Praxiteles in Paris

An article about the Louvre exhibition, which is in the current edition of Minerva.


Dorothy King delves into the myth and facts surrounding this master sculptor, whose life and work is currently on show at the Louvre.

Mentioned by many ancient writers, his works known through countless copies in all media, Praxiteles was one of the leading Greek sculptors of the 4th century BC. So a new exhibition at the Louvre on this genius craftsman until 18 June is a most welcome chance to see many of the ancient artistic masterpieces routinely ascribed to him. A one-day conference accompanying the exhibition and the show’s catalogue will be beneficial additions to the study of this master, whose oeuvre remains a matter of controversy: some scholars try to assign sculptures to every ancient reference we have for him, whilst others claim that the only certain work by his hand known though copies is the Aphrodite of Cnidus (Fig 1), otherwise feted as the first monumental sculpture of the female nude. Later in life he had a relationship with a courtesan named Phryne, who modeled for him, although probably not for this early work.

Praxiteles was born in Athens at the dawn of the 4th century, and is attested as having worked well into the 330s BC. He is believed to have trained under Cephisodotus, probably his father, and his trade was in turn continued by his sons. Roman sources may more realistically reflect their own age and tastes than the practices of Praxiteles, but they certainly suggest that he had a large and successful atelier working both in bronze and, far more unusually for the time, also in marble - earlier Classical sculptors tended to work almost exclusively in bronze.

Several recorded incidents suggest that he made works for ‘stock’, as well as to order. That Praxiteles used mostly marble was novel, and this allowed for a more subtle play of surface texture. Few ancient bronzes are preserved, although a Hellenistic bronze now in Athens was found in the sea in 1994 and depicts the Large Herculanean, a figure type associated with Praxiteles. Her elaborate drapery and detailed observation of how it fell hints at the beauty of bronze originals.

Praxiteles became so famous in the Roman period and in modern scholarship that he has ‘acquired’ many attributions of sculptures over the centuries. He would have had a large workshop, but more conservative scholars tend to discount many works from his oeuvre, such as the Diana of Gabii (Fig 6). The many ancient citations of his themes, such as Eros and Satyrs, tend to imply that he repeatedly reproduced versions of the same statue styles, creating new versions of earlier works as these were commissioned by different cities. His style was so influential both in the Greek period, with a ‘school’ of followers, and in the Roman period, when copies and free adaptations were made, that it can be hard to identify with certainty which works were his own and which crafted by followers and imitators.

In terms of physical evidence, we have no certain original works by Praxiteles. A statue of Hermes carrying the infant Dionysus was excavated in the temple of Hera at Olympia in the 19th century, and since its discovery scholars have been debating whether it could be the original work seen there by Pausanias or alternatively be a very fine Roman copy made to replace it when the original was taken to Rome. The date of the statue is important since it has features not seen in Roman copies of other works of Praxiteles, such as the soft sfumato modeling and, in turn, this affects how we interpret the style of the sculptor. A feature which is characteristic of his mythological subjects is implied narrative - something about to happen - rather than a static pose, and this sense of impending movement is created through the poses and the S-shaped bodies of his subjects, an elaboration of and development from the Polycleitan stance.

We are on firmer ground when it comes to signed statue bases; one from the Agora in Athens, for example, attests to his work as a portraitist of private individuals, a fact otherwise not alluded to by the ancient sources. The fragmentary inscription tells us that a couple dedicated statues of themselves to Demeter, and beneath the name of the woman, in smaller script, is carved the standard signature phrase of Greek artists ‘Praxiteles Made Me’. A far more elaborate statue base was found in Mantinea in ancient Arcadia in the central Peloponnese, decorated with relief images of Apollo and Muses, and this seems to be the base of a statue by Praxiteles that Pausanias saw there and recorded in his Roman-period guide to Greece (Fig 3). Although the carving would have been produced by members of his workshop, rather than by Praxiteles himself, it can still provide us with valuable clues about the figure types that the master developed and used. It may also copy the group of Muses he carved for the sanctuary of the Muses on Mount Helicon.

The Aphrodite of Cnidus was produced in Athens and is one of two sculptures that the artist offered first choice of to Kos. The more conservative city chose a half-draped goddess; the newly re-founded Cnidus was left with the nude goddess, which became one of the most famous sculptures of antiquity. From the Hellenistic period onwards she was reproduced in terracotta, on coins, in statuettes, and fullscale statues - even on a Roman pilaster capital at Aphrodisias. Aphrodite was claimed as the goddess from whom the Julio-Claudian dynasty was descended, so many of the copies date from that period - the traces of purple paint on the peplos had Imperial connotations - and she was possibly paired with Anchises as the father of Aeneas. Later, Hadrian even had a round temple built at Tivoli to replicate the original setting for his copy of the goddess.

The details of the copies and replicas vary considerably, but the consensus is that the original figure depicted Aphrodite at her bath, pulling up her drapery to dress after bathing (as in Fig 7). Although small-scale images and private erotica of nudes had been produced before, this was probably the first public female nude on a monumental scale used as a cult statue, and became highly influential on the countless Roman depictions of Venus.

The moment depicted recalls a famous historical anecdote about a courtesan Phryne, who disrobed during the ritual sea purification at the festival at Eleusis (Fig 2). She was charged with impiety, and only acquitted on the basis of her naked body being on a par with Aphrodite, and so obviously a gift of the goddess. This story is believed to have inspired a painting of Aphrodite by Apelles. Since Praxiteles is also well attested as having been enamoured with Phryne, she is sometimes identified as the model for the Cnidia - only a courtesan would have posed naked for an artist. Phryne, however, flourished a little later and seems to have been the love of Praxiteles’ old age. So the model for the Cnidia is likely to have been Cratina. Praxiteles did produce a portrait of Phryne, which she dedicated at Delphi, and so it must date after the end of the Third Sacred War in 345 BC, making it a later work by the master. The ancient sources tend to speak of the nudity of Praxitiles’ Aphrodite far more than her religious meaning, emphasising that such exposure was unusual for cult statues well into the Roman period. Her beauty was so mesmerising that there are about a dozen preserved accounts of men becoming so enamoured with her that they attempted inappropriate physical contact.

The Cnidian statue did not leave her city in Asia Minor until the early Christian period, when she was shipped to Constantinople to become part of the collection of Lausos. There, she is believed to have perished in the great fire of AD 476. Condemned by earlier Christian writers, she was then once again admired by erudite Byzantine connoisseurs. Despite the Christian virtue of modesty, her fame grew after her loss, so that by the 13th century she was even included in lists of ancient wonders of the world. The fact that this Aphrodite was never brought to Rome is important, as it means that the copies produced were less accurate. A collection of Roman casts of famous sculptures was excavated at Baiae, but no parts of her were identified amongst the many masterpieces discovered. This suggests that there may have been an ancient ban on direct copying, possibly for religious reasons, but more likely because the priests wanted to guard their precious statue. Made of marble, Praxiteles’ original was much admired for its delicate shading, the surface having been painted by Nikias, as were several other works by the sculptor.

The first Roman copy of the Cnidian Aphrodite was unearthed in Rome in 1536, and is known as the Venus Belvedere, now in the Vatican. Praxiteles’ Cnidia was identified in the 17th century on the basis of a coin of Caracalla, although it was not until the following century that the coin and the statue were associated by scholars and the Venus Belvedere seen as being a work by Praxiteles copied by a Roman artist. Since then, more and more works have been assigned to the Athenian and we have been able to identify his style far better.

Many of the other statues by Praxiteles, however, were taken to Rome and extensively copied there. Originals were sometimes replaced by copies in Greece - this is well attested for his Eros at Thespiae, recorded by Pausanias as a copy, and may well have been true too for the Hermes of Olympia. Another work almost certainly indentified through copies as a Praxiteles original is the Apollo Sauroctonus (‘Lizard Killer’; Fig 8), whose bronze original is known to have been in Rome (due to its unusual subject matter). Most descriptions are too brief and general to prove certain identifications like this, although the fame of this work and its numerous copies was well attested by the sources. It is a pity that the bronze copy of the Lizard Killer from Cleveland will not be included in the show, although a head in the Benaki Museum, possibly from the collection of Herodes Atticus, will replace it. Here, Apollo is depicted as an adolescent about to spear a poisonous lizard with the arrow (now missing from his raised left hand).

The curve of his body, moving away from and elaborating the developments of Polycleitus, shows that this is a mature work of Praxiteles, with his characteristic contraposto at the hips. The raised arm, the notably bent left leg, and the swivel in body - all implying the movement about to happen and thus the narrative of the work - would have been more easily produced in bronze, so even without ancient sources we could have assumed the material of the original. The musculature is clear, even in the adolescent body, with well observed contraction on the right side of the stomach.

A similar pose can be noted on the Leaning Satyr type, also assigned to Praxiteles by some scholars. A statue form more firmly associated with Praxiteles is the Pouring Satyr, although this seems to date to the beginning of his career, based on the pose and body. This Satyr is an idealised boy, identified as a member of the Dionysian retinue only by his pointed ears and ivy crown. He poured wine for the god from the jug in his raised right hand into a phiale in his left hand. The body, head, and hair are all Polycleitan in influence, and that the copies are all of the same size suggests that they were made from casts of the bronze original.

The Marathon Boy, found in the sea off Marathon, is a Greek original of the 4th century BC (Fig 4) and, though shown on the posters, it will not now be lent to the Louvre by Greece, which is concerned that it is too fragile to travel. This figure is very much in the style of Praxiteles, and may have been made by a follower. The left hand was restored later in antiquity as a lamp, but may originally have held an infant Dionysus, making the ‘Boy’ Hermes. This would make the group a smaller scale version of the famous group in Olympia, but with the Hermes depicted as an adolescent rather than a man.

Exhibitions of ancient sculpture are rare and far between, since they are notoriously difficult to arrange. The Cleveland Apollo was pulled from the current show after pressure was exerted by Greece, although the Greeks subsequently do not seem to have loaned all the works that the Louvre had been expecting, notably refusing to ship the Marathon Boy. Weeks before the opening, works were still being substituted, and the exact contents were still uncertain. Fortunately, the Louvre itself owns an extensive collection of Roman copies of statues associated with Praxiteles as well as many terracottas, such as a series from Myrina of the Cnidia. To be able to see so many Praxitelean sculptures gathered together will give us all a chance to judge the many Roman types ascribed to him and advance scholarship. It will also be a pleasure to view an exhibition devoted to one of the most admired Athenian artists of the Late Classical period.

‘Praxiteles’ is in the Napoleon Hall of the Louvre, Paris, until 18 June 2007. The exhibition is curated by Alain Pasquier and Jean-Luc Martinez from the Department of Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Antiquities.
The exhibition catalogue (456pp) is priced 39 euros. Tickets cost 9.5 euros from Tel. +33 1 4020 5317 or www.louvre.fr.

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