The word ‘Hellenistic’ has often been misused in the sort of wider context where ‘Hellenizing’ would be more appropriate; whereas, when applied to works of arts, it properly denotes those produced in areas of Greek influence between the latter part of the fourth and the middle of the first centuries B.C. Even so, Hellenistic art is a hard concept to define, for it is hard to pin down the traits in which its individuality lies or to define the features common to a variety of artistic forms of expression as well as to different geographical areas.
Though Greek art was first revealed to the artists and literati of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries through Hellenistic works discovered in Rome and elsewhere in Italy, these works still remain to a great extent elusive and indefinable, as hard to interpret stylistically as in terms of content and context. One reason for this is that far too many of them remain anonymous. A second is that, especially in the field of painting, all we have to go on are numerous low-quality copies, reproductions and imitations, turned out at a later date, of originals which have not come down to us; two or more replicas of a great work, however meritorious they may be, cannot match a signed original when it comes to conveying the personality of the artist.
Furthermore, the various centres of art shift, multiply, and change as a unified civilization develops in new regions of the ancient world. The basis of this civilization is Greek language, thought and art, but these are filtered through a variety of very different political, administrative, and ethnic patterns. While the studio-workshops of Pergamum are familiar to us through numbers of signed and dated works, those of Rhodes or Alexandria have not yielded sufficient firm attributions for us to assess their originality or to estimate the contribution they made to the common culture.
It is nevertheless true that, because of its very mysteries and ambiguities, Hellenistic art exercises a very special attraction; for it fashioned and elaborated that heritage which the Greek world transmitted to the West, and strongly influenced certain artistic movements in the Middle East which paved the way for Islamic civilization. Despite its diversity, it does not lack unity. The political changes and developments which the Greek world underwent after the death of Alexander transformed classical art - permeated and inspired as it had been by the life of the polis, and of the various political communities that evolved within the clearly-defined limits of the city-state -into something far more individualistic (for proof one need only study the development of the portrait), and brought it into the service of Hellenistic royalty. Greece under these monarchies provided a favourable climate for the development of ‘Court art’.
Nevertheless, there was no direct break with the past. The period of preparation went on a long time, and the changes were both slow and subtle. From the middle of the fourth century, however, one can detect signs of new trends in works that are still classical. Indeed the two elements sometimes co-exist on one and the same monument - e.g. the friezes of the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus, the execution of which was entrusted to four sculptors of widely divergent personality - or even in a single artist: the work of Lysippus is already strongly characterized by tendencies that become widespread during the next century.
This State-backed art, often designed to enhance the glory and prestige of princes, tends to enlarge volume and proportions in both sculpture and architecture, and encourages a splendid efflorescence of decorative mural painting, which seeks to broaden and enlarge both surfaces and masses by means of sensational architectural groupings. The result is an aim common to every field of artistic expression, a constant struggle to conquer space in all its dimensions.
One method of achieving this is by structuring space in clearly defined and limited masses, where the effects of architectural plasticity are organized in an ordered manner. Another is by the development of infinitely varied rhythms through giving vibrancy to all spatial elements in every direction; works of sculpture such as the Aphrodite of Cnidus or the Victory of Samothrace move within their own space, which they have freely conquered and assimilated. In painting progress in the mastery of colour makes it possible to perfect this conquest through a more subtle mastery of light and shade, which the artist could employ on draperies as well as on monumental façades.
That gusto for life which animates every aspect of this period breathes fresh vigour into its artistic creativity - sometimes producing excesses which taste does not invariably tone down. It manifests itself in touching and sometimes tragic expressions; by its tendency to accentuate relief-work and musculature, or to produce emphatic contrasts in architectural or pictorial compositions; and through a striving after the picturesque in subject-matter, attitudes, and alliances of form or colour - a trend which also emerges in markedly hominocentric interpretations of religious or mythological themes.
With all its variety and multiplicity, its movement and colour, its simultaneous embodiment of the plastic and the pictorial, Hellenistic art achieves unity - and provides a link between every field of artistic creation - through its constant striving after bold and vigorous expression.