Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

Retrospective Styles in Greek and Roman Sculpture

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From at least the fifth century B.C. on, Greek artists deliberately represented certain works of art in the style of previous generations in order to differentiate them from other works in contemporary style. Features of retrospective styles may occur in the pose of a figure, its garment type and drapery pattern, its facial features, or its hairstyle. In Greek and Roman sculpture, two retrospective styles predominate: archaistic and classicizing.


Archaistic, the most common retrospective style in Greek and Roman sculpture, refers to works of art that date after 480 B.C., but share stylistic affinities with works of the Greek Archaic period (ca. 700-480 B.C.). Archaistic figures stand with legs unbent and occasionally with one leg forward. The shoulders and hips are level and the head faces directly forward. In general, the most often imitated costumes are the late Archaic chiton combined with a diagonal himation (1990.247) of the type worn by many korai from the Athenian Akropolis, and the peplos with a long overfold belted at or above the waist (1987.11.2). Archaistic drapery folds typically hang straight, and there is often a broad central pleat. Facial features and hairstyles of archaistic figures usually imitate those of Archaic sculpture-heavy-lidded eyes, high cheekbones, and sometimes a hint of the Archaic smile. The hair is styled with long spiral tresses, and snail curls over the forehead are favored for male figures and herms (03.12.4).


From at least the fifth century B.C. on, Greek artists deliberately represented certain works of art in the style of previous generations in order to differentiate them from other works in contemporary style.

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From the first century B.C. to the second century A.D., the so-called neo-Attic relief sculptors adapted works of previous artistic periods (1991.11.8)—the late Archaic, the mid-fifth century B.C., and the second half of the fourth century B.C.—and regrouped them in compositions, often for decorative purposes (23.184). To what extent neo-Attic artists adhered to their prototypes is a question than can be answered only by carefully considering each work individually.


The function of retrospective style in Greco-Roman sculpture is one of continuing debate. Perhaps Greek and Roman artists intentionally drew upon stylistic features of earlier artistic periods in order to distinguish specific representations as divine or otherworldly. For example, Spes, the personification of hope, is commonly shown as an archaistic maiden. The Hope Dionysos, in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum, features such an archaistic figure (1990.247). Her pose and costume distinctly differ from the figure of Dionysos shown standing at ease and wearing more naturalistically rendered attire.


Retrospective style also distinguishes some statues as boundary markers, or as steadfast guardians. Herms—square pillars topped with a bust of the Greek god Hermes—were used as boundary markers and protective images at doorways and along roads in ancient Greece and Rome. Most herms are represented in a retrospective style, which seems appropriate for an image that needed to remain steadfast in order to function properly (03.12.4). Hekate, goddess of the moon and nocturnal sorcery, was a popular deity and guardian in Greek and Roman times. Triple-bodied representations of the goddess, known as hekateia, frequently stood in front of private homes and at crossroads (1987.11.2). Generally, hekateia are depicted in archaistic costume comprising a peplos with a long, belted overfold, symmetrical pleats, and a triangular pattern of folds at the neckline. The archaistic style endows the hekateia with qualities of permanence and stability.


Generally, an older style also lends an air of venerability and authenticity to a religious image and its cult. And iconography played an important role in the selection of sculptural types. Hellenistic religious preferences may have dictated that an archaistic style be used for images of the Greek god Dionysos, or a classicizing style for statues of the Greek goddess Artemis.


As the political dominance of Rome spread throughout the Mediterranean in the second and first centuries B.C., the Romans increasingly became the chief patrons of Greek art, and the achievements of Classical Greece came to be looked upon with awe and reverence. A neoclassical tradition, centered particularly in Athens, developed late in the second century B.C. It emulated Classical art and catered especially to Roman clientele.


Retrospective styles continued to flourish under the emperor Augustus, who wished his empire to emulate and surpass the achievements of the golden age of Classical Greece. Wealthy Romans filled their villa courtyards and gardens with fountains, sculpture, and monumental vases, many of which were decorated with motifs drawn from the Greek art produced some 500 years earlier (23.184).

Colette Hemingway
Independent Scholar