previous next

Polygno'tus

*Polu/gnwtos), one of the most celebrated Greek painters, was a native of the island of Thasos, and was honoured with the citizenship of Athens, on which account he is sometimes called an Athenian. He belonged to a family of artists, who had their origin in Thasos, but came to Athens, and there practised their art. They probably derived their art, like most of the painters in the islands of the Aegean, from the Ionian school. His father, Aglaophon, was also his instructor in his art; he had a brother, named Aristophon ; and there was, very probably, a younger Aglaophon, the son of Aristophon, who was contemporary with Alcibiades; so that we have the following genealogy :--

(Harpocr., Suid., Phot. s. v. Πολύγνωτος; Plat. Gorg. p. 448b., and Schol.; Theophrast. ap. Plin. H. N. 7.56. s. 57; Plin. Nat. 35.9. s. 35, 36.1; Quint. Inst. 12.10.3; Dio Chrvsost. Orat. lv. p. 558b.; Simon. Ep. 76. s. 82, apud Brunck. Anal. vol. i. p. 142, Anth. Pal. 9.700 ; AGLAOPHON ; ARISTOPHON ; Sillig, Cat. Art. s. vv. Aylaophon, Aristophon, Polygnotus.

With respect to the time at which Polygnotus lived, Pliny only states indefinitely, that he flourished before the 90th Olympiad, B. C. 420, which is with Pliny an era in the history of the art (Plin. Nat. 35.9. s. 35 : from the context of this passage it would follow that Polygnotus lived after Panaenus, which is certainly incorrect). A much more definite indication of his time is obtained from the statements of Plutarch (Plut. Cim. 4) respecting the intimacy of Polygnotus with Cimon and his sister Elpinice, which, taken in connection with the fact of Cimon's subjugation of Thasos, renders almost certain the opinion of Müller (de Phidiae Vila, p. 7), that Polygnotus accompanied Cimon to Athens on that general's return from the expedition against Thasos, which is in itself one of those happy conjectures that almost carry conviction with them, even when sustained by far less direct evidence than we possess in this case. 1 According to this view, Polygnotus came to Athens in Ol. 79. 2, B. C. 463, at which time he must have been already an artist of some reputation, since Cimon thought him worthy of his patronage. He may, therefore, have been between twenty-five and thirty-five years old, or even older; and this agrees perfectly with the slight indications we have of the length of time during which he flourished at Athens. For we learn from Pausanias (1.22.6) that there was a series of paintings by Polygnotus in a chamber attached to the Propylaea of the Acropolis ; and although it is possible, as these were probably panel pictures, that they might have been painted before the erection of the building in which they were placed, yet, from the description of Pausanias, and from all that we know of the usual practice in the decoration of public buildings at this period, it is far more probable that they were painted expressly for the building. Now the Propylaea were commenced in B. C. 437, and completed in B. C. 432, so that the age of Polygnotus is brought down almost to the beginning of the Peloponnesian war. Again, in the Gorgias of Plato, "Aristophon, the son of Aglaophon, and his brother," are referred to in a way which implies that they were two of the most distinguished painters then living (Gory. p. 448b., comp. Schol. 2). Now the probable date of the Gorgias is about Ol. 88. 2, B. C. 427-426, which is within six years of the date assigned by Pliny as that before which Polygnotus flourished. Hence we may conclude that the period during which Polygnotus lived at Athens, was from B. C. 463 to about 426 ; and assuming his age, at his death, to have been about 65, the date of his birth would just about coincide with that of the battle of Marathon; or he may have been somewhat older, as we can hardly suppose him to have been much less than thirty at the time of his migration to Athens. At all events, his birth may be safely placed very near the beginning of the fifth century B. C. The period of his greatest artistic activity at Athens seems to have been that which elapsed from his removal to Athens (B. C. 463) to the death of Cimon (B. C. 449), who employed him in the pictorial decoration of the public buildings with which he began to adorn the city, such as the temple of Theseus, the Anaceium, and the Poecile. The reason why we have no mention of him in connection with the still more magnificent works which were erected in the subsequent period, under the administration of Pericles and the superintendence of Pheidias, is probably because he had left Athens during this period, with the other artists who had undertaken the decoration of the buildings connected with the great temple at Delphi; for there we know that some of his greatest works were executed. It appears, however, from the passage of Pausanias already cited, that he returned to Athens about B. C. 435, to execute his paintings in the Propylaea. He also worked at Plataeae and at Thespiae (see below).

The above considerations respecting the date of Polygnotus lead to the very interesting result, that he was exactly contemporaneous with Pheidias, having been born about the same time, having survived him only a few years, and having commenced his artistic career about the same period : for, not to insist on the probability that Pheidias had some share in the works at the temple of Theseus, we know that both artists worked at about the same time for the temple of Athena Areia at Plataeae, where Polygnotus (in conjunction with Onatas) painted the walls of the portico, and Pheidias made the acrolith statue of the goddess : the date of these works may be assumed to have been about B. C. 460, or a little later. Again, about the end of their career, we find, at the Propylaea, the paintings of Polygnotus decorating the latest edifices which were erected under the superintendence of Pheidias. Thus, it appears that the causes which produced that sudden advance in the formative art of statuary, of which Pheidias was the leader, produced also a similar advance in the representative art of painting, as practised by Polygnotus. The periods of the essential development of each art were identical, under the effect of the same influences. What those influences were, has been very fully explained under PHEIDIAS. But, it may be said, from all that we know of the style of Polygnotus, the advance of the one art does not seem to have corresponded precisely to that of the other, for Pheidias brought his art to perfection; but no one supposes that the works of Polygnotus exhibited the art of painting in any thing like perfection. This has, in fact, been adduced by eminent archaeologists, such as Böttiger, as a reason for placing Polygnotus about ten years earlier. The reply is, that the objection rests on a confusion between two very different things, the art of painting, as developed by all the accessory refinements and illusions of perspective and foreshortening, elaborate and dramatic composition, varied effects of light and shade, and great diversities of tone and colouring, and, on the other hand, the mere representation on a flat surface, with the addition of colours, of figures similar to those which the statuary produces in their actual form in a solid substance : in one word, it is a confusion between the art of Apelles and the art of Polygnotus, which differed even more from one another than the latter did from such sculptures as the bas-reliefs of Phigaleia or the Parthenon. The painting of Polygnotus was essentially statuesque ; and this sort of painting it is probable that he brought nearly, if not quite, to perfection, by the ideal expression, the accurate drawing, and the improved colouring which characterised his works, though he made no attempt to avail himself of the higher accessories of the art, the discovery of which was reserved for a later period. The difference is clearly indicated by Cicero, when he says that Polygnotus, and Timanthes, and other artists who used but few colours, were admired for their forms and outlines, but that in Echion, Nicomachus, Protogenes, and Apelles, every thing had reached perfection. (Brut. 18.)

So fully did the ancients recognise the position of Polygnotus, as the head of this perfected style of statuesque painting, that Theophrastus ascribed to him the invention of the whole art. (Plin. Nat. 7.56. s. 57.) In how far this statement is incorrect, and what steps had been taken in the art before the time of Polygnotus, may be seen in the article Painting in the Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities.

The improvements which Polygnotus effected in painting are described by Pliny very briefly and unsatisfactorily. (H. N. 35.9. s. 35.) Among these improvements were, opening the mouth, showing the teeth, and varying the expression of the countenance from its ancient stiffness. He was the first who painted women with brilliant (or transparent) drapery (lucida veste), and with variegated head-dresses (mitris versicoloribus); and, generally, he was the first who contributed much to the advancement of painting (plurimumque picturae primus contulit). Lucian also selects his figures as models of excellence for the beauty of the eye-brows, the blush upon the cheeks (as in his Cassandra in the Lesche at Delphi), and the gracefulness of the draperies. (De Imag. 7, vol. ii. p. 465). These statements of Pliny amount to saying that Polygnotus gave great expression to both face and figure, and great elegance and variety to the drapery. How these matters were treated before his time we may judge from many of the ancient vases, where the figures are in the most constrained attitudes, the faces hard profiles, with closed lips and fixed eyes, often looking side-ways, and the draperies standing, rather than hanging, in rigid parallel lines. That the expression which Polygnotus gave to his figures was something more, however, than a successful imitation of real life, and that it had an ideal character, may be inferred from the manner in which Aristotle speaks of the artist. Thus he calls him an ethic painter (γραφεύς ἠθικός), a good ethographer (ἀγαθὸς ἠθογραφος), terms which denote his power of expressing, not passion and emotion only, but also ideal character. (Polit. 8.5. p. 267, ed. Göttling, Poet. 6.5, ed. Herm., 11, ed. Ritter.) In the second of these passages he contrasts him with Zeuxis, whose painting, he says, has no ἦθος at all; and his meaning is further shown by what he says on the subject, of which these allusions to painting are in illustration, namely ἦθος in poetry. "Tragedy," he says, "could not exist without action, but it could without ideal characters (ἠθῶν) ; for the tragedies of most of the recent poets are without character (ἀήθεις), and, in general, there are many poets of this kind ;" words thoroughly exemplified in some of the tragedies of Euripides, and in the account we have of others of the later tragedians and dithyrambic poets, where the expression of ideal character is sacrificed to the exhibition of mere emotion, to the energy and complication of dramatic action, or even to lower sources of interest. In another weil-known passage, which forms a sort of landmark in the history of art (Poet. 2), he says : "But since those who imitate, imitate men in action, and it is necessary that these be either good or bad (for characters, ἤθη, almost always follow these distinctions alone : for all men differ in their characters by vice and virtue), they imitate persons either better than ordinary men ( καθ᾽ ἡμᾶς), or worse, or such as men really are, just as the painters do : for Polygnotus represented men as better than they are ; Pauson worse than they are; and Dionysius like ordinary men." And so, in the passage respecting ἤθη, first quoted from the Politic (where the whole context deserves careful reading), he says that "the young ought not to study the works of Pauson, but those of Polygnotus, and whoever else of the painters or statuaries is ethic." In the Poetic, Aristotle goes on to explain his distinction by reference to various imitative arts, and especially poetry, in which, he says, "Homer represented characters better than ordinary men, but Cleophon like ordinary men, but Hegemon, who first composed parodies, and Nicochares, the author of the Delias, worse ;" he then quotes Timotheus and Philoxenus as examples of the same thing in the dithyramb, and adds the very important remark that "this is the very difference which makes the distinction between tragedy and comedy ; for the one purposes to imitate men worse, but the other better, than men as they now actually are." (Comp. Hermann's Notes, and Lessing's Hamburgische Dramaturgie.

The parallel which Aristotle thus draws between Polygnotus and Homer (and the poets of Homer's spirit) seems, from all we know of Polygnotus, to be an exact illustration, both of his subjects and of his mode of treating them. It should never be forgotten that Grecian art was founded upon Grecian poetry, and took from it both its subjects and its character. Pheidias and Polygnotus were the Homers of their respective arts; they imitated the personages and the subjects of the old mythology, and they treated them in an epic spirit, while Lysippus and Apelles were essentially dramatic : the former artists strove to express character and repose, the latter action and emotion; the former exhibited ideal personages, the latter real ones ; the men of the former are godlike, the gods of the latter are ordinary men; Pheidias derived the image of his Zeus from the sublimest verses of Homer, Apelles painted his Venus from a courtezan, and Zeuxis could find no higher model for the queen of Olympus than a selection from real and living beauties. The limits of this article do not permit any further exposition of this essential and fundamental point of aesthetic science. We must not, however, omit to state a fact, in illustration of the parallel between Homer and Polygnotus, namely, that the painter's works in the Lesche at Delphi were commonly known as the Iliad and Odyssey of Polygnotus ; though it must be admitted that most of those who used that phrase were thinking of the subjects of the paintings, and little or nothing of their character, and that very few had any notion of the sense in which Polygnotus is placed beside Homer by the great philosopher, who is rightly regarded as the father of aesthetic science. The subjects of the pictures of Polygnotus were almost invariably taken front Homer and the other poets of the epic cycle.

With respect to the more technical and mechanical improvements which Polygnotus introduced into painting, the statement of Pliny concerning his female draperies is admirably illustrated by Böttiger, to whose section on Polygnotus, in his Ideen zur Geschichte der Archäologie der Malerei, we here refer once for all, as one of the chief authorities for the present subject, and as one of the most valuable contributions to the history of ancient art. Böttiger (pp. 263-265) remarks that the descriptions of Polygnotus's paintings prove that female figures were introduced by him far more freely than we have any reason to suppose them to have appeared in earlier works of art; and that he thus gained the opportunity of enlivening his pictures with the varied and brilliant colours, which we know to have prevailed in the dress of the Greek women. His draperies are described by Lucian as having the appearance of thinness of substance, part adhering to the limbs so as to cover the figure without hiding it, and the greater part arranged in flowing masses as if moved by the wind. (Lucian. de Imag. 7, vol. ii. p. 465.) Respecting the mitrae versicolores, see Böttiger, p. 265.

Concerning his principles of composition, we know but little; but from that little it would seem that his pictures had nothing of that elaborate and yet natural grouping, aided by the powers of perspective, which is so much admired in modern works of art. The figures seem to have been grouped in regular lines, as in the bas-reliefs upon a frieze; and when it was desired to introduce other sets of figures nearer to, or more remote from the spectator, this was effected by placing them in other parallel lines below or above the first. A sort of principle of architectural symmetry governed the whole composition, the figures on each side of the centre of the picture being made to correspond with each other.

Such an advance as painting made in the age of Polygnotus could not have taken place without some new appliances in colouring; and accordingly we are told by Pliny that Polygnotus and his contemporary Micon were the first who used the sil or yellow ochre which was found in the Attic silver mines; and that the same artists made a black (atramentum) from the husks of pressed grapes, which was therefore called tryginon, τρύγινον. (Plin. Nat. 33.12. s. 56, 35.6. s. 25.) Böttiger supposes that they used the yellow ochre to a great extent for draperies and head-dresses. Polygnotus is one of those artists whom Cicero mentions as having used no more than four colours. (Brut. 18; but respecting the error in this statement see Müller, Arch. d. Kunst, § 319, and Dict. of Ant. art. Colores.

The instrument with which Polygnotus usually worked was the pencil, as we learn from a passage in Pliny, which also furnishes another proof of the excellence of the artist. The great painter Pausias, who was a pupil of Pamphilus, the master of Apelles, restored certain paintings of Polygnotus at Thespiae, and was considered to have fallen far short of the excellence of the original paintings, because "non suo genere certasset," that is, he used the pencil, as Polygnotus had done in the original pictures, instead of painting, as he was accustomed to do, in encaustic with the cestrum. (Plin. Nat. 35.11. s. 40.) Polygnotus, however, sometimes painted in encaustic, and he is mentioned as one of the earliest artists who did so. (Plin. Nat. 35.11. s. 39.)

As to the form of his pictures, it may be assumed that he generally followed what we know to have been the usual practice with the Greek artists, namely, to paint on panels, which were afterwards let into the walls where they were to remain. (Dict. of Ant. art. Painting ; Böttiger, Arch. d, M..) In Pliny's list of his works, one of them is expressly mentioned as a panel picture (tabula) ; but, on the other hand, the pictures at Thespiae, just referred to, are said to have been on walls (parietes). Indeed, the common opinion, that panel pictures were the form almost invariably used by the early Greek artists, should be received with some caution.

There is one passage of Pliny, from which it would appear that Polygnotus excelled in statuary as well as painting, though none of his works in that department were preserved. (Plin. Nat. 34.8. s. 19.25, adopting the reading of the Bamberg MS., Polygnotus, idema pictor e nobilissimis.) Perhaps this fact may contribute to the explanation of two obscure epigrams in the Greek Anthology. (Brunck, Anal. vol. ii. pp. 279, 440; see Jacobs's Notes ; and comp. POLYCLEITUS.)

His chief contemporaries, besides the members of his own family, already mentioned, were MICON, PANAENUS, the brother or nephew of Pheidias, ONATAS of Aegina, DIONYSIUS of Colophon, TIMAGORAS of Chalcis, and AGATHARCHUS the scenepainter. No disciples of his are mentioned, although we may almost assume that he instructed his brother Aristophon and his nephew Aglaophon ; but we are told by Aelian (Ael. VH 4.3), that Dionysius nysius closely imitated his style. (But see Aristot. l.c. and Plut. Tim. 2.)

The Works of Polygnotus, as mentioned by Pliny (Plin. Nat. 35.9. s. 35), include paintings in the temple at Delphi, in the portico called Poecile at Athens, those at Thespiae already mentioned, and a panel picture, which was placed in the portico in front of Pompey's Curia, at Rome. Pliny and Harpocration both state that he executed his works at Athens gratuitously; and the former says that, on this account, he was more highly esteemed than Myron, who painted for pay; the latter, that it was for this service that he obtained the citizenship of Athens. We may infer that he displayed the same liberality at Delphi, especially as Pliny tells us that the Amphictyons decreed him "hospitia grutuita," that is, the προξενία, in all the states of Greece. (Böttiger, pp. 271,272.) To the above works must be added, on other authorities, his paintings in the temple of Theseus, in the Anaceium, and the chamber of the Propylaea, at Athens, and those in the temple of Athena Areia at Plataeae. The detailed description of these works, and the full discussion of the questions which arise respecting their composition, would far exceed our limits. We have, therefore, preferred to occupy the space with the more important subjects of the time and artistic character of Polygnotus; and we shall now describe his works briefly, referring to the authorities in which full details will be found. We follow a chronological arrangement, so far as it can be made out with any probability.

1 * The objection against this view, derived from a story told about Elpinice, would scarcely deserve attention, were it not for the importance which has been attached to it by such critics as Lessing, Böttiger, and others of less note. Polygnotus, we are told, fell in love with Cimon's sister, Elpinice, and placed her portrait among the Trojan women, in his picture in the Poecile (Plut. Cim. 4). Now, not only does it appear that Elpinice must at this time have been nearly forty years old (not, certainly, a very formidable objection in itself), but it is also related that, only two years later (B. C. 461), Pericles answered an appeal which Elpinice made to him on behalf of her brother Cimon, by calling her an old woman ! (Plut. Cim. 14, Per. 10.) The whole story is suspicious, for Plutarch tells it again as having happened twenty-two years later, when, certainly, the appellation would be far more appropriate (Per. 28). But, even if the story were true, it is absurd to take the sarcasm of Pericles as an actual fact, and to rest upon it the argument that Polygnotus must have been in love with Elpinice when she was younger, and therefore must have flourished at an earlier period than that at which all other indications, direct and indirect, lead us to place him. Besides, Plutarch only mentions the story of his love for Elpinice as a rumour, and he even hints that it was a malicious rumour. The known connection of Polygnotus with Cimon is quite enough to account for his honouring his patron's sister with a place in one of his great paintings.

2 * It is, of course, almost useless to speculate on the reason why the name of Polygnotus is not specified. It may have been on account of his celebrity; or it may have been that he was growing old, and that his brother Aristophon was, just at the time, more before the public eye.

hide Dates (automatically extracted)
Sort dates alphabetically, as they appear on the page, by frequency
Click on a date to search for it in this document.
463 BC (3)
461 BC (1)
460 BC (1)
449 BC (1)
437 BC (1)
435 BC (1)
432 BC (1)
427 BC (1)
426 BC (1)
420 BC (1)
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: