The transition from the Classical to the Hellenistic period occurred during the 4th century BCE. Following the conquests of Alexander the Great (336 to 323 BCE), Greek culture spread as far as India, as revealed by the excavations of Ai-Khanoum in eastern Afghanistan, and the civilization of the Greco-Bactrians and the Indo-Greeks. Greco-Buddhist art represented a syncretism between Greek art and the visual expression of Buddhism.
Thus Greek art became more diverse and more influenced by the cultures of the peoples drawn into the Greek orbit. In the view of some art historians, it also declined in quality and originality; this, however, is a judgement which artists and art-lovers of the time would not have shared. Indeed, many sculptures previously considered as classical masterpieces have turned out to be of the Hellenistic age. Also, the technical ability of the Hellenistic sculptors are clearly in evidence in such major works as the Winged Victory of Samothrace, and the Pergamon Altar. New centres of Greek culture, particularly in sculpture, developed in Alexandria, Antioch, Pergamum, and other cities. By the 2nd century BCE, the rising power of Rome had also absorbed much of the Greek tradition—and an increasing proportion of its products as well.
During this period, sculpture became more and more naturalistic. Common people, women, children, animals and domestic scenes became acceptable subjects for sculpture, which was commissioned by wealthy families for the adornment of their homes and gardens. Realistic portraits of men and women of all ages were produced, and sculptors no longer felt obliged to depict people as ideals of beauty or physical perfection. At the same time, the new Hellenistic cities springing up all over Egypt, Syria, and Anatolia required statues depicting the gods and heroes of Greece for their temples and public places. This made sculpture, like pottery, an industry, with the consequent standardisation and some lowering of quality. For these reasons many more Hellenistic statues have survived than is the case with the Classical period.
Some of the best known Hellenistic sculptures are the Winged Victory of Samothrace (2nd or 1st century BCE), the statue of Aphrodite from the island of Melos known as the Venus de Milo (mid-2nd century BCE), the Dying Gaul (about 230 BCE), and the monumental group Laocoön and His Sons (late 1st century BCE). All these statues depict Classical themes, but their treatment is far more sensuous and emotional than the austere taste of the Classical period would have allowed or its technical skills permitted.
Discoveries made since the end of the 19th century surrounding the (now submerged) ancient Egyptian city of Heracleum include a 4th century BCE, unusually sensual, detailed and feministic (as opposed to deified) depiction of Isis, marking a combination of Egyptian and Hellenistic forms beginning around the time of Egypt's conquest by Alexander the Great.
Hellenistic sculpture was also marked by an increase in scale, which culminated in the Colossus of Rhodes (late 3rd century BCE), which was the same size as the Statue of Liberty. The combined effect of earthquakes and looting have destroyed this as well as other very large works of this period.
Antinous (Roman Hellenistic), Delphi Archaeological Museum
The Winged Victory of Samothrace (Hellenistic), The Louvre, Paris
Laocoön and His Sons (Late Hellenistic), Vatican Museum
Jockey of Artemision. Late Hellenistic bronze statue of a mounted jockey, National Archaeological Museum, Athens.
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