Reflections on the Painting and Sculpture of the Greeks

Johann Joachim Winckelmann, 1756

To The Lord Scarsdale,

My Lord, with becoming gratitude for your Lordship’s condescension in granting such a noble Asylum to a Stranger, I humbly presume to shelter this Translation under your Lordship’s Patronage. If I have been able to do justice to my Author, your Lordship’s accurate Jugment, and fine Taste, will naturally protect his Work: But I must rely wholly on your known Candour and Goodness for the pardon of many imperfections in the language. I am, with the most profound respect, My Lord, Your Lordship’s most obliged, most obedient, and most humble servant,

Henry Fusseli. LONDON, 10 April, 1765.

On the Imitation of the Painting
and Sculpture of the Greeks


To the Greek climate we owe the production of TASTE, and from thence it spread at length over all the politer world. Every invention, communicated by foreigners to that nation, was but the feed of what it became afterwards, changing both its nature and size in a country, chosen, as Plato[1] says, by Minerva, to be inhabited by the Greeks, as productive of every kind of genius.

But this TASTE was not only original among the Greeks, but seemed also quite peculiar to their country: it seldom went abroad without loss; and was long ere it imparted its kind influences to more distant climes. It was, doubtless, a stranger to the northern zones, when Painting and Sculpture, those offsprings of Greece, were despised there to such a degree, that the most valuable pieces of Corregio served only for blinds to the windows of the royal stables at Stockholm.

There is but one way for the moderns to become great, and perhaps unequalled; I mean, by imitating the ancients. And what we are told of Homer, that whoever understands him well, admires him, we find no less true in matters concerning the ancient, especially the Greek arts. But then we must be as familiar with them as with a friend, to find Laocoon as inimitable as Homer. By such intimacy our judgment will be that of Nicomachus: Take these eyes, replied he to some paltry critic, censuring the Helen of Zeuxis, Take my eyes, and she will appear a goddess.

With such eyes Michael Angelo, Raphael, and Poussin, considered the performances of the ancients. They imbibed taste at its source; and Raphael particularly in its native country. We know, that he sent young artists to Greece, to copy there, for his use, the remains of antiquity.

An ancient Roman statue, compared to a Greek one, will generally appear like Virgil’s Diana amidst her Oreads, in comparison of the Nausicaa of Homer, whom he imitated.

Laocoon was the standard of the Roman artists, as well as ours; and the rules of Polycletus became the rules of art.

I need not put the reader in mind of the negligences to be met with in the most celebrated ancient performances: the Dolphin at the feet of the Medicean Venus, with the children, and the Parerga of the Diomedes by Dioscorides, being commonly known. The reverse of the best Egyptian and Syrian coins seldom equals the head, in point of workmanship. Great artists are wisely negligent, and even their errors instruct. Behold their works as Lucian bids you behold the Zeus of Phidias; Zeus himself, not his footstool.

It is not only Nature which the votaries of the Greeks find in their works, but still more, something superior to nature; ideal beauties, brain-born images, as Proclus says [2].

The most beautiful body of ours would perhaps be as much inferior to the most beautiful Greek one, as Iphicles was to his brother Hercules. The forms of the Greeks, prepared to beauty, by the influence of the mildest and purest sky, became perfectly elegant by their early exercises. Take a Spartan youth, sprung from heroes, undistorted by swaddling-cloths; whose bed, from his seventh year, was the earth, familiar with wrestling and swimming from his infancy; and compare him with one of our young Sybarits, and then decide which of the two would be deemed worthy, by an artist, to serve for the model of a Theseus, an Achilles, or even a Bacchus. The latter would produce a Theseus fed on roses, the former a Theseus fed on flesh, to borrow the expression of Euphranor.

The grand games were always a very strong incentive for every Greek youth to exercise himself. Whoever aspired to the honors of these was obliged, by the laws, to submit to a trial of ten months at Elis, the general rendezvous; and there the first rewards were commonly won by youths, as Pindar tells us. [3] To be like the God-like Diagoras, was the fondest wish of every youth.

Behold the swift Indian outstripping in pursuit the hart: how briskly his juices circulate! how flexible, how elastic his nerves and muscles! how easy his whole frame! Thus Homer draws his heroes, and his Achilles he eminently marks for “being swift of foot.”

By these exercises the bodies of the Greeks got the great and manly Contour observed in their statues, without any bloated corpulency. The young Spartans were bound to appear every tenth day naked before the Ephori, who, when they perceived any inclinable to fatness, ordered them a scantier diet; nay, it was one of Pythagoras’s precepts, to beware of growing too corpulent; and, perhaps for the same reason, youths aspiring to wrestling-games were, in the remoter ages of Greece, during their trial, confined to a milk diet.

They were particularly cautious in avoiding every deforming custom; and Alcibiades, when a boy, refusing to learn to play on the flute, for fear of its discomposing his features, was followed by all the youth of Athens.

In their dress they were professed followers of nature. No modern stiffening habit, no squeezing stays hindered Nature from forming easy beauty; the fair knew no anxiety about their attire, and from their loose and short habits the Spartan girls got the epithet of Phænomirides.

We know what pains they took to have handsome children, but want to be acquainted with their methods: for certainly Quillet, in his Callipædy, falls short of their numerous expedients. They even attempted changing blue eyes to black ones, and games of beauty were exhibited at Elis, the rewards consisting of arms consecrated to the temple of Minerva. How could they miss of competent and learned judges, when, as Aristotle tells us, the Grecian youths were taught drawing expressly for that purpose? From their fine complexion, which, though mingled with a vast deal of foreign blood, is still preserved in most of the Greek islands, and from the still enticing beauty of the fair sex, especially at Chios; we may easily form an idea of the beauty of the former inhabitants, who boasted of being Aborigines, nay, more ancient than the moon.

And are not there several modern nations, among whom beauty is too common to give any title to pre-eminence? Such are unanimously accounted the Georgians and the Kabardinski in the Crim.

Those diseases which are destructive of beauty, were moreover unknown to the Greeks. There is not the least hint of the small-pox, in the writings of their physicians; and Homer, whose portraits are always so truly drawn, mentions not one pitted face. Venereal plagues, and their daughter the English malady, had not yet names.

And must we not then, considering every advantage which nature bestows, or art teaches, for forming, preserving, and improving beauty, enjoyed and applied by the Grecians; must we not then confess, there is the strongest probability that the beauty of their persons excelled all we can have an idea of?

Art claims liberty: in vain would nature produce her noblest offsprings, in a country where rigid laws would choak her progressive growth, as in Egypt, that pretended parent of sciences and arts: but in Greece, where, from their earliest youth, the happy inhabitants were devoted to mirth and pleasure, where narrow-spirited formality never restrained the liberty of manners, the artist enjoyed nature without a veil.

The Gymnasies, where, sheltered by public modesty, the youths exercised themselves naked, were the schools of art. These the philosopher frequented, as well as the artist. Socrates for the instruction of a Charmides, Autolycus, Lysis; Phidias for the improvement of his art by their beauty. Here he studied the elasticity of the muscles, the ever varying motions of the frame, the outlines of fair forms, or the Contour left by the young wrestler on the sand. Here beautiful nakedness appeared with such a liveliness of expression, such truth and variety of situations, such a noble air of the body, as it would be ridiculous to look for in any hired model of our academies.

Truth springs from the feelings of the heart. What shadow of it therefore can the modern artist hope for, by relying upon a vile model, whose soul is either too base to feel, or too stupid to express the passions, the sentiment his object claims? unhappy he! if experience and fancy fail him.

The beginning of many of Plato’s dialogues, supposed to have been held in the Gymnasies, cannot raise our admiration of the generous souls of the Athenian youth, without giving us, at the same time, a strong presumption of a suitable nobleness in their outward carriage and bodily exercises.

The fairest youths danced undressed on the theatre; and Sophocles, the great Sophocles, when young, was the first who dared to entertain his fellow-citizens in this manner. Phryne went to bathe at the Eleusinian games, exposed to the eyes of all Greece, and rising from the water became the model of Venus Anadyomene. During certain solemnities the young Spartan maidens danced naked before the young men: strange this may seem, but will appear more probable, when we consider that the christians of the primitive church, both men and women, were dipped together in the same font.

Then every solemnity, every festival, afforded the artist opportunity to familiarize himself with all the beauties of Nature.

In the most happy times of their freedom, the humanity of the Greeks abhorred bloody games, which even in the Ionick Asia had ceased long before, if, as some guess, they had once been usual there. Antiochus Epiphanes, by ordering shews of Roman gladiators, first presented them with such unhappy victims; and custom and time, weakening the pangs of sympathizing humanity, changed even these games into schools of art. There Ctesias studied his dying gladiator, in whom you might descry “how much life was still left in him[4].”

These frequent occasions of observing Nature, taught the Greeks to go on still farther. They began to form certain general ideas of beauty, with regard to the proportions of the inferiour parts, as well as of the whole frame: these they raised above the reach of mortality, according to the superiour model of some ideal nature.

Thus Raphael formed his Galatea, as we learn by his letter to Count Baltazar Castiglione[5], where he says, “Beauty being so seldom found among the fair, I avail myself of a certain ideal image.”

According to those ideas, exalted above the pitch of material models, the Greeks formed their gods and heroes: the profile of the brow and nose of gods and goddesses is almost a streight line. The same they gave on their coins to queens, &c. but without indulging their fancy too much. Perhaps this profile was as peculiar to the antient Greeks, as flat noses and little eyes to the Calmucks and Chinese; a supposition which receives some strength from the large eyes of all the heads on Greek coins and gems.

From the same ideas the Romans formed their Empresses on their coins. Livia and Agrippina have the profile of Artemisia and Cleopatra.

We observe, nevertheless, that the Greek artists in general, submitted to the law prescribed by the Thebans: “To do, under a penalty, their best in imitating Nature.” For, where they could not possibly apply their easy profile, without endangering the resemblance, they followed Nature, as we see instanced in the beauteous head of Julia, the daughter of Titus, done by Euodus[6].

But to form a “just resemblance, and, at the same time, a handsomer one,” being always the chief rule they observed, and which Polygnotus constantly went by; they must, of necessity, be supposed to have had in view a more beauteous and more perfect Nature. And when we are told, that some artists imitated Praxiteles, who took his concubine Cratina for the model of his Cnidian Venus; or that others formed the graces from Lais; it is to be understood that they did so, without neglecting these great laws of the art. Sensual beauty furnished the painter with all that nature could give; ideal beauty with the awful and sublime; from that he took the Humane, from this the Divine.

Let any one, sagacious enough to pierce into the depths of art, compare the whole system of the Greek figures with that of the moderns, by which, as they say, nature alone is imitated; good heaven! what a number of neglected beauties will he not discover!

For instance, in most of the modern figures, if the skin happens to be any where pressed, you see there several little smart wrinkles: when, on the contrary, the same parts, pressed in the same manner on Greek statues, by their soft undulations, form at last but one noble pressure. These master-pieces never shew us the skin forcibly stretched, but softly embracing the firm flesh, which fills it up without any tumid expansion, and harmoniously follows its direction. There the skin never, as on modern bodies, appears in plaits distinct from the flesh.

Modern works are likewise distinguished from the ancient by parts; a crowd of small touches and dimples too sensibly drawn. In ancient works you find these distributed with sparing sagacity, and, as relative to a completer and more perfect Nature, offered but as hints, nay, often perceived only by the learned.

The probability still increases, that the bodies of the Greeks, as well as the works of their artists, were framed with more unity of system, a nobler harmony of parts, and a completeness of the whole, above our lean tensions and hollow wrinkles.

Probability, ’tis true, is all we can pretend to: but it deserves the attention of our artists and connoisseurs the rather, as the veneration professed for the ancient monuments is commonly imputed to prejudice, and not to their excellence; as if the numerous ages, during which they have moldered, were the only motive for bestowing on them exalted praises, and setting them up for the standards of imitation.

Such as would fain deny to the Greeks the advantages both of a more perfect Nature and of ideal Beauties, boast of the famous Bernini, as their great champion. He was of opinion, besides, that Nature was possessed of every requisite beauty: the only skill being to discover that. He boasted of having got rid of a prejudice concerning the Medicean Venus, whose charms he at first thought peculiar ones; but, after many careful researches, discovered them now and then in Nature[7].

He was taught then, by the Venus, to discover beauties in common Nature, which he had formerly thought peculiar to that statue, and but for it, never would have searched for them. Follows it not from thence, that the beauties of the Greek statues being discovered with less difficulty than those of Nature, are of course more affecting; not so diffused, but more harmoniously united? and if this be true, the pointing out of Nature as chiefly imitable, is leading us into a more tedious and bewildered road to the knowledge of perfect beauty, than setting up the ancients for that purpose: consequently Bernini, by adhering too strictly to Nature, acted against his own principles, as well as obstructed the progress of his disciples.

The imitation of beauty is either reduced to a single object, and is individual, or, gathering observations from single ones, composes of these one whole. The former we call copying, drawing a portrait; ’tis the straight way to Dutch forms and figures; whereas the other leads to general beauty, and its ideal images, and is the way the Greeks took. But there is still this difference between them and us: they enjoying daily occasions of seeing beauty, (suppose even not superior to ours,) acquired those ideal riches with less toil than we, confined as we are to a few and often fruitless opportunities, ever can hope for. It would be no easy matter, I fancy, for our nature, to produce a frame equal in beauty to that of Antinous; and surely no idea can soar above the more than human proportions of a deity, in the Apollo of the Vatican, which is a compound of the united force of Nature, Genius, and Art.

Their imitation discovering in the one every beauty diffused through Nature, showing in the other the pitch to which the most perfect Nature can elevate herself, when soaring above the senses, will quicken the genius of the artist, and shorten his discipleship: he will learn to think and draw with confidence, seeing here the fixed limits of human and divine beauty.

Building on this ground, his hand and senses directed by the Greek rule of beauty, the modern artist goes on the surest way to the imitation of Nature. The ideas of unity and perfection, which he acquired in meditating on antiquity, will help him to combine, and to ennoble the more scattered and weaker beauties of our Nature. Thus he will improve every beauty he discovers in it, and by comparing the beauties of nature with the ideal, form rules for himself.

Then, and not sooner, he, particularly the painter, may be allowed to commit himself to Nature, especially in cases where his art is beyond the instruction of the old marbles, to wit, in drapery; then, like Poussin, he may proceed with more liberty; for “a timid follower will never get the start of his leaders, and he who is at a loss to produce something of his own, will be a bad manager of the productions of another,” as Michael Angelo says; Minds favored by Nature, [Quibus Arte benigna, Et meliore luto, finxit præcordia—Titan] have here a plain way to become originals.

Thus the account de Piles gives, ought to be understood, that Raphael, a short time before he was carried off by death, intended to forsake the marbles, in order to addict himself wholly to Nature. True ancient taste would most certainly have guided him through every maze of common Nature; and whatever observations, whatever new ideas he might have reaped from that, they would all, by a kind of chemical transmutation, have been changed to his own essence and soul.

He, perhaps, might have indulged more variety; enlarged his draperies; improved his colors, his light and shadow: but none of these improvements would have raised his pictures to that high esteem they deserve, for that noble Contour, and that sublimity of thoughts, which he acquired from the ancients.

Nothing would more decisively prove the advantages to be got by imitating the ancients, preferably to Nature, than an essay made with two youths of equal talents, by devoting the one to antiquity, the other to Nature: this would draw Nature as he finds her; if Italian, perhaps he might paint like Caravaggio; if Flemish, and lucky, like Jac. Jordans; if French, like Stella: the other would draw her as she directs, and paint like Raphael.


But even supposing that the imitation of Nature could supply all the artist wants, she never could bestow the precision of Contour, that characteristic distinction of the ancients.

The noblest Contour unites or circumscribes every part of the most perfect Nature, and the ideal beauties in the figures of the Greeks; or rather, contains them both. Euphranor, famous after the epoch of Zeuxis, is said to have first ennobled it.

Many of the moderns have attempted to imitate this Contour, but very few with success. The great Rubens is far from having attained either its precision or elegance, especially in the performances which he finished before he went to Italy, and studied the antiques.

The line by which Nature divides completeness from superfluity is but a small one, and, insensible as it often is, has been crossed even by the best moderns; while these, in shunning a meagre Contour, became corpulent, those, in shunning that, grew lean.

Among them all, only Michael Angelo, perhaps, may be said to have attained the antique; but only in strong muscular figures, heroic frames; not in those of tender youth; nor in female bodies, which, under his bold hand, grew Amazons.

The Greek artist, on the contrary, adjusted his Contour, in every figure, to the breadth of a single hair, even in the nicest and most tiresome performances, as gems. Consider the Diomedes and Perseus of Dioscorides[8], Hercules and Iole by Teucer[9], and admire the inimitable Greeks.

Parrhasius, they say, was master of the correctest Contour. This Contour reigns in Greek figures, even when covered with drapery, as the chief aim of the artist; the beautiful frame pierces the marble like a transparent Coan cloth.

The high-stiled Agrippina, and the three vestals in the royal cabinet at Dresden, deserve to be mentioned as eminent proofs of this. This Agrippina seems not the mother of Nero, but an elder one, the spouse of Germanicus. She much resembles another pretended Agrippina, in the parlor of the library of St. Marc, at Venice[10]. Ours is a sitting figure, above the size of Nature, her head inclined on her right hand; her fine face speaks a soul “pining in thought,” absorbed in pensive sorrow, and senseless to every outward impression. The artist, I suppose, intended to draw his heroine in the mournful moment she received the news of her banishment to Pandataria.

The three vestals deserve our esteem from a double title: as being the first important discoveries of Herculaneum, and models of the sublimest drapery. All three, but particularly one above the natural size, would, with regard to that, be worthy companions of the Farnesian Flora, and all the other boasts of antiquity. The two others seem, by their resemblance to each other, productions of the same hand, only distinguished by their heads, which are not of equal goodness. On the best the curled hairs, running in furrows from the forehead, are tied on the neck: on the other the hair being smooth on the scalp, and curled on the front, is gathered behind, and tied with a ribband: this head seems of a modern hand, but a good one.

There is no veil on these heads; but that makes not against their being vestals: for the priestesses of Vesta (I speak on proof) were not always veiled; or rather, as the drapery seems to betray, the veil, which was of one piece with the garments, being thrown backwards, mingles with the clothes on the neck.

’Tis to these three inimitable pieces that the world owes the first hints of the ensuing discovery of the subterranean treasures of Herculaneum.

Their discovery happened when the same ruins that overwhelmed the town had nearly extinguished the unhappy remembrance of it: when the tremendous fate that spoke its doom was only known by the account which Pliny gives of his uncle’s death.

These great master-pieces of the Greek art were transplanted, and worshipped in Germany, long before Naples could boast of one single Herculanean monument.

They were discovered in the year 1706 at Portici near Naples, in a ruinous vault, on occasion of digging the foundations of a villa, for the Prince d’Elbeuf, and immediately, with other new discovered marble and metal statues, came into the possession of Prince Eugene, and were transported to Vienna.

Eugene, who well knew their value, provided a Sala Terrena to be built expressly for them, and a few others: and so highly were they esteemed, that even on the first rumor of their sale, the academy and the artists were in an uproar, and every body, when they were transported to Dresden, followed them with heavy eyes.

The famous Matielli, to whom [His rule Polyclet, his chissel Phidias gave,—Algarotti.] copied them in clay before their removal, and following them some years after, filled Dresden with everlasting monuments of his art: but even there he studied the drapery of his priestesses, (drapery his chief skill!) till he laid down his chissel, and thus gave the most striking proof of their excellence.


By Drapery is to be understood all that the art teaches of covering the nudities, and folding the garments; and this is the third prerogative of the ancients.

The Drapery of the vestals above, is grand and elegant. The smaller foldings spring gradually from the larger ones, and in them are lost again, with a noble freedom, and gentle harmony of the whole, without hiding the correct Contour. How few of the moderns would stand the test here!

Justice, however, shall not be refused to some great modern artists, who, without impairing nature or truth, have left, in certain cases, the road which the ancients generally pursued. The Greek Drapery, in order to help the Contour, was, for the most part, taken from thin and wet garments, which of course clasped the body, and discovered the shape. The robe of the Greek ladies was extremely thin; thence its epithet of Peplon.

Nevertheless the reliefs, the pictures, and particularly the busts of the ancients, are instances that they did not always keep to this undulating Drapery[11].

In modern times the artists were forced to heap garments, and sometimes heavy ones, on each other, which of course could not fall into the flowing folds of the ancients. Hence the large-folded Drapery, by which the painter and sculptor may display as much skill as by the ancient manner. Carlo Marat and Francis Solimena may be called the chief masters of it: but the garments of the new Venetian school, by passing the bounds of nature and propriety, became stiff as brass.


The last and most eminent characteristic of the Greek works is a noble simplicity and sedate grandeur in Gesture and Expression. As the bottom of the sea lies peaceful beneath a foaming surface, a great soul lies sedate beneath the strife of passions in Greek figures.

’Tis in the face of Laocoon this soul shines with full luster, not confined however to the face, amidst the most violent sufferings. Pangs piercing every muscle, every laboring nerve; pangs which we almost feel ourselves, while we consider—not the face, nor the most expressive parts—only the belly contracted by excruciating pains: these however, I say, exert not themselves with violence, either in the face or gesture. He pierces not heaven, like the Laocoon of Virgil; his mouth is rather opened to discharge an anxious overloaded groan, as Sadolet says; the struggling body and the supporting mind exert themselves with equal strength, nay balance all the frame.

Laocoon suffers, but suffers like the Philoctetes of Sophocles: we weeping feel his pains, but wish for the hero’s strength to support his misery.

The Expression of so great a soul is beyond the force of mere nature. It was in his own mind the artist was to search for the strength of spirit with which he marked his marble. Greece enjoyed artists and philosophers in the same persons; and the wisdom of more than one Metrodorus directed art, and inspired its figures with more than common souls.

Had Laocoon been covered with a garb becoming an ancient sacrificer, his sufferings would have lost one half of their Expression. Bernini pretended to perceive the first effects of the operating venom in the numbness of one of the thighs.

Every action or gesture in Greek figures, not stamped with this character of sage dignity, but too violent, too passioniate, was called “Parenthyrsos.”

For, the more tranquillity reigns in a body, the fitter it is to draw the true character of the soul; which, in every excessive gesture, seems to rush from her proper centre, and being hurried away by extremes becomes unnatural. Wound up to the highest pitch of passion, she may force herself upon the duller eye; but the true sphere of her action is simplicity and calmness. In Laocoon sufferings alone had been Parenthyrsos; the artist therefore, in order to reconcile the significative and ennobling qualities of his soul, put him into a posture, allowing for the sufferings that were necessary, the next to a state of tranquillity: a tranquillity however that is characteristical: the soul will be herself—this individual—not the soul of mankind; sedate, but active; calm, but not indifferent or drowsy.

What a contrast! how diametrically opposite to this is the taste of our modern artists, especially the young ones! on nothing do they bestow their approbation, but contortions and strange postures, inspired with boldness; this they pretend is done with spirit, with Franchezza. Contrast is the darling of their ideas; in it they fancy every perfection. They fill their performances with comet-like eccentric souls, despising every thing but an Ajax or a Capaneus.

Arts have their infancy as well as men; they begin, as well as the artist, with froth and bombast: in such buskins the muse of Æschilus stalks, and part of the diction in his Agamemnon is more loaded with hyperboles than all Heraclitus’s nonsense. Perhaps the primitive Greek painters drew in the same manner that their first good tragedian thought in.

In all human actions flutter and rashness precede, sedateness and solidity follow: but time only can discover, and the judicious will admire these only: they are the characteristics of great masters; violent passions run away with their disciples.

The sages in the art know the difficulties hid under that air of easiness: [ut sibi quires Speret idem, sudet multum, frustraque laboret Ausus idem.—Hor.] La Fage, though an eminent designer, was not able to attain the purity of ancient taste. Every thing is animated in his works; they demand, and at the same time dissipate, your attention, like a company striving to talk all at once.

This noble simplicity and sedate grandeur is also the true characteristic mark of the best and maturest Greek writings, of the epoch and school of Socrates. Possessed of these qualities Raphael became eminently great, and he owed them to the ancients.

That great soul of his, lodged in a beauteous body, was requisite for the first discovery of the true character of the ancients: he first felt all their beauties, and (what he was peculiarly happy in!) at an age when vulgar, unfeeling, and half-moulded souls overlook every higher beauty.

Ye that approach his works, teach your eyes to be sensible of those beauties, refine your taste by the true antique, and then that solemn tranquillity of the chief figures in his Attila, deemed insipid by the vulgar, will appear to you equally significant and sublime. The Roman bishop, in order to divert the Hun from his design of assailing Rome, appears not with the air of a Rhetor, but as a venerable man, whose very presence softens uproar into peace; like him drawn by Virgil: [Tum pietate gravem ac meritis, si forte virum quem conspexere, silent, adrectisque auribus adstant:—Æn. I.] full of confidence in God, he faces down the barbarian: the two Apostles descend not with the air of slaughtering angels, but (if sacred may be compared with profane) like Jove, whose very nod shakes Olympus.

Algardi, in his celebrated representation of the same story, done in bas-relief on an altar in St. Peter’s church at Rome, was either too negligent, or too weak, to give this active tranquillity of his great predecessor to the figures of his Apostles. There they appear like messengers of the Lord of Hosts: here like human warriors with mortal arms.

How few of those we call connoisseurs have ever been able to understand, and sincerely to admire, the grandeur of expression in the St. Michael of Guido, in the church of the Capuchins at Rome! they prefer commonly the Archangel of Concha, whose face glows with indignation and revenge[12]; whereas Guido’s Angel, after having overthrown the fiend of God and man, hovers over him unruffled and undismayed.

Thus, to heighten the hero of The Campaign, victorious Marlborough, the British poet paints the avenging Angel hovering over Britannia with the like serenity and awful calmness.

The royal gallery at Dresden contains now, among its treasures, one of Raphael’s best pictures, witness Vasari, &c. a Madonna with the Infant; St. Sixtus and St. Barbara kneeling, one on each side, and two Angels in the fore-part.

It was the chief altar-piece in the cloister of St. Sixtus at Piacenza, which was crowded by connoisseurs, who came to see this Raphael, in the same manner as Thespis was in the days of old, for the sake of the beautiful Cupid of Praxiteles.

Behold the Madonna! her face brightens with innocence; a form above the female size, and the calmness of her mien, make her appear as already beatified: she has that silent awfulness which the ancients spread over their deities. How grand, how noble is her Contour!

The child in her arms is elevated above vulgar children, by a face darting the beams of divinity through every smiling feature of harmless childhood.

St. Barbara kneels, with adoring stillness, at her side: but being far beneath the majesty of the chief figure, the great artist compensated her humbler graces with soft enticing charms.

The Saint opposite to her is venerable with age. His features seem to bear witness of his sacred youth.

The veneration which St. Barbara declares for the Madonna, expressed in the most sensible and pathetic manner, by her fine hands clasped on her breast, helps to support the motion of one of St. Sixtus’s hands, by which he utters his ecstasy, better becoming (as the artist judiciously thought, and chose for variety’s sake) manly strength, than female modesty.

Time, ’tis true, has withered the primitive splendor of this picture, and partly blown off its lively colours; but still the soul, with which the painter inspired his godlike work, breathes life through all its parts.

Let those that approach this, and the rest of Raphael’s works, in hopes of finding there the trifling Dutch and Flemish beauties, the labored nicety of Netscher, or Douw, flesh ivorified by Van der Werf, or even the licked manner of some of Raphael’s living countrymen; let those, I say, be told, that Raphael was not a great master for them.


After these remarks on the Nature, the Contour, the Drapery, the simplicity and grandeur of Expression in the performances of the Greek artists, we shall proceed to some inquiries into their method of working.

Their models were generally made of wax; instead of which the moderns used clay, or such like unctuous stuff, as seeming fitter for expressing flesh, than the more gluey and tenacious wax.

A method however not new, though more frequent in our times: for we know even the name of that ancient who first attempted modeling in wet clay; ’twas Dibutades of Sicyon; and Arcesilaus, the friend of Lucullus, grew more famous by his models of clay than his other performances. He made for Lucullus a figure of clay representing Happiness, and received 60,000 sesterces: and Octavius, a Roman Knight, paid him a talent for the model only of a large dish, in plaister, which he designed to have finished in gold.

Of all materials, clay might be allowed to be the fittest for shaping figures, could it preserve its moistness; but losing that by time or fire, its solider parts, contracting by degrees, lessen the bulk of the mass; and that which is formed, being of different diameters, grows sooner dry in some parts than in others, and the dry ones being shrunk to a smaller size, there will be no proportion kept in the whole.

From this inconvenience wax is always free: it loses nothing of its bulk; and there are also means to give it the smoothness of flesh, which is refused to modeling; viz. you make your model of clay, mould it with plaister, and cast the wax over it.

But for transferring their models to the marble, the Greeks seem to have possessed some peculiar advantages, which are now lost: for you discover, every where in their works, the traces of a confident hand; and even in those of inferior rank, it would be no easy matter to prove a wrong cut. Surely hands so steady, so secure, must of necessity have been guided by rules more determinate and less arbitrary than we can boast of.

The usual method of our sculptors is, to quarter the well-prepared model with horizontals and perpendiculars, and, as is common in copying a picture, to draw a relative number of squares on the marble.

Thus, regular gradations of a scale being supposed, every small square of the model has its corresponding one on the marble. But the contents of the relative masses not being determinable by a measured surface, the artist, though he gives to his stone the resemblance of the model, yet, as he only depends on the precarious aid of his eye, he shall never cease wavering, as to his doing right or wrong, cutting too flat or too deep.

Nor can he find lines to determine precisely the outlines, or the Contour of the inward parts, and the centre of his model, in so fixed and unchangeable a manner, as to enable him, exactly, to transfer the same Contours upon his stone.

To all this add, that, if his work happens to be too voluminous for one single hand, he must trust to those of his journeymen and disciples, who, too often, are neither skillful nor cautious enough to follow their master’s design; and if once the smallest trifle be cut wrong, for it is impossible to fix, by this method, the limits of the cuts, all is lost.

It is to be remarked in general, that every sculptor, who carries on his chiselings their whole length, on first fashioning his marble, and does not prepare them by gradual cuts for the last final strokes; it is to be remarked, I say, that he never can keep his work free from faults.

Another chief defect in that method is this: the artist cannot help cutting off, every moment, the lines on his block; and though he restore them, cannot possibly be sure of avoiding mistakes.

On account of this unavoidable uncertainty, the artists found themselves obliged to contrive another method, and that which the French academy at Rome first made use of for copying antiques, was applied by many even to modeled performances.

Over the statue which you want to copy, you fix a well-proportioned square, dividing it into equally distant degrees, by plummets: by these the outlines of the figure are more distinctly marked than they could possibly be by means of the former method: they moreover afford the artist an exact measure of the more prominent or lower parts, by the degrees in which these parts are near them, and in short, allow him to go on with more confidence.

But the undulations of a curve being not determinable by a single perpendicular, the Contours of the figure are but indifferently indicated to the artist; and among their many declinations from a straight surface, his tenor is every moment lost.

The difficulty of discovering the real proportions of the figures, may also be easily imagined: they seek them by horizontals placed across the plummets. But the rays reflected from the figure through the squares, will strike the eye in enlarged angles, and consequently appear bigger, in proportion as they are high or low to the point of view.

Nevertheless, as the ancient monuments must be most cautiously dealt with, plummets are still of use in copying them, as no surer or easier method has been discovered: but for performances to be done from models they are unfit for want of precision.

Michael Angelo went alone a way unknown before him, and (strange to tell!) untrod since the time of that genius of modern sculpture.

This Phidias of latter times, and next to the Greeks, hath, in all probability, hit the very mark of his great masters. We know at least no method so eminently proper for expressing on the block every, even the minutest, beauty of the model.

Vasari[13] seems to give but a defective description of this method, viz. Michael Angelo took a vessel filled with water, in which he placed his model of wax, or some such indissoluble matter: then, by degrees, raised it to the surface of the water. In this manner the prominent parts were unwet, the lower covered, ’till the whole at length appeared. Thus says Vasari, he cut his marble, proceeding from the more prominent parts to the lower ones.

Vasari, it seems, either mistook something in the management of his friend, or by the negligence of his account gives us room to imagine it somewhat different from what he relates.

The form of the vessel is not determined; to raise the figure from below would prove too troublesome, and presupposes much more than this historian had a mind to inform us of.

Michael Angelo, no doubt, thoroughly examined his invention, its conveniences and inconveniences, and in all probability observed the following method.

He took a vessel proportioned to his model; for instance, an oblong square: he marked the surface of its sides with certain dimensions, and these he transferred afterwards, with regular gradations, on the marble. The inside of the vessel he marked to the bottom with degrees. Then he laid, or, if of wax, fastened his model in it; he drew, perhaps, a bar over the vessel suitable to its dimensions, according to whose number he drew, first, lines on his marble, and immediately after, the figure; he poured water on the model till it reached its outmost points, and after having fixed upon a prominent part, he drew off as much water as hindered him from seeing it, and then went to work with his chisel, the degrees shewing him how to go on; if, at the same time, some other part of the model appeared, it was copied too, as far as seen.

Water was again carried off, in order to let the lower parts appear; by the degrees he saw to what pitch it was reduced, and by its smoothness he discovered the exact surfaces of the lower parts; nor could he go wrong, having the same number of degrees to guide him, upon his marble.

The water not only pointed him out the heights or depths, but also the Contour of his model; and the space left free on the insides to the surface of the water, whose largeness was determined by the degrees of the two other sides, was the exact measure of what might safely be cut down from the block.

His work had now got the first form, and a correct one: the levelness of the water had drawn a line, of which every prominence of the mass was a point; according to the diminution of the water the line sunk in a horizontal direction, and was followed by the artist ’till he discovered the declinations of the prominences, and their mingling with the lower parts. Proceeding thus with every degree, as it appeared, he finished the Contour, and took his model out of the water.

His figure wanted beauty: he again poured water to a proper height over his model, and then numbering the degrees to the line described by the water, he descried the exact height of the protuberant parts; on these he leveled his rule, and took the measure of the distance, from its verge to the bottom; and then comparing all he had done with his marble, and finding the same number of degrees, he was geometrically sure of success.

Repeating his task, he attempted to express the motion and re-action of nerves and muscles, the soft undulations of the smaller parts, and every imitable beauty of his model. The water insinuating itself, even into the most inaccessible parts, traced their Contour with the correct sharpness and precision.

This method admits of every possible posture. In profile especially, it discovers every inadvertency; shews the Contour of the prominent and lower parts, and the whole diameter.

All this, and the hope of success, presupposes a model formed by skillful hands, in the true taste of antiquity.

This is the way by which Michael Angelo arrived at immortality. Fame and rewards conspired to procure him what leisure he wanted, for performances which required so much care.

But the artist of our days, however endowed by nature and industry with talents to raise himself, and even though he perceive precision and truth in this method, is forced to exert his abilities for getting bread rather than honor: he of course rests in his usual sphere, and continues to trust in an eye directed by years and practice.

Now this eye, by the observations of which he is chiefly ruled, being at last, though by a great deal of uncertain practice, become almost decisive: how refined, how exact might it not have been, if, from early youth, acquainted with never-changing rules!

And were young artists, at their first beginning to shape the clay or form the wax, so happy as to be instructed in this sure method of Michael Angelo, which was the fruit of long researches, they might with reason hope to come as near the Greeks as he did.


Greek Painting perhaps would share all the praises bestowed on their Sculpture, had time and the barbarity of mankind allowed us to be decisive on that point.

All the Greek painters are allowed is Contour and Expression. Perspective, Composition, and Coloring, are denied them; a judgment founded on some bas-reliefs, and the new-discovered ancient (for we dare not say Greek) pictures, at and near Rome, in the subterranean vaults of the palaces of Mæcenas, Titus, Trajan, and the Antonini; of which but about thirty are preserved entire, some being only in Mosaic.

Turnbull, to his treatise on ancient painting, has subjoined a collection of the most known ancient pictures, drawn by Camillo Paderni, and engraved by Mynde; and these alone give some value to the magnificent and abused paper of his work. Two of them are copied from originals in the cabinet of the late Dr. Mead.

That Poussin much studied the pretended Aldrovandine Nuptials; that drawings are found done by Annibal Carracci, from the presumed Marcius Coriolanus; and that there is a most striking resemblance between the heads of Guido, and those on the Mosaic representing Jupiter carrying off Europa, are remarks long since made.

Indeed, if ancient Painting were to be judged by these, and such like remains of Fresco pictures, Contour and Expression might be wrested from it in the same manner. For the pictures, with figures as big as life, pulled off with the walls of the Herculanean theatre, afford but a very poor idea of the Contour and Expression of the ancient painters. Theseus, the conqueror of the Minotaur, worshipped by the Athenian youths; Flora with Hercules and a Faunus; the pretended judgment of the Decemvir Appius Claudius, are on the testimony of an artist who saw them, of a Contour as mean as faulty; and the heads want not only Expression, but those in the Claudius even Character.

But even this is an evident instance of the meanness of the artists: for the science of beautiful Proportions, of Contour, and Expression, could not be the exclusive privilege of Greek sculptors alone.

However, though I am for doing justice to the ancients, I have no intention to lessen the merit of the moderns.

In Perspective there is no comparison between them and the ancients, whom no earned defense can entitle to any superiority in that science. The laws of Composition and Ordonnance seem to have been but imperfectly known by the ancients: the reliefs of the times when the Greek arts were flourishing at Rome, are instances of this. The accounts of the ancient writers, and the remains of Painting are likewise, in point of Coloring, decisive in favor of the moderns.

There are several other objects of Paintings which, in modern times, have attained greater perfection: such are landscapes and cattle pieces. The ancients seem not to have been acquainted with the handsomer varieties of different animals in different climes, if we may conclude from the horse of M. Aurelius; the two horses in Monte Cavallo; the pretended Lysippean horses above the portal of St. Mark’s church at Venice; the Farnesian bull, and other animals of that group.

I observe, by the bye, that the ancients were careless of giving to their horses the diametrical motion of their legs; as we see in the horses at Venice, and the ancient coins: and in that they have been followed, nay even defended, by some ignorant moderns.

’Tis chiefly to oil-painting that our landscapes, and especially those of the Dutch, owe their beauties: by that their colors acquired more strength and liveliness; and even nature herself seems to have given them a thicker, moister atmosphere, as an advantage to this branch of the art.

These, and some other advantages over the ancients, deserve to be set forth with more solid arguments than we have hitherto had.


There is one other important step left towards the achievement of the art: but the artist, who, boldly forsaking the common path, dares to attempt it, finds himself at once on the brink of a precipice, and starts back dismayed.

The stories of martyrs and saints, fables and metamorphoses, are almost the only objects of modern painters—repeated a thousand times, and varied almost beyond the limits of possibility, every tolerable judge grows sick at them.

The judicious artist falls asleep over a Daphne and Apollo, a Proserpine carried off by Pluto, an Europa, &c. he wishes for occasions to shew himself a poet, to produce significant images, to paint Allegory.

Painting goes beyond the senses: there is its most elevated pitch, to which the Greeks strove to raise themselves, as their writings evince. Parrhasius, like Aristides, a painter of the soul, was able to express the character even of a whole people: he painted the Athenians as mild as cruel, as fickle as steady, as brave as timid. Such a representation owes its possibility only to the allegorical method, whose images convey general ideas.

But here the artist is lost in a desert. Tongues the most savage, which are entirely destitute of abstracted ideas, containing no word whose sense could express memory, space, duration, &c. these tongues, I say, are not more destitute of general signs, than painting in our days. The painter who thinks beyond his palette longs for some learned apparatus, by whose stores he might be enabled to invest abstracted ideas with sensible and meaning images. Nothing has yet been published of this kind, to satisfy a rational being; the essays hitherto made are not considerable, and far beneath this great design. The artist himself knows best in what degree he is satisfied with Ripa’s Iconology, and the emblems of ancient nations, by Van Hooghe.

Hence the greatest artists have chosen but vulgar objects. Annibal Caracci, instead of representing in general symbols and sensible images the history of the Farnesian family, as an allegorical poet, wasted all his skill in fables known to the whole world.

Go, visit the galleries of monarchs, and the public repositories of art, and see what difference there is between the number of allegorical, poetical, or even historical performances, and that of fables, saints, or madonnas.

Among great artists, Rubens is the most eminent, who first, like a sublime poet, dared to attempt this untrodden path. His most voluminous composition, the gallery of Luxembourg, has been communicated to the world by the hands of the best engravers.

After him the sublimest performance undertaken and finished, in that kind, is, no doubt, the cupola of the imperial library at Vienna, painted by Daniel Gran, and engraved by Sedelmayer. The Apotheosis of Hercules at Versailles, done by Le Moine, and alluding to the Cardinal Hercules de Fleury, though deemed in France the most august of compositions, is, in comparison of the learned and ingenious performance of the German artist, but a very mean and short-sighted Allegory, resembling a panegyric, the most striking beauties of which are relative to the almanack. The artist had it in his power to indulge grandeur, and his flipping the occasion is astonishing: but even allowing, that the Apotheosis of a minister was all that he ought to have decked the chief ceiling of a royal palace with, we nevertheless see through his fig-leaf.

The artist would require a work, containing every image with which any abstracted idea might be poetically inverted; a work collected from all mythology, the best poets of all ages, the mysterious philosophy of different nations, the monuments of the ancients on gems, coins, utensils, &c. This magazine should be distributed into several classes, and, with proper applications to peculiar possible cases, adapted to the instruction of the artist. This would, at the same time, open a vast field for imitating the ancients, and participating of their sublimer taste.

The taste in our decorations, which, since the complaints of Vitruvius, hath changed for the worse, partly by the grotesques brought in vogue by Morto da Feltro, partly by our trifling house-painting, might also, from more intimacy with the ancients, reap the advantages of reality and common sense.

The Caricatura-carvings, and favorite shells, those chief supports of our ornaments, are full as unnatural as the candle-sticks of Vitruvius, with their little castles and palaces: how easy would it be, by the help of Allegory, to give some learned convenience to the smallest ornament! [Reddere personæ scit convenientia cuique.—Hor.] Paintings of ceilings, doors, and chimney-pieces, are commonly but the expletives of these places, because they cannot be gilt all over. Not only they have not the least relation to the rank and circumstances of the proprietor, but often throw some ridicule or reflection upon him.

’Tis an abhorrence of barrenness that fills walls and rooms; and pictures void of thought must supply the vacuum.

Hence the artist, abandoned to the dictates of his own fancy, paints, for want of Allegory, perhaps a satire on him to whom he owes his industry; or, to shun this Charybdis, finds himself reduced to paint figures void of any meaning.

Nay, he may often find it difficult to meet even with those, ’till at last [velut ægri Somnia, vanæ Finguntur Species.—Hor] Thus Painting is degraded from its most eminent prerogative, the representation of invisible, past and future things.

If pictures be sometimes met with, which might be significant in some particular place, they often lose that property by stupid and wrong applications.

Perhaps the master of some new building [Dives agris, dives positis in fœnore nummis—Hor.] may, without the least compunction for offending the rules of perspective, place figures of the smallest size above the vast doors of his apartments and salloons. I speak here of those ornaments which make part of the furniture; not of figures which are often, and for good reasons, set up promiscuously in collections.

The decorations of architecture are often as ill-chosen. Arms and trophies deck a hunting-house as nonsensically, as Ganymede and the eagle, Jupiter and Leda, figure it among the reliefs of the brazen gates of St. Peter’s church at Rome.

Arts have a double aim: to delight and to instruct. Hence the greatest landscape-painters think, they have fulfilled but half their task in drawing their pieces without figures.

Let the artist’s pencil, like the pen of Aristotle, be impregnated with reason; that, after having satiated the eye, he may nourish the mind: and this he may obtain by Allegory; investing, not hiding his ideas. Then, whether he choose some poetical object himself, or follow the dictates of others, he shall be inspired by his art, shall be fired with the flame brought down from heaven by Prometheus, shall entertain the votary of art, and instruct the mere lover of it.

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Neoclassicism, Age of Exploration


Classical ideals, tourism, and bloody revolution

1760 – 1830

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