenistic sculpture.