From the masters of the Renaissance such as Botticelli, Michelangelo and Caravggio to the Romantic painters of the 19th century, the art of ancient Greece and Rome has inspired artists for over 2,500 years. Art History shows how every stylistic and aesthetic innovation bases its roots on the artistic productions of the previous centuries. The study of ancient art is thus of fundamental importance when approaching a contemporary work of art: every act of innovation or departure demands an engagement with tradition.
Following the Renaissance in Europe, the humanist aesthetic and the high technical standards of Greek art, and then Ancient Roman art, inspired generations of European artists. Well into the 19th century, the classical tradition derived from Greece dominated the art of the Western world. The culture and myths of ancient Greece and Rome had, of course, been a recurring theme in the history and allegorical painting of academic, Western art but the ways in which these themes remerged in the art of 20th century was under a completely different light, far removed from the moral, didactic ends of the art of the past.
Artists of the calibre of Picasso, Modigliani, Rodin or Matisse, who have completely revolutionised the artistic panorama of their time, have in fact been deeply inspired by ancient art. Picasso had studied ancient Greek art both through his visits to the Louvre during his student years and via Roman art. Visual references to antiquity begin to appear in his works from 1917, also known as Picasso’s «classical period». The statuesque nudes, the classical compositions, but also an interest in subject matter taken from mythology prevail in Picasso’s works of the time.
Examples of the fascination of ancient Greek and ancient Roman art exercised on Picasso could be the series of drawings Nessus and Deianeira from 1920 or the figure of the Minotaur, which often appears in Picasso’s drawings and sketches. Reflecting the strong relationship between modern artists and Greek and Roman art, the sculptor Auguste Rodin demonstrated through his fruitful artistic production an explosive engagement with ancient statuary.
The Parthenon sculptures had a profound effect on August Rodin when he saw them for the first time at the British Museum. The Thinker, one of the most celebrated marble creation of the XIX century, derives its aesthetics from the classic beauty canons of the Belvedere Torso, a fragmentary marble statue of a nude male, known to be in Rome from the 1430s, and signed on the front of the base by “Apollonios, son of Nestor, Athenian”.
The “classical” does not die, but it is hopeful and nostalgic to different degrees, depending on the context. Antiquity continues to act as an impetus key for contemporary artists.