Praxiteles (active ca. 370-330 B.C.) was one of the leading Greek sculptors of the 4th century B.C. His style, refined and graceful, greatly influenced the art of his own time and the succeeding epochs.
Praxiteles was probably the son of Kephisodotos, an Athenian sculptor, since he named one of his own sons Kephisodotos, and the same name ran in families in alternate generations. Pliny the Elder, in his Naturalis historia, places Praxiteles in the 104th Olympiad, or 364-361 B.C., and the base of a portrait statue from Leuktra bearing an inscription stating that Praxiteles the Athenian made it dates from about 330 B.C. These are the only definite dates we have regarding him.
At the beginning of the 4th century B.C. Athenian civilization had undergone profound changes. The disillusionment with civic values caused by the Peloponnesian War had turned artistic taste away from the idealism of Phidias's art toward a more humanized, personal view of the world and the gods. Praxiteles brought the gods down to a human level; he made them less majestic but gave them a consummate grace.
The marble Hermes Holding the Infant Dionysos was found in 1877 in the Heraion at Olympia, where Pausanias, who ascribes it to Praxiteles, had seen it in the 2d century A.D. Whether it is a Greek original, a Greek copy, or a good Roman copy, the statue is one of the finest ancient works preserved and shows the salient characteristics of the sculptor's style. Praxiteles softened the precisely articulated rendering of musculature of the previous century into a softer, fluid harmony of subtly modulated surfaces; and for the architectonically balanced composition of Polykleitos he substituted a languid S-curve. This curve, often called the "Praxitelean curve, " is a hallmark of his sculpture.
In antiquity the most famous work by Praxiteles was the marble Aphrodite (Venus) of Knidos. His openly sensuous treatment of the nude female form was a new feature in Greek art and created an ideal type that endured until the end of antiquity. Pliny tells us that this work made the city of Knidos famous and that it was "the finest statue not only by Praxiteles but in the whole world." Athenaios adds that Phryne, Praxiteles's mistress, was the model. There are a number of Roman copies of the statue, and it is reproduced on Roman coins from Knidos.
According to Pausanias, the base of Praxiteles's statue Leto and Her Children at Mantinea was decorated with a scene depicting Apollo, Marsyas, and the Muses. Three slabs from the base were found in 1877 at Mantinea: two show three Muses each, lovely draped figures, and the third depicts Marsyas playing the flute and Apollo with his Phrygian slave. The base may have been executed by one of Praxiteles's students, working from the master's designs.
The Apollo Sauroktonos ("lizard slayer") by Praxiteles is known from Pliny's description of it, fairly accurate Roman copies in both marble and bronze (Pliny lists it with the sculptor's bronze works), and the Roman coins from Philippopolis in Thrace and Nikopolis on the Danube. Apollo is represented as a boy leaning against a tree trunk waiting to kill a lizard with an arrow. The sinuous figure of the dreamy god perhaps illustrates better than any other work by Praxiteles how his vision of the gods differed from the emotionally neutral images of his 5th-century predecessors.
Ancient authors mention many other works by Praxiteles, and almost all have been connected with anonymous originals or copies in various museums. These include the famous Eros, which Pausanias says Phryne dedicated in her native city, Thespiai; a young satyr pouring wine, a bronze statue seen by Pausanias in the Street of the Tripods in Athens; the cult image of Artemis Brauroniaon the Acropolis in Athens; and an image of Eubouleus, the swinehered of Eleusinian myth, at Eleusis.
Praxiteles's two sons, Kephisodotos and Timarchos, worked in the tradition of their father. The Praxitelean school profoundly influenced Hellenistic sculpture in its choice of themes and their formal realization. The soft fusion of planes and delicate expression of his style can be seen in particular in early Hellenistic sculpture and minor arts, for example, the Tanagra terra-cotta figurines.
The best work is in Italian: G. E. Rizzo, Prassitele (1932). Praxiteles is discussed in all general surveys of ancient Greek sculpture, among the finest of which is Gisela M. A. Richter, The Sculpture and Sculptors of the Greeks (4th ed. 1970). □
Learn more about Praxiteles