Praxiteles (active ca. 370-330 B.C.) was one of the leading Greek sculptors of the 4th century B.C. His style, refined and graceful, greatly influenced the art of his own time and the succeeding epochs.
Praxiteles was probably the son of Kephisodotos, an Athenian sculptor, since he named one of his own sons Kephisodotos, and the same name ran in families in alternate generations. Pliny the Elder, in his Naturalis historia, places Praxiteles in the 104th Olympiad, or 364-361 B.C., and the base of a portrait statue from Leuktra bearing an inscription stating that Praxiteles the Athenian made it dates from about 330 B.C. These are the only definite dates we have regarding him.
At the beginning of the 4th century B.C. Athenian civilization had undergone profound changes. The disillusionment with civic values caused by the Peloponnesian War had turned artistic taste away from the idealism of Phidias's art toward a more humanized, personal view of the world and the gods. Praxiteles brought the gods down to a human level; he made them less majestic but gave them a consummate grace.
The marble Hermes Holding the Infant Dionysos was found in 1877 in the Heraion at Olympia, where Pausanias, who ascribes it to Praxiteles, had seen it in the 2d century A.D. Whether it is a Greek original, a Greek copy, or a good Roman copy, the statue is one of the finest ancient works preserved and shows the salient characteristics of the sculptor's style. Praxiteles softened the precisely articulated rendering of musculature of the previous century into a softer, fluid harmony of subtly modulated surfaces; and for the architectonically balanced composition of Polykleitos he substituted a languid S-curve. This curve, often called the "Praxitelean curve, " is a hallmark of his sculpture.
In antiquity the most famous work by Praxiteles was the marble Aphrodite (Venus) of Knidos. His openly sensuous treatment of the nude female form was a new feature in Greek art and created an ideal type that endured until the end of antiquity. Pliny tells us that this work made the city of Knidos famous and that it was "the finest statue not only by Praxiteles but in the whole world." Athenaios adds that Phryne, Praxiteles's mistress, was the model. There are a number of Roman copies of the statue, and it is reproduced on Roman coins from Knidos.
According to Pausanias, the base of Praxiteles's statue Leto and Her Children at Mantinea was decorated with a scene depicting Apollo, Marsyas, and the Muses. Three slabs from the base were found in 1877 at Mantinea: two show three Muses each, lovely draped figures, and the third depicts Marsyas playing the flute and Apollo with his Phrygian slave. The base may have been executed by one of Praxiteles's students, working from the master's designs.
The Apollo Sauroktonos ("lizard slayer") by Praxiteles is known from Pliny's description of it, fairly accurate Roman copies in both marble and bronze (Pliny lists it with the sculptor's bronze works), and the Roman coins from Philippopolis in Thrace and Nikopolis on the Danube. Apollo is represented as a boy leaning against a tree trunk waiting to kill a lizard with an arrow. The sinuous figure of the dreamy god perhaps illustrates better than any other work by Praxiteles how his vision of the gods differed from the emotionally neutral images of his 5th-century predecessors.
Ancient authors mention many other works by Praxiteles, and almost all have been connected with anonymous originals or copies in various museums. These include the famous Eros, which Pausanias says Phryne dedicated in her native city, Thespiai; a young satyr pouring wine, a bronze statue seen by Pausanias in the Street of the Tripods in Athens; the cult image of Artemis Brauroniaon the Acropolis in Athens; and an image of Eubouleus, the swinehered of Eleusinian myth, at Eleusis.
Praxiteles's two sons, Kephisodotos and Timarchos, worked in the tradition of their father. The Praxitelean school profoundly influenced Hellenistic sculpture in its choice of themes and their formal realization. The soft fusion of planes and delicate expression of his style can be seen in particular in early Hellenistic sculpture and minor arts, for example, the Tanagra terra-cotta figurines.
The best work is in Italian: G. E. Rizzo, Prassitele (1932). Praxiteles is discussed in all general surveys of ancient Greek sculpture, among the finest of which is Gisela M. A. Richter, The Sculpture and Sculptors of the Greeks (4th ed. 1970). □
c. 400 b.c.e.–Before 326 b.c.e.
Leading Greek Sculptor.
Praxiteles of Athens was the leading Greek sculptor of the fourth century b.c.e. and introduced several innovations to the medium that significantly influenced Hellenistic sculpture. He more than likely belonged to a family of sculptors; his own sons, Cephisodotus and Timarchus, followed in his footsteps, and the fact that he named his first son Cephisodotus indicates that his own father was also Cephisodotus (given names skipped a generation). Praxiteles' father is likely the Cephisodotus who carved a famous statue of Eirene (Peace) and Ploutos (Wealth) which was set up in the marketplace in Athens in the 370s, perhaps after 374 b.c.e. when Athens made peace with Sparta. The statue betrays some of the characteristics for which Praxiteles would be famous, including a humanizing of the gods that is a departure from the more formal representations of the gods in the fifth century b.c.e.Eirene is shown as a goddess carrying the infant boy Ploutos on her left arm. Cephisodotus managed to portray the psychological interaction between the goddess and the child: the goddess looks tenderly at him, and he stretches out his hand to her in a gesture of trust. On the immediate level this is a portrayal of a mother and child; only after a moment's thought does the onlooker realize that this is an allegorical sculpture.
The same tenderness is evident in the one genuine statue of Praxiteles that has survived, his Hermes and the Infant Dionysus found in the temple of Hera at Olympia in 1877. While it is unclear whether the statue is the original or a copy, Praxiteles' distinctive style is obvious. Instead of the defined muscles of the previous century's statuary, Praxiteles created statues with softer, more fluid lines, and composed his statues along a languid 'S-curve' that became known as the "Praxitelean curve." His Apollo Sauroctonus also illustrates the dreamy quality of Praxiteles' work. The statue of the god Apollo as a young boy has him leaning against a tree trunk, on the verge of killing a lizard with an arrow. Roman copies of the work in both bronze and marble highlight Praxiteles' ability to portray the gods as emotional beings.
Aphrodite of Cnidus.
Praxiteles worked both in bronze and marble, but marble seems to have been his most successful medium. Marble was the material for his most famous statue, the Aphrodite of Cnidus, that brought tourists to Cnidus, anxious to view the statue. It was the first statue to show a woman naked, and its appeal was perhaps more erotic than artistic. The goddess is shown as if she was surprised by an intruder while she was bathing. One hand shields her pudenda from view, but there is a slight smile on her lips and a hint of welcome to her expression. The statue was exhibited at Cnidus so that it could be viewed from all angles, and it was the first of many female nudes that Greek sculptors would produce.
Altogether seventy works have been associated with Praxiteles, though some may be by members of his workshop. He died sometime before 326 b.c.e., leaving his sons to carry on his style. The Praxitelean school became enormously influential in early Hellenistic sculpture as other sculptors sought to emulate the delicacy of expression and fluid lines he introduced in his works.
A. Ajootian, "Praxiteles," in Personal Styles in Greek Sculpture. Ed. Olga Palagia and J. J. Pollitt (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996): 91–119.
Rhys Carpenter, Greek Sculpture: A Critical Review (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960).
Andrew Stewart, Attika: Studies in Athenian Sculpture of the Hellenistic Age (London, England: Society for the Promotion of Hellenic Studies, 1979).
Flourished 370-330 b.c.e.
Marble Medium . An Athenian sculptor, Praxiteles worked in marble and to a lesser extent in bronze. He was particularly interested in the surface finish of his works and apparently admired best his marble statues that had been painted over by Nicias. He depicted several youthful gods such as Erôs for the people of Thespiae and another at Parium, satyrs, nymphs, a languid young Apollo killing a lizard (Sauroktonos) and Dionysus, among others. The bronze Marathon Boy may be traceable to a Praxitelean workshop. The famous marble Hermes Carrying the Infant Dionyus at Olympia, long thought to be one of his works, may postdate Praxiteles, though others think it may be an original. According to Vitruvius, he also worked on the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus, another of the Seven Wonders, and collaborated with other sculptors on athletic pieces such as chariot monuments.
Public Sensation . By far his most famous work, and one of the most written about pieces of ancient art, was his Aphrodite of Knidos or Knidia, known from copies and traceable to reproductions on local coins. Though Aphrodite had been depicted in diaphanous drapery or in various states of undress earlier, Praxiteles created a sensation by sculpting a monumental, totally nude statue of her, to be placed in a circular colonnaded shrine to offer the viewer the maximum number of vantage points. He is supposed to have used his mistress, Phryne, as his model, who apparently modeled for him for other works also. Ancient sources tell anecdotes of young men so besotted with the Cnidia that they tried to make love to it (as had happened with Praxiteles’ statue of Erôs at Parium); Nicomedes, a king of Bithynia, even offered to buy the Aphrodite by paying the national debt of Knidos. The fame of the statue eventually turned Knidos into a tourist mecca and ensured that the Praxitelean style depicting the ideal female form became standard in ancient art.
Franciscus Junius, The Literature of Classical Art, 2 volumes, edited and translated by Keith Aldrich, Philipp Fehl, and Raina Fehl (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991).