1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Praxiteles

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PRAXITELES, of Athens, the son of Cephissodotus, the greatest of the Attic sculptors of the 4th century B.C., who has left an imperishable mark on the history of art. It has been maintained by some writers that there were two sculptors of the name, one a contemporary of Pheidias, the other, more celebrated, of two generations later. This duplication is defended in Furtwangler’s Masterpieces of Greek Sculpture (pp. 99, 102, seq.) but on insufficient grounds. There is, however, no reason why the great Praxiteles should not have had a grandfather of the same name: all that we can say is that at present we have no certain evidence that this was the case. Though Praxiteles may be considered as in some ways well known to us, yet we have no means for fixing his date accurately. It seems clear that he was no longer working in the time of Alexander the Great, or that king would have employed him. Pliny’s date, 364 B.C., is probably that of one of his most noted works.

Our knowledge of Praxiteles has received a great addition, and has been placed on a satisfactory basis, by the discovery at Olympia in 1877 of his statue of Hermes bearing the infant Dionysus, a statue which has become famous throughout the world (Greek Art, fig. 43 and Plate VI. fig. 82). Hermes is represented as in the act of carrying the child Dionysus to the nymphs who were charged with his rearing. He pauses on the way, and holds out to the child a bunch of grapes to excite his desire. The young child can hardly be regarded as a success; he is not really childlike. But the figure of the Hermes, full and solid without being fleshy, at once strong and active, is a masterpiece, and the play of surface is astonish in In the head we have a remarkably rounded and intelligent shape, and the face expresses the perfection of health and enjoyment.

This statue must for the future be our best evidence for the style of Praxiteles. It altogether confirms and interprets the statements as to Praxiteles made by Pliny and other ancient critics. Gracefulness in repose, and an indefinable charm are also the attributes of works in our museums which appear to be copies of statues by Praxiteles. Perhaps the most notable of these are the Apollo Sauroctonus, or the lizard-slayer, a youth leaning against a tree and idly striking with an arrow at a lizard, and the Aphrodite at the bath (Greek Art, Plate V., fig. 71) of the Vatican, which is a copy of the statue made by Praxiteles for the people of Cnidus, and by them valued so highly that they refused to sell it to King Nicomedes, who was willing in return to discharge the whole debt of the city, which, says Pliny, was enormous.

The Satyr of the Capitol at Rome has commonly been regarded as a copy of one of the Satyrs of Praxiteles; but we cannot identify it in the list of his works. Moreover, the style is hard and poor; a far superior replica exists in a torso in the Louvre. The attitude and character of the work are certainly of Praxitelean school.

Excavations at Mantineia in Arcadia have brought to light the basis of a group of Leto Apollo and Artemis by Praxiteles. This basis was doubtless not the work of the great sculptor himself, but of one of his assistants. Nevertheless it is pleasing and historically valuable. Pausanias (viii. 9, 1) thus describes the base, “on the base which supports the statues there are sculptured the Muses and Marsyas playing the flutes.” Three slabs which have survived represent Apollo, Marsyas, a slave, and six of the Muses, the slab which held the other three having disappeared.

A head of Aphrodite at Petworth in England, and a head of Hermes in the British Museum (Aberdeen Hermes), have lately been claimed by competent authorities as actual works of Praxiteles. Both are charming works, but rather by the successors of Praxiteles than by himself.

Besides these works, connected with Praxiteles on definite evidence, there are in our museums works without number of the Roman age, statues of Hermes, of Dionysus, of Aphrodite, of Satyrs and Nymphs and the like, in which a varied amount of Praxitelean style may be discerned. Four points of composition may be mentioned, which appear to be in origin Praxitelean: (1) a very flexible line divides the figures if drawn down the midst from top to bottom; they all tend to lounging; (2) they are adapted to front and back view rather than to being seen from one side or the other; (3) trees, drapery and the like are used for supports to the marble figures, and included in the design, instead of being extraneous to it; (4) the faces are presented in three-quarter view.

The subjects chosen by Praxiteles were either human beings or the less elderly and dignified deities. It is Apollo, Hermes and Aphrodite who attract him rather than Zeus, Poseidon or Athena. And in his hands the deities sink to the human level, or, indeed, sometimes almost below it. They have grace and charm in a supreme degree, but the element of awe and reverence is wanting.

Praxiteles and his school worked almost entirely in marble. At the time the marble quarries of Paros were at their best; nor could any marble be finer for the purposes of the sculptor than that of which the Hermes is made. Some of the statues of Praxiteles were coloured by the painter Nicias, and in the opinion of the sculptor they gained greatly by this treatment.  (P. G.)