History of Art Education Part 1: Ancient Greece

image of the Parthenon marbles, fragments of marble sculpture

The history of Art education is not simply a history of a single subject but a history of the culture and societies that reflect the era which governed at the time.

Art education has always changed and evolved with the times, from one of a skill and craft based discipline of the monasteries in the middle ages, to the high arts of the Renaissance and academies of the 17th and 18th century. To post modern art education that we know today where the figurative arts are not considered as important as its conceptual elements.

Defining where arts education began which in this series is referring to the visual arts is almost like defining where red ends and blue begins. This is because education of the visual arts before the advent of any formalised education is  intrinsically connected with human emotion.

The visual arts is something deeply connected with being human and soul searching, we see this in the cave paintings of early man like the cave paintings in Santa Cruz that are estimated to be 9-13 thousand years old. These paintings seem like of a confirmation of existence a tangible connection from the creators to themselves and communication to others, which the arts throughout history has striven to achieve whether it be in the romantic idealised, the monarchistic control and the free liberal ideal.


Hands at the Cuevas de las Manos upon Río Pinturas, near the town of Perito Moreno in Santa Cruz Province, Argentina
animation showing gradient of red to blue
Defining when art education started is similar to defining where red ends and blue begins

As well as this problem of extrapolating the origins of arts education from history we also have the problem of what the arts actually meant to the people of the time and within that same time we have various demographics and different societies all with their own thoughts and ideas as to what art is.

 What we define as art today in its liberal individual expression of thought through various mediums is not the same as the definition of art known in the middle ages or ancient Rome, Greece, Egypt and further back. So as well as having to define where red ends and blue begins we also are doing it without knowing what red or blue actually is.

So in order to put the flag somewhere this talk will be concentrating on the history of western visual art and how the way in which the arts that are taught today has been moulded by and how it differs from the beliefs and values of those that taught it in the past.
Up until the early 20th century these artistic values culminated in the virtues of the ancient world especially that of Greece with its sense of  morality, form and beauty. Then through the middle ages when the arts were controlled by the clergy and then by the craft guilds and into the 14th/15th century of the renaissance academies. It was the 16th and 17th century where the academies transformed into the art schools then the institutions of great empires and onto the formalised education of the 19th century and the progression to modern art schools and education of the 20th and 21st centuries.

Great diversity characterizes access to the arts today, instruction is available for the amateur and the professional, in private classes with one student or in group classes of all sizes. This was not always the case and the history of arts is one that historically has been controlled, with the teaching being organized within a series of institutional settings.

animation showing the timeline of western art

Education and society of ancient Greece

Whilst ancient Greece is often seen as a single country, it was actually a series of independent states, two of the most distinct states which offered contrasting roles of the arts to its people were Sparta and Athens. Sparta being a militaristic state limited all artistic activity that did not glorify war, Spartans lived in relatively harsh conditions without luxuries. 

Education was a process that began at birth. The new born child was displayed before experienced judges of fitness and if found too small or seemingly weak the child was condemned to exposure in the mountains. At the age of 7 a form of state training began lasting for 13 years. From ages 7 to 11 the young boys lived at home and attended classes for games and physical training. From ages 12 to 15 they left home where even tougher treatment was imposed, and following that they received four years of formal military training.

The newly trained soldier then began serving the state, a responsibility that continued until the age of 53 (Castle, 1961). 

Spartan warriors in battle with shield and spears
Sparta, a state dominated by its military
picture showing ancient athens and the acropolis in the background
Athens, a state famed for its acceptance of the outside, arts and philosophy.

Athens by contrast was  an open sea faring trading state that was accepting to new ideas, the arts and philosophy giving us famous philosophers and thinkers such as Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. As early as 800 B.C. the sailors and traders of Athens had reached the far corners of the Mediterranean. Travelers and foreigners were welcome in their midst unlike Spartan society and education played an important role for young Athenians. Boys were taught at home until they were about six years old. Then went to school, where they learned to read and write and learned to play a musical instrument, they learned the poetry of Homer,  how to debate and studied science and math. 

Sadly only fragments of information has survived documenting the actual methods of instruction  used for training musicians, sculptors, architects and craftsman.  Although the arts  was held in high esteem it was thought of as unworthy professions for the children of the elite to pursue, akin to more common labour and was learnt in family workshops rather than guilds or academies. 

early examples of Greek sculpture, standing figures in stone
Examples of Greece statues from the Archaic period around 580 BC.

Statues and artefacts that we associate with the ancient Greeks were still rudimentary in comparison here are a few examples from the Archaic period around 580 BC and during this time they were inspired by the stone sculptures of Egypt and Mesopotamia, 

In 480 B.C. the Athenians defeated their longstanding enemies, the Persians; but in the process their city was reduced to ashes. With Pericles as leader they rebuilt the city, centring their efforts upon the Acropolis, which was both their civic and religious centre. 

Craftsmen of that time strove to surpass the quality of the materials with the beauty of their workmanship, which was appropriate  because on the crown of the Acropolis stood the Parthenon, the temple to the goddess Athena, the goddess of wisdom and guardian of the arts as well.

artist impression of the ancient acropolis in athens
Artist impression of the Acropolis of Athens
image of the Parthenon marbles, fragments of marble sculpture
The Parthenon marbles

The marbles taken from the Parthenon was used as inspiration for artists in centuries to come, and are included in 19th century drawing manuals like in Leon Gerome and the Charles Bargue drawing course which uses a lot of Greek sculpture as its basis due to the high quality of its workmanship and perceived perfection of forms. This fascination with studying the Greek marbles can be seen in the writings of history painter Benjamin  Robert Haydon:

The Elgin Marbles are now considered by the Professors in every branch of the Polite Arts as the Artist’s primer….”

Pericles was paramount to the founding of academies and libraries, also interested in learning the principles of art as well. It was during this time that the conception of education arose with the aim of “the good life,” based upon the development of the whole personality, including its physical, intellectual, aesthetic, and moral aspects. The educational pattern was carefully balanced between gymnastics and music, music then meant any of the arts and sciences.


lithograph of a fragmented ancient Greek sculpture
Plate 61 of the Charles Bargue and Leon Gerome drawing course, published in the 1860's.
fragmented marble sculpture of a male torso, missing head arms and lower legs
The Belvedere Torso has been in the Vatican collection since the 1530's and has been a source of inspiration for many artists including Michelangelo

Drawing classes first made their appearance or first recorded appearance in Sicyon in the fourth century B.C. under Pamphilus, who was an academic artist noted for accurate drawing, and successful in introducing drawing in Sicyon as a necessary part of liberal education, from there it spread to the whole of Greece.

During the Hellenistic era ( 323 BC – 31 BC) we saw the art of the Greeks that we recognise today with their exceptional skill and craftsmanship. Including the Venus De Milo, Nike of Samothrace and arguably the most famous sculpture of all time that of the Belvedere Torso.  The sculpture that we see today in its fragmented form is believed to be copy by the sculptor Apollonius of a Greek original dating from the 2nd century BC.

In Henri Irenee Marrou’s book from 1948 on Education in Antiquity he  notes that little is known about the ways drawing was taught in ancient Greece, but he believes that children were taught to draw with charcoal and to paint on a board made of boxwood and that the chief activity consisted in drawing from live models. According to Aristotle (Lord, 1982) the chief object of drawing instruction was to make the students judges of the beauty of the human form.


Drawing of the belvedere torso using red, black and white chalk on buff paper
Belvedere Torso (c. 1789-1793) by J.M.W. Turner
black chalk and charcoal drawing of a torso by Peter Paul Rubens
Belvedere Torso (c. 1602) by Peter Paul Rubens.

By the time the Hellenistic era passed into the Roman era drawing and such activities ceased being important areas in the curriculum, this might explain why there was relatively little discussion of either the visual arts or music in Roman writings on education.

Roman educational writings placed less importance on the arts,  Marcus Terentius Varro (116 BC – 26 BC) the Roman polymath and author talks about 9 areas of study- grammar, dialectics, rhetoric, geometry, arithmetic, astronomy, music, medicine, and architecture, without the inclusion of drawing or music.

Galen of Pergamon ( 129 AD – unknown) writing on medical education in the second century A.D.  listed the arts of medicine, rhetoric, music, geometry, arithmetic, dialectics, astronomy, literature, and law; he listed sculpture and drawing as optional studies. Lucius Annaeus Seneca the Younger (4 BC –  65 CE) listed the same arts, exclusive of sculpture and drawing, the visual arts were listed by Seneca as belonging to a class of “frivolous arts” that also included dancing and singing.

The upper classes even during the Hellenistic times had a tradition of collecting artworks, this entered into Roman society as well. Many sculptors in the Roman era whole livelihood consisted of making copies of ancient Greek statues which is one of the reasons we still have so much Greek work left, even if they are copies.


…In part 2 of the History of Art Education, we will see how the Medieval ages and the monastic orders lead to the art academies and art schools we know today….