Sculpture has been a very important part of art history throughout thousands of years. For the past few months I have viewed many different kinds of sculpture, including Greek archaic sculptures, Greek classical sculptures, Greek Hellenistic sculptures and Roman sculptures. All of the sculptures that I have seen and analyzed have very interesting characteristics, but the one that I have analyzed most recently was the most fascinating. Hermes carrying the infant Dionysos, by the artist Praxiteles, was sculpted circa 350 B.C., and the copy that I analyzed, circa second century B.C. This sculpture was from the Greek classical period and is originally from Greece. The original can be seen in the Olympia Museum in Greece, and the replica that I have viewed is in the Sojourner Truth Library on SUNY New Paltz campus.
The sculpture of Hermes carrying the infant Dionysos was a very interesting work of art to look at and analyze. I have viewed this sculpture by means of slides on a flat surface, but after seeing the actual sculpture, I was amazed. When I first approached it, its size was shocking. I was unaware that this figure stood so tall. Hermes and Dionysos together were approximately seven to seven and a half feet tall, and approximately three feet wide, including the base that Hermes was standing on.
As most of Praxiteles’ sculptures were, this sculpture was originally made of marble, but the copy viewed was made of plaster cast. Hermes posture was rather relaxed, with one arm reaching upward, and the other arm bent at the elbow, holding Dionysos. The clothing worn by Hermes and Dionysos was scarce. Both were nude, which was typical during this time period, and Praxiteles was actually the “inventor” of creating nude sculptures. Although the two figures are nude, Hermes is wearing sandals, and the drapery is partially covering Dionysos’ legs. Hermes hairstyle is short, curly and unfinished looking, while Dionysos’ hair is very vague.
Finally, the physical condition of the sculpture is remarkably decent-looking, considering it’s age. Hermes is missing pieces of his body, such as his right arm after his bicep, the left index finger and thumb, and his penis. Hermes’ big toe is chipped, and there are chips and scratches sporadically throughout his body that have been painted over. His left arm and hand seem to have been detached and reattached again as well. As for Dionysos, he is in very good condition except for his left hand, which is missing.
From an artist’s perspective, many other components were considered while viewing this work of art. One of those components was composition. In relation to each other, Hermes is very large while Dionysos is significantly smaller. In relation to the air that surrounds them, the sculpture is well balanced, and is pleasant to the eye. Another component is line. The line in this sculpture is very painterly, except for the drapery, which is very linear. Throughout the body of Hermes a painterly line is very evident. For example, in his torso, the muscles can be seen but they are soft and almost created by shadow. In the drapery, the line is sharp and it is obvious where the folds are. On Dionysos’ legs, contour folds are also evident and give the effect that his legs are underneath the drapery, although you cannot see them.
Form is the third component. The body of Hermes has very subtle form because of how painterly the line is. Form is only direct in the drapery, which has a three-dimensional effect. As for figural style, Hermes’ body is anatomically correct, proportionate and muscular. The only thing that does not seem proportionate is Hermes’ body as opposed to Dionysos. The texture of this sculpture is smooth except for the few sporadic chips, and there is no color, only the use of shadow.
The final component, movement, is very effectively done. Hermes is in a contrapposto stance with one leg forward and bent at the knee, and the right hip is higher than the left. His entire body is in an “s” shape curve, which is because his head is facing left, his right hip is raised and the left one is lowered, and his left leg is forward. This curve is a very effective way to bring the viewer’s eye from the top of the sculpture to the bottom. The fact that Hermes is looking at Dionysos, and then Hermes’ left arm is sticking out is also a very effective technique for movement for the viewer’s eye.
During the time that this sculpture was created, a lot had been going on in Greece. There was a big fear of tyranny, and the statues being created were simply claims of superiority and high status. The people became worried about how these powerful individuals would relate with society. Several Persian defeats had just occurred and Alexander the Great had defeated the Persian Empire. Many wars were occurring at this time, between Athens and Sparta during the end of the fifth century, and many during the first half of the fourth century. Art and culture was not seen as very important, just as a way to dominate others. Now at the start of the fourth century, people were living for themselves and no longer for the state.
This change brought forth the growth of philosophy and individualism. This greatly effected the development of art. Political events such as the Peoponnesian War caused sculpture of the fourth century to be much different. Art was now more intimate and personal due to many people wanting to improve their homes and create shrines for gods. This new art had a lot of emotion.
Classical sculpture was a big change because figures seemed to move more naturally. There was a newfound realization that one part of the human body couldn’t move without affecting other parts of the body. The growth of philosophy brought forth this realization, and physicians now had the knowledge and understanding of muscular systems. Once they shared this knowledge in terms of mechanics, the sculptors began to experiment with the human body in motion.
Bronze was used because of its ability to look fluid and flexible, and then the Romans made copies of these sculptures in marble. By replicating the sculptures into marble, supports had to be added, which is evident in Hermes carrying the infant Dionysos. Sculptures during the classical period were also very complex, but at the same time casual, and they were also harmonious, rhythmic, and proportional.
Praxiteles, the sculptor of Hermes carrying the infant Dionysos, was one of the greatest artists during this period, what people called “The Great Age”. Praxiteles was Athenian, and a leader of The Great Age. He is also the only artist from who we still have original work. Praxiteles’ style has many traits. His sculptures are often youthful, graceful and beautiful. The eyes of sculptures often have a “dreamy” look to them, high, curving skulls, flat cheeks, long, narrow eyes, a delicate mouth, smooth flesh, and rough hair.
Another work of art by Praxiteles, called the Bartlett Aphrodite, had the same traits almost exactly, especially the dramatic, shadowy eyes. Many artists during this time period tried to imitate Praxiteles’ style. This is evident in the sculpture Goddess From Chios. The traits in this sculpture are much more exaggerated. The forehead, for example, is more curved, the cheek bones are neglected, the nose is flat, and the top of the head is in the shape of a triangle.
Another artist during the classical period, Scopas, sculpted something much different than that of Hermes carrying the infant Dionysos. The head that Scopas sculpted from The Temple of Athena Alea at Tegea has a feeling of stress and violent emotion, rather than relaxed emotion. The eyes are round and wide open, there is an upward gaze, an open mouth, and small nostrils. This just shows us how different sculptors’ techniques were during the same period of time.
Many sculptors had many different techniques during the classical period in Greece. Praxiteles, the great one, the “inventor” of nude sculptures, created an astonishing and fascinating sculpture Hermes carrying the infant Dionysos. And only after seeing this work of art in person, and analyzing it have I realized it’s truly a great work of art. With it’s dramatic eyes, fascinating stance, and change in line from painterly and smooth to linear and drastic, this work of art definitely shows why Praxiteles was considered so great in the early centuries. Hermes carrying the infant Dionysos was definitely enlightening to learn about and more interesting to look at and enjoy.