Who was the Ancient Greek Sculptor Lyssipus

Lysippus was born in Sicyon around 390 B.C. and died there about 60 years later. Initially a bronze worker in his youth, he was self-taught in the art of sculpture. Later, he led the schools of Argos and Sicyon and became the personal sculptor of Alexander the Great.

LysippusAccording to Pliny, he created more than 1500 works, all in bronze. None of his original works have survived, only some copies. This is because his sculptures were mainly made of bronze, a valuable material for people to reuse.

His work, which spans the entire 4th century B.C., had perhaps the greatest influence on all Hellenistic sculpture. Besides Sicyon, where he was born and primarily worked, he also worked in other major ancient cities such as Corinth, Isthmia, Argos, Olympia, Athens, Delphi, Sparta, Macedonia, and Lemnos.

Together with Leochares, he represents the end of the classical and the dawn of Hellenistic sculpture. His forms completed the achievements of Scopas and extended into three dimensions, offering viewers more aesthetically complete views. They are tall, slender, flexible, muscular, and with relatively small heads. He was a famous portraitist, and Alexander the Great trusted only him.

He began his career as a simple bronze worker. Without the means to study at the schools of Sicyon, he learned the art of sculpture on his own after hearing the painter Eupompus say that he would imitate no other artist, only nature. These words gave him courage, and he began to study living beings. Much later, when he settled in Philip’s palace in Macedonia, he met Aristotle, who spoke about the freedom of the artist. His works, like a relief in Paris and a statue of an injured dog licking its wound while curled up, were seized and scattered.

The artist followed the general to Alexandria and Arabia, and “the visual language developed throughout this journey through the works” of the Peloponnesian sculptor, where “the instantaneous action and the expression of the emotional world coexist with the curve and the straight line, light and shadow.” He is the creator of the “Colossus of Rhodes,” which was destroyed by his student!

According to Plutarch, Alexander insisted that only this famous sculptor of the time should carve his statues. Plutarch also notes that Lysippus was the first to sculpt him with that peculiar tilt of the head, simultaneously capturing his true character and virtue. While other artists imitated the characteristic tilt of the head, they failed to convey his masculine and leonine appearance.

This appearance was desired not only by Alexander himself but also by his entourage, which shaped the corresponding image of the great general and world ruler. It seems that even in antiquity, what we now call image-makers surrounded great leaders!

Many theories have been formulated to date about Alexander’s peculiar head tilt, attempting to uncover its causes. He preferred Lysippus for creating his official portrait, the image he wanted to present to his subjects.

Ancient writers inform us that in these statues, his head had an upward tilt, his neck a slight turn to the left, his eyes radiated a tender yet passionate “liquid” gaze, and his entire image exuded masculinity and was distinguished by leonine features. These characteristics were mainly expressed through his abundant hair parted in the middle above the forehead, resembling a lion’s mane. Indeed, it looked like a lion’s mane because the curls, arranged in two rows, were flame-shaped and stood up in the central part of the forehead, falling towards the temples.

Another fundamental feature of Alexander’s portraits was his clean-shaven face. He must have been one of the first famous mortals depicted in large-scale Greek sculpture without a beard, which clearly indicated his natural beauty and youthfulness. In earlier times, a clean-shaven face was usually a sign of cowardice and effeminacy.

None of the statues of Alexander sculpted by Lysippus have survived, but we know of some later ones that, to varying degrees, give us an idea of these works. The most famous of these, which happens to be the only one whose identification as a portrait of Alexander is confirmed by the inscription it bears, unfortunately, has not survived in good condition and has many restorations. It is a marble herm of the 2nd century A.D. found in the outskirts of Rome and is now in the Louvre. It is known to experts as the Azara Herm, named after a Spanish diplomat who once owned it.

The statues of Alexander created by Lysippus decisively influenced the official depictions of his successors and served as a model to some extent. Many Hellenistic rulers and later Roman emperors and generals imitated features of these official depictions.

Some have called him the first impressionist, which isn’t entirely accurate. What he aimed to achieve was to give life and character to his statues, and this is what characterizes all his works. The impression comes naturally. We can see all these features in his “Heracles,” in the copy by Glycon, the truly colossal statue, approximately 3.5 meters high, which was placed in the Agora of Sicyon.

Several surviving copies of Glycon’s work exist, and one of them is in the Pitti Palace in Florence, bearing his name. His particular skill in handling scale brought colossal art back into vogue during his time. Regarding the portrayal of the emotionalism of his figures, he created a new type of Heracles, the “Farnese Heracles” or “Weary Heracles,” which was copied more than any other in antiquity. The hero is depicted exhausted, leaning on his club, seeking rest after having accomplished his glorious labors and endured the trials of life.

“Other artists make people as they are; I make them as they appear.” These are his words, expressing the uniqueness of his style. With Lysippus, the art of sculpture is renewed. The robust form of Polykleitos’ “Doryphoros” is replaced by a more slender and lighter creation. He makes the legs thinner and longer, the head smaller, with a proportion of one-eighth of the body rather than the one-seventh used by Polykleitos. All these changes contribute to the creation of a more refined and taller form. But his real innovation lies in giving his works a truly three-dimensional aspect.

He achieves this in “Apoxyomenos” by positioning the hands extended, one stretching out fully and the other slightly bent underneath, in perfect harmony. No matter the angle from which you view his works, they give you a realistic image and encourage you to examine them from all directions.

His sculptures bear the stamp of the Praxitelean canon of proportions but have their hands extended in the act of scraping off mud and impurities from the oiled body. Thus, they embrace the three-dimensional space, simultaneously projecting a different sense of balance from that of contrapposto.

The figure’s arm extends in front of the torso, between the statue and the viewer, making the subject three-dimensional and freeing several viewing angles for the observer. The liberation of sculpture from the frontal pose leads to the depiction of freer and more realistic forms, opening new visual avenues and connecting the sculpture with the existing space.

During the early years of his creation, he focused on producing statues of athletes according to Polykleitos’ standards. Over time, however, he introduced stylistic and morphological changes, the most significant of which can be summarized as follows:

(a) The heads of his statues, as Pliny also notes, are smaller than those in classical Greek sculpture (approximately one-eighth the height of the body instead of the previous one-seventh);

(b) The body twists in such a way that it forces the viewer to adapt to the statue’s space, as it can no longer be fully observed from a single point;

(c) The legs and arms extend out of the traditional closed space, intruding into that of the viewer. Many scholars agree that the deliberate theatricality seen in his works served his intention to surprise his viewers. This effect was generally achieved through interventions in the scale of the forms and an “expressionistic” rendering of their emotionalism.

No other work better exemplifies the hidden meaning of his words than the bust of “Socrates.” A copy of the original bronze work made around 370 B.C. The ugly-featured face of Socrates, in his hands, becomes beautiful, full of humanity, reflecting his great intelligence. As we can see, for Lysippus, the expression of the face, as projected from the soul, is of great importance. We can see in Socrates’ bright and calm face his strong character, kindness, and intelligence.

In the busts of Alexander or the “Boxer,” perhaps the only surviving authentic bronze work by Lysippus, the artist captures the moment when the judges announce the winner. The Boxer, who is likely unable to hear due to his injuries, looks towards the judges and the crowd to confirm the result. The wounds on his face are accented with pure copper sheets. (Rome: National Museum)

The “Agias” from Pharsalus is a marble copy of the bronze statue of Agias, a young and skilled pankration athlete who flourished around the 5th century B.C. It belongs to the group of statues dedicated to Delphi and Apollo around 335 B.C. by the Thessalian hieromnemon Daochos II. The body of the pankratiast is slender and tall. The statue stands firmly, full of life. The expression on the face is unique, a characteristic of Lysippus’ works. (Delphi Museum)

His actual bronze statue titled “Kairos” or “Opportunity” was placed outside his house in the Agora of Hellenistic Sicyon. It is worth noting that this city was one of the first ancient Greek cities with a glorious culture and prosperity.