Welcome back to the Accessible Art History blog! For this post, I’m continuing my “Art History Terms” series. This series is all about breaking down art history vocabulary to help you learn how to talk about art! So, let’s talk all about contrapposto! It’s an essential term, especially when discussing sculpture. This concept completely shifted (no pun intended!) our understanding of art and the human body. So to learn more, keep on reading!
Before diving in however, I think it is important to talk about art before the concept of contrapposto was developed. I want you to imagine the art of Ancient Egypt or Archaic Greece. The human form was stiff and its structure was tight and compact. It is symmetrical
and linear. This isn’t a bad thing by any means. But, it shows that artists from this period weren’t necessarily thinking about naturalistic details. It was also easier to carve because the human form mimics the natural lines of the rock.
But, try standing in this position. It isn’t comfortable or naturalistic. Now, stand normally, as if you are talking with someone. Notice how your weight shifts to sit primarily on one hip. See how one of your knees bends more than the other? This is what we call contrapposto!
Meaning “counterpoise” in Italian, contrapposto was developed in Greece around the 5th century BCE. It mimics the way humans stand while at rest. But, why is this considered a revolution? The first reason is that it’s simply more naturalistic than previous styles. These figures actually look like people! In addition, contrapposto provides dynamic movement. It pulls the sculpture into motion
and creates a story. This shows how ancient artists strove to show themselves in art.
Contrapposto is one of the most important terms in art history. It represents the development of the representation of the human form. This technique helps us to create movement in a static medium.
Gardner’s Art through the Ages, 12th edition by Fred S. Kleiner
Kroisos Kouros, c. 530 BCE, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
The Doryphoros of Polykleitos, c. 440 BCE, CC 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons