Visiting Sleeping Beauties: Reawakening Fashion?

You must join the virtual exhibition queue when you arrive. If capacity has been reached for the day, the queue will close early.

Learn more

Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Greek Art in the Archaic Period

A striking change appears in Greek art of the seventh century B.C., the beginning of the Archaic period. The abstract geometric patterning that was dominant between about 1050 and 700 B.C. is supplanted in the seventh century by a more naturalistic style reflecting significant influence from the Near East and Egypt. Trading stations in the Levant and the Nile Delta, continuing Greek colonization in the east and west, as well as contact with eastern craftsmen, notably on Crete and Cyprus, inspired Greek artists to work in techniques as diverse as gem cutting, ivory carving, jewelry making, and metalworking (1989.281.49-.50). Eastern pictorial motifs were introduced—palmette and lotus compositions, animal hunts, and such composite beasts as griffins (part bird, part lion), sphinxes (part woman, part winged lion), and sirens (part woman, part bird). Greek artists rapidly assimilated foreign styles and motifs into new portrayals of their own myths and customs, thereby forging the foundations of Archaic and Classical Greek art.

The Greek world of the seventh and sixth centuries B.C. consisted of numerous autonomous city-states, or poleis, separated one from the other by mountains and the sea. Greek settlements stretched all the way from the coast of Asia Minor and the Aegean islands, to mainland Greece, Sicily, North Africa, and even Spain. As they grew in wealth and power, the poleis on the coast of Asia Minor and neighboring islands competed with one another in the construction of sanctuaries with huge stone temples. Lyric poetry, the primary literary medium of the day, attained new heights in the work of such notable poets as Archilochos of Paros and Sappho of Lesbos. Contact with prosperous centers like Sardis in Lydia, which was ruled in the sixth century B.C. by the legendary king Croesus, influenced eastern Greek art. Sculptors in the Aegean islands, notably on Naxos and Samos, carved large-scale statues in marble. Goldsmiths on Rhodes specialized in fine jewelry, and bronzeworkers on Crete fashioned armor and plaques decorated with superb reliefs (1989.281.49-.50).

The prominent artistic centers of mainland Greece—notably Sparta, Corinth, and Athens—also exhibited significant regional variation. Sparta and its neighbors in Lakonia produced remarkable ivory carvings and distinctive bronzes (38.11.3). Corinthian artisans invented a style of silhouetted forms (1997.36) that focused on tapestry-like patterns of small animals and plant motifs. By contrast, the vase painters of Athens were more inclined to illustrate mythological scenes. Despite variance in dialect—even the way the alphabet was written varied from region to region at this time—the Greek language was a major unifying factor in Greece. Furthermore, Greek-speaking people came together for festivals and the games that were held at the major Panhellenic sanctuaries on mainland Greece, such as Olympia and Delphi. Dedications at these sanctuaries included many works from the eastern and western regions of Greece.

Throughout the sixth century B.C., Greek artists made increasingly naturalistic representations of the human figure. During this period, two types of freestanding, large-scale sculptures predominated: the male kouros, or standing nude youth, and the female kore, or standing draped maiden. Among the earliest examples of the type, the kouros in the Metropolitan Museum (32.11.1) reveals Egyptian influence in both its pose and proportions. Erected in sanctuaries and in cemeteries outside the city walls, these large stone statues served as dedications to the gods or as grave markers. Athenian aristocrats frequently erected expensive funerary monuments in the city and its environs, especially for members of their family who had died young. Such monuments also took the form of stelai, often decorated in relief.

Sanctuaries were a focus of artistic achievement at this time and served as major repositories of works of art. The two main orders of Greek architecture—the Doric order of mainland Greece and the western colonies, and the Ionic order of the Greek cities on the coast of Asia Minor and the Ionian islands—were well established by the beginning of the sixth century B.C. Temple architecture continued to be refined throughout the century by a process of vibrant experimentation, often through building projects initiated by rulers such as Peisistratos of Athens and Polykrates of Samos. These buildings were often embellished with sculptural figures of stone or terracotta (26.60.73), paintings (now mostly lost), and elaborate moldings. True narrative scenes in relief sculpture appeared in the latter part of the sixth century B.C., as artists became increasingly interested in showing figures, especially the human figure, in motion. About 566 B.C., Athens established the Panathenaic games. Statues of victorious athletes were erected as dedications in Greek sanctuaries, and trophy amphorai were decorated with the event in which the athlete had triumphed.

Creativity and innovation took many forms during the sixth century B.C. The earliest known Greek scientist, Thales of Miletos, demonstrated the cycles of nature and successfully predicted a solar eclipse and the solstices. Pythagoras of Samos, famous today for the theorem in geometry that bears his name, was an influential and forward-thinking mathematician. In Athens, the lawgiver and poet Solon instituted groundbreaking reforms and established a written code of laws. Meanwhile, potters (both native and foreign-born) mastered Corinthian techniques in Athens, and by 550 B.C., Athenian—also called “Attic” for the region around Athens—black-figure pottery dominated the export market throughout the Mediterranean region. Athenian vases of the second half of the sixth century B.C. provide a wealth of iconography illuminating numerous aspects of Greek culture, including funerary rites, daily life, symposia, athletics, warfare, religion, and mythology. Among the great painters of Attic black-figure vases, Sophilos, Kleitias, Nearchos, Lydos, Exekias, and the Amasis Painter experimented with a variety of techniques to overcome the limitations of black-figure painting with its emphasis on silhouette and incised detail. The consequent invention of the red-figure technique, which offered greater opportunities for drawing and eventually superseded black-figure, is conventionally dated about 530 B.C. and attributed to the workshop of the potter Andokides.