PAINTING
IN THE
CLASSICAL WORLD
ANCIENT GREEK PAINTING
With ancient Greek sculpture we saw that there was a progression of style—as if each sculptor tried to outdo his
predecessor by creating works that were more carefully observed and more lively. Even though Greek sculpture was
influenced by Egyptian art, by the 5th century BCE there was much more interest in capturing what our eyes see,
rather than creating works seemed unchanging for eternity. The same sort of move toward greater naturalism is
seen in Greek painting, but with an added challenge: creating what looks like the real world on a two dimensional
surface means you are creating an illusion. Techniques to create illusionism had to be learned, since other cultures
like the Egyptians, did not share this desire. Below is a typical Egyptian painting depicting the human figure in a
conceptual pose which shows all the important parts of the body in the clearest possible way (head and feet from
the side; torso and eyes frontally).
Egyptian Hunting Scene, c. 1350 BCE
Although modern artist have questioned and rejected the idea of illusionism, it was definitely something that people
in ancient Greece found fascinating. There is clear evidence from Greek vases that artists competed with each other,
while written evidence confirms this competitiveness and shows that some Greek artists became famous for creating
incredibly realistic paintings. Here is a description of a contest between the 5th century BCE Greek painters Zeuxis
and Parrhasios, as recorded by Pliny the Elder in the first century CE:
The story runs that Parrhasios and Zeuxis entered into competition, Zeuxis exhibiting a picture of some
grapes, so true to nature that the birds flew up to the [painting]. Parrhasios then displayed a picture of a
linen curtain, realistic to such a degree that Zeuxis, elated by the verdict of the birds, cried out that now his
rival must draw the curtain and show his picture. On discovering his mistake he surrendered the prize to
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