Praxiteles is one of the most celebrated of the Attic sculptors, and although very few facts about his life are certain, it is known that he was from Athens and his father, Kephisodotus, was believed to be another renowned Attic sculptor. All of his work is estimated to date from the second half of the 4th century B.C.
Only one of Praxiteles' sculptures still survives, although the authenticity of this piece is doubted by some. However, as a result of his fame and popularity, a great deal of Roman copies of his works were made, many of which have been recovered. His recognition as a great sculptor is clear from the pictures of his sculptures which were engraved on Roman coins, as well as the descriptions given to us by writers such as Pliny the Elder and Pausanias. Praxiteles' school of art was mostly concerned with marble, due to the fine quality of marble from the quarries in Paros at the time. Some of his sculptures were also known to be painted by Nicias, who Praxiteles greatly respected, proclaiming that the best statues were those painted by Nicias.
Praxiteles was highly influential in the development of Greek sculpture, bringing an elegant and sensuous grace to his work. His innovative style was a transformation from the tone set by his predecessors of impressive yet somehow detached sculpture, especially in representations of the gods. Praxiteles overcomes the problem of distancing the viewer by producing a much more humanising view of the gods. Many sculptors from Praxiteles' time chose to use bronze for their sculpture, as it allows greater flexibility in composition due to its tensile strength. However, Praxiteles, although he was skilled in both materials, favoured the use of marble. He points out its advantage over bronze as its ability to resemble the softness and radiance of the skin. The innovations of bronze had allowed sculptors to accurately depict the human anatomy, as well as the responsiveness of the body to various movements or positions. This meant that the sculptures being produced in Praxiteles' time were aiming to create a physically accurate figure. However, Praxiteles was interested in doing more than this; it was his beautiful rendering of surface and texture that made him such a highly praised sculptor.
The subjects of Praxiteles work tend to be the younger gods such as Hermes, Apollo and Aphrodite; he was not as interested in portraying the more dignified, elderly figures such as Zeus or Poseidon. Praxiteles' most famous and admired work was his Aphrodite of Knidos. This piece is especially outstanding as it is the first large scale sculpture of a nude female. Pliny the Elder tells us that Praxiteles was originally commissioned by the island of Kos to make the statue, however when Praxiteles revealed to them his controversial work, they were so shocked by the goddess' nudity that they rejected it. The sculpture was then instead bought by the people of Knidos, for whom it became a great symbol of pride and attracted many tourists to their land. They even refused to sell the piece to King Nicomedes, despite his offer to pay off their enormous city debt. The sculpture was praised so highly by critics that it was said that Praxiteles had brought soul to marble. It was considered a perfect resemblance to Aphrodite, so much so that there was a story that Aphrodite came to see it herself and asked "When did Praxiteles see me naked?". A story also originated about the sculpture, due to a stain on one of her thighs, that a man had hidden himself in the temple until nightfall and then tried to make love to the statue.
Although the original is lost, a great number of Roman copies were produced, some of which survive and are able to show us what the original was like. Praxiteles uses in this statue the ideas of contrapposto that were first seen in the works of Polykleitos, with the slant of the statue's hips contrasting that of her shoulders. Contrapposto is used to create a sense of equilibrium, but in this case Praxiteles also uses it to further the sensuousness of the figure. The sculpture as a whole has a feeling of serenity and calm, as the goddess is preparing to bathe and modestly covering herself with her right hand. Her head, however, looks sharply to the left, giving us the impression that she has been disturbed. This creates a relationship with the viewer, as though the viewer is glimpsing something they should not. A clear advancement in Praxiteles' use of marble is seen in his creative use of a prop. In order to allow such sweeping composition to the figure, it needs to be supported, but instead of merely propping the figure up, Praxiteles incorporates it into the design. The clothes she has removed hang down from her hand onto the hydria full of her bathing water. Furthermore, the fact that Aphrodite is holding up the drapery, means any sense that it is in fact supporting her is lost. By placing Aphrodite in such an everyday situation, Praxiteles is creating a much more accessible and humanising view of the goddess. The power she holds is not totally ignored though, as it refers to the ceremonial bath of Aphrodite to renew her virginity. Praxiteles blends humanity with divinity perfectly, portraying her divinity without being distanced by grandeur.
The same theme can be seen in his sculpture of Hermes with the infant Dionysus, the most famous example of an adult and infant group. The piece portrays Dionysus as a baby being carried by Hermes to the muses by whom he will be raised. Although Hermes' right forearm is lost, it was originally raised to dangle a bunch of grapes in front of Dionysus. Praxiteles adds humour to the design, with the child reaching for them greedily - a reference to his destiny to become the god of wine. Praxiteles follows in the footsteps of his father, Kephisodotus, by creating a relationship between two figures in sculpture, very much like Kephisodotus' 'Eirene and Ploutos'. The figure of Hermes is tall and slender, standing in a relaxed leisurely pose. Praxiteles chose to alter the conventions of the ideal body proportions set out by Polykleitos, by increasing his height and making his head smaller to produce a more elegant form. In this piece he also chose to abandon the balance of contrapposto to create a dynamic sweeping curve throughout the body. The drapery falling from the left arm of the figure forms an effective prop in the same way as we saw in Aphrodite of Knidos, as well as serving well as a visual support to the piece.
The sculpture was described by Pausanias, who writes that it was kept in the temple of Hera at Olympia. In 1877 this site was excavated, and the sculpture was found just as he had described it. Although this stands to be the only possible Praxiteles original we have, there is still debate over whether it is genuine or simply a Roman copy left to replace the original when it was removed. These doubts are founded on several points about the sculpture: the back is left unfinished and has been partially re-cut in some places, as well as the dates on the base being later than 4th century B.C. There is also a strut from the hip to the prop, something which Praxiteles would surely have wanted to avoid given his inventive use of props. However the beautiful rendering of surface and skilled execution of the piece as a whole counters these claims.
The Apollo Sauroktonos (the lizard-slayer) displays a similarly languid pose to that of Hermes, with a composition that was frequently copied in ancient sculpture. It depicts Apollo as a boy idly leaning against a tree which a lizard is climbing. In his right hand he toys with an arrow, as though contemplating killing the lizard. Yet again Praxiteles makes the god look entirely human, but there are still indications of the god's supernatural status. In this case the lizard is a reference to Apollo slaying the Python later in his life; hinting towards his destiny just as we saw with the baby Dionysus. The tree acts as a support, but is also central to the whole design of the piece. Praxiteles' original is lost, but we know that it was cast in bronze, showing Praxiteles' proficiency with this material as well as marble. Although the Clevedon Museum of Art claims to have recovered the bronze original, the dates are still being investigated and there are debates over legal ownership.
Other sculptures can be attributed to Praxiteles, but only doubtfully. One sculpture which is usually claimed as Praxiteles' work is the Lycian Apollo, of great similarity to Apollo Sauroktonos, showing the god leaning on a tree trunk. His hand touches the top of his head where his hair is styled into braids. There is also a Satyr from the Capitol in Rome which has the character and style of Praxiteles but poor workmanship on the piece makes it unlikely that it is an original.
Praxiteles' sculpture had a great impact on the conventions of ancient Greek sculpture, producing ideas so creative that they were imitated for centuries. A great deal of this influence can be seen in the renovation of Classical sculpture during the Renaissance.