The origin of Painting in Greece was unknown to Pliny, to whom we are chiefly indebted for the few fragments of the biography of Greek artists; he could only obtain his information from Greek writers, of whom he complains that they have not been very attentive to their accustomed accuracy. It is certain, however, that the arts were practiced in Egypt and in the East, many ages before they were known in Greece, and it is the common opinion that they were introduced into that country from Egypt and Asia, through the channel of the Phœnecian traders. It has been a matter of admiration that the Greeks, in the course of three or four centuries, should have attained such perfection in every species of art that ennobles the human mind, as oratory, poetry, music, painting, sculpture, and architecture. Two things explain the cause—freedom of action, and certainty of reward. This is exemplified in the whole history of the arts and sciences. The ancient eastern nations, among whom the freedom of thought and action was forbidden, and every man obliged to follow the trade of his caste, never made any progress; nor will the moderns progress in those countries till caste is done away, and every man allowed to follow the inclinations of his genius.

The Greeks were favored with a climate the most congenial for the perfect development of the mental and physical powers, and beauty of form. Every man was at liberty freely to follow his favorite pursuits. They rewarded all who excelled in anything that was useful or beautiful, and that with a lavish hand. The prices they paid their great artists were truly astonishing; in comparison to which, the prices paid to the greatest artists of modern times are small. Nor was this so great an incentive as the admiration and the caresses they received. The man of genius was sure of immortality and wealth. Their academic groves and their games were the admiration and resort of all the surrounding countries. They decreed statues to their great men who deserved well of their country. To other powerful incentives, the Greek artists had the advantage of the best models before them, in their gymnastic exercises and public games, where the youth contended for the prize quite naked. The Greeks esteemed natural qualities so highly that they decreed the first rewards to those who distinguished themselves in feats of agility and strength. Statues were often raised to wrestlers. Not only the first youth of Greece, but the sons of kings and princes sought renown in the public games and gymnastic exercises. Chrysippus and Cleanthus distinguished themselves in these games before they were known as philosophers. Plato appeared as a wrestler both at the Isthmian and Pythian games; and Pythagoras carried off the prize at Elis. The passion which inspired them was glory—the ambition of having statues erected to their memory, in the most sacred place in Greece, to be admired by the whole people.

Although it is universally admitted that the Greeks carried sculpture and architecture to such a state of perfection that they have never been equalled by the moderns, except in imitating them, yet there is a great contrariety of opinion among the most eminent modern writers as to their success in painting; some, full of admiration for the works of antiquity which have descended to us, have not hesitated to declare that the Greeks must have been equally successful in painting, while others, professing that we possess colors, vehicles, and science (as the knowledge of foreshortening, perspective, and of the chiaro-scuro) unknown to them, have as roundly asserted that they were far inferior to the moderns in this branch, and that their pictures, could we now see them in all their beauty, would excite our contempt. Much of this boasted modern knowledge is, however, entirely gratuitous; the Greeks certainly well understood foreshortening and perspective, as we have abundance of evidence in their works, to say nothing of these being expressly mentioned by Pliny, and that it is impossible to execute any work of excellence without them. This erroneous opinion has sprung from the ignorance and imperfections of the old fathers of Italian art in these particulars, and the discoveries and perfections of those more modern. If the moderns possess any advantages over the ancients, it is that chemistry has invented some beautiful colors unknown to them, the invention of oil painting, and that illusion which results from a perfect acquaintance with the principles of the chiaro-scuro; but even here the mineral colors—the most valuable and permanent—were well known to them; and if they had not oil colors, they had a method of encaustic painting not positively known to us, which might have answered as good a purpose—nor are we sure they did not practice the chiaro-scuro. Besides, the most renowned modern masters were more celebrated in fresco than in oil painting, and the ancients well understood painting in fresco.

In this, as in most other disputes, it may reasonably be presumed, that a just estimation of both will be found between the extremes. In comparing the paintings of the moderns with those of the ancients, it may be fairly inferred that the latter surpassed the former in expression, in purity of design, in attitude of the figures, and in ideal beauty. The moderns have doubtless surpassed the ancients in the arrangement of their groups, in perspective, foreshortening and chiaro-scuro—and in coloring. For a further disquisition on this subject, see Vol. I. p. 22, of this work, article Apelles.