Classical art generally refers to the style, which was created in the 5th and 4th centuries B.C. During this period new attitudes and new perspectives were shaping the world and the importance of the individual was paramount. Classical artists echoed the sentiments of this rapidly changing paradigm, seeking to celebrate the individual through their work. The human figure became the most significant image, and was presented in an increasingly realistic manner in order to emphasize its unique qualities. It was this revolutionary approach to art that determined the future course of arts in Greek and Roman antiquity, and forever changed the landscape of Western art.
After Greece defeated the Persians in 479 B.C., Athens became the political, social and economic epicenter of the state. By 454 B.C., when the Treasury was moved to Athens, the city had become one of the wealthiest imperial powers in the world. After many years of conflict and turmoil, a sense of stability and permanence had finally been established. Vitality and vivacity pulsed throughout the city, permeating all aspects of society. This was most clearly seen in the visual arts. Greek artists of this period possessed a sense of pride in their state that was conveyed through their work.
In Classical Greece, architecture became a public statement of civic pride in the city’s present power and past achievements. By this point, the use of marble was no longer limited to temples, and often used in the construction of public administrative buildings, and eventually theaters and assembly halls. In this respect, the architectural ambition and the desire to convey structural grandeur was quite apparent.
Most architectural endeavors depended on patronage from the state, where artists were commissioned by its magistrates or by the priestly families. The state also possessed the power to commission sculptural dedications to honor military achievements or certain individuals. These sculptures were often built of bronze or marble, and on a scale commensurate with the structure itself. To celebrate the battle of Marathon, the Athenian state commissioned a new temple dedicated to Athena on the Acropolis and later commissioned the artist Phidias to create a 40-foot tall bronze statue of Athena to adorn the structure. The state also commissioned bronze sculptures of deities, heroes, and generals to stand at Delphi, where they could remind the public of their role in protecting their freedom.
During the Peloponnesian War (431 - 404 B.C.), Athens suffered irreparable damage and lost its primacy. Still, the artistic progress of the 5th century continued unabated into the 4th century B.C.. By this point, Classical Art had acquired a new direction that set it apart from the record of all other early cultures. Artists were determined to present the world in terms of man rather than the divine or supernatural. They placed less emphasis on gods endowed with exceptional powers and more on their fundamentally human behavior and tendencies. For the first time, artists realized they could essentially improve upon nature through realistic representation, instead of readapting conceptual formulas of how to express the natural world. In this respect, they believed they could create a more effective image.
Artists approached their work with a realism that soon developed into an interest in the individual. Portraiture became exceedingly popular, and the expression of emotion was often carried out to highly idealized extremes. Artists developed a more discerning observation of structure and an understanding of the human figure as more than a formulaic assemblage of shape and form.
This fascination with the human figure gave rise to the high water mark of the Classical style—the nude male. Artists portrayed the human form with greater attention to detail and shape than ever before. The symmetry and proportional accuracy was unparalleled.
Throughout the 4th century B.C. Athens continued to decline, and power soon shifted to Macedonia, which had become a formidable state under Philip II. An ambitious ruler, Philip’s military and political achievements soon secured the Macedonian royal court as the leading center of Greek culture. Alexander the Great, Philip’s son, continued his father’s conquests, conquering the Persian empire of western Asia and Egypt as well as Central Asia. Under Alexander, the arts flourished, as he played a pivotal role in ensuring the propagation of the Greek style both at home and abroad.
The artistic importance of the 5th and 4th centuries B.C. cannot be underestimated. It was a phenomenon of antiquity, continuing well into the Roman Empire, which created an artistic ambience of its own. Though even today, Classical Art continues to influence artists as its power has transcended time and genre. With such profound prominence and lasting influence, there is no wonder as to why Classical Art is one of the most important styles in the history of the world.