If you're seeing this message, it means we're having trouble loading external resources on our website.

If you're behind a web filter, please make sure that the domains *.kastatic.org and *.kasandbox.org are unblocked.

Main content

Contrapposto explained

The video explores contrapposto, a Greek invention that revolutionized Western art by portraying the human body naturally. It highlights how contrapposto affects the entire body, breaking symmetry and creating a figure that seems to exist in our world. The video also discusses the influence of these Greek principles on Roman and Renaissance art.

Want to join the conversation?

  • leaf orange style avatar for user Jeff Kelman
    How did SO much artistic change (one could say development?) happen in a mere hundred years!? We see the almost "Egyptian-style" Kouros figure dating to around 500 B.C.E. and then 100 years later we see the incredible and naturalistic Doryphoros figure dating 400 B.C.E.! Impressive!
    (46 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • blobby green style avatar for user chloe.dejong
      I just wrote a research paper on the human body in Greek art and I came across a documentary called How Art Made the World - More Human than Human that explained the rapid change. Most of the documentary is on youtube. It's actually even more impressive cause before Kouros, sculptors struggled to create anything bigger than small figurines. This was an issue because the Greek culture demanded realistic images of the gods within their temples. They wanted their gods in residence. Within a few generations the Greeks were suddenly able to create overwhelmingly realistic sculptures that were life size or larger. This advancement is considered the most rapid artistic revolution in the history of mankind. It was questioned as to how such a rapid development came to be until a small section in Herodotus’s recordings gave way to the answer. The famous Greek historian recorded that an Egyptian named Psamtik seized control of the Egyptian throne during the 25th dynasty with the help of some foreign soldiers that he hired as mercenaries. These foreign mercenaries were from Greece. Up until this event, the two worlds were isolated from each other. They then began trade and Greek sculptors were able to take the Egyptians’ monolithic masonry back home. Because the Greeks had different cultural values than the Egyptians, the composite style was not good enough, so they began to observe every detail and strived to reproduce the body at its true essence. They actually accomplished absolute realism in the Kritios Boy, but didn't continue making such realistic images. Instead they chose to lawfully distort the body in ways that made it appear god-like and more perfect than the natural human body itself. The Riace Warriors are an example of that. It's pretty interesting and so impressive.
      (78 votes)
  • cacteye yellow style avatar for user Karlar
    Don't I remember from one for your other videos that the man on the right is a Roman copy of a greek Kouros?
    (11 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • piceratops tree style avatar for user J.J Abrams
    Was it the Greeks who made Kouros widely popular or were other countries already doing that style of art? I have the same inquiry for Contrapposto?
    (6 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • aqualine tree style avatar for user David Alexander
    I notice that many contraposto statues include a stump or post, against which the weight bearing leg is leaning. Could the very name of the pose be because of this "against the post" ness? Therefore, "contra"-"post"?
    (4 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • leaf green style avatar for user Alexandrelouicot
    @ or around the mark, Dr. Harris is characterizing a contrast of the contrappasto described as natural and relaxed, to the Kouros whose knees are locked with both feet on the ground, also describing it as "Timeless." Well, I agree with timeless, but as to the idea of TENSION...and RELAXATION...initially looking at both poses the most relaxed position of the two which seems most comfortable in the preservation of energy....as in tension-less, hands down in my humble opinion is the Kouros. Timeless indeed for stillness in my view. Vs the standing on one leg....hand in the air....looks relaxed but not comfortable. The Kouros in my opinion is both relaxed and comfortable through nothingness. Does that make sense or am i off base?
    (4 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • blobby green style avatar for user drszucker
      I suggest standing up and holding the pose of the kouros for a little while. It can be done of course but it is not comfortable or relaxing. The fists are clenched. The feet are close and parallel. Its not a stable pose. People don't stand like that for a reason.
      (7 votes)
  • leafers seed style avatar for user Harry Lockyer
    I agree with the view that being realistic isn't the only thing that makes art 'better', so the sculptor of the Kouros didn't try to make the Doryphoros and fail miserably, but why can't part of me help thinking that the Doryphoros is 'better' just because it is more realistic?
    (5 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • leafers seed style avatar for user Karen R. Owes
    Are the pyramids considered African Art since they are located on the continent of Africa?
    (3 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • blobby green style avatar for user Carla Ferris
    Why was the body study considered a sin in the Renaissance?
    (2 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • aqualine tree style avatar for user David Alexander
      1) Bodies had to be buried whole, otherwise resurrection could not be complete.
      2) Body study had to be done on dead people, or on naked live people.
      3) A certain prurient interest posited that one could not be in the presence of a live naked person of either sex without having sexual thoughts.
      4) It was considered better to be safe than sorry, and nothing makes a person safer from danger than labeling the dangerous thing a sin.
      (4 votes)
  • leafers seedling style avatar for user zach
    what is the meaning of the word,other than what it is?

    for example, what language did it come from, what are it's root words.this question was a little hard to put into words.
    (1 vote)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • leaf green style avatar for user Kurt
    When a sculptor carves a marble statue, does he usually make a model from clay to see how the forms ar working, or does he work directly into the stone? To have a model standing for you the length of time that it must take to work a block of stone seems improbable. How is it done?
    (2 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • cacteye yellow style avatar for user Kasey Chun
      Some sculptors carve directly into the stone, others make clay models, then copy it into the stone using measurements. Once the sculptor has it all measured, he or she chips off all of the unwanted stone. Then he/she uses a chisel to create lines in the stone for texture. By this time he/she will have made the slab into a general design of the figure. Rasps and riffler are then used to enhance to statue. Finally, to polish the statue, the sculptor uses sandpaper and emery stone.
      (1 vote)

Video transcript

(jazzy piano music) - [Steven] We're in the Archaeological Museum in Florence, looking at a life-size male nude figure in bronze. - [Beth] Now, we both saw this from down the hallway, and thought immediately about contrapposto, the Greek invention in the fifth century BCE, a way of naturalistically representing the human body. A real revolution in Western art. - [Steven] When we stand naturally, in a relaxed pose, we tend to stand with our weight on one leg or the other. In fact, if we stand for an extended period of time, we tend to shift our weight from one leg to the other every few minutes. It helps to rest the body. - [Beth] Nevertheless, when the Greeks before this, or the Egyptians, represented the human body, they represented the figure standing with their weight equally distributed on both legs, making the figure appear very symmetrical. A way that you very rarely see human beings in the world. - [Steven] I don't stand like that, and it's actually quite uncomfortable. - [Beth] I'm not standing like that right now. - [Steven] But to represent a figure with weight on one leg is a much more complex endeavor, because the entire body responds. Contrapposto affects not only the legs, but the torso, and to some extent, even potentially the shoulders and the head. - [Beth] The ultimate effect is a revolutionary one, because it creates a figure who seems to exist in our world, by breaking the symmetry of the archaic Greek figures, of Egyptian pharaohs. By breaking that symmetry, we get a sense of a figure who exists in our own world, a figure who is human like us. - [Steven] What I'm seeing first is a kind of S-curve in his spine, so that the hips seem to jut out to his right, and his rib cage seems to push to his left. - [Beth] And because his weight is on his right leg, his left side is more elongated, because his left leg is relaxed, pulling that hip down, and his right torso is compacted. - [Steven] And you can see that very clearly if you look at the shift in the axis of the hips. It also allows for that sway, not only in his body, but in his spine as well. - [Beth] And then he looks in the direction of the swayed hip. We also notice, while his right leg is straight, his left arm is straight, and his right hand opens up toward us. In other examples of sculptures like this, from Classical Greece, for example, Polykleitos's Doryphoros, that hand often held a spear. So you have the weight-bearing hand on the right, and the weight-bearing leg on the right, the free leg on the left, and the free hand on the left. - [Steven] And this affects the shoulders, as well. If his right hip juts upward, his left shoulder falls down towards it. And so they're in opposition. And the same is true on the other side. On his left, his hip falls, and his shoulder rises. - [Beth] The Greek invention of contrapposto, in the fifth century BCE, tells us that the Greeks have a different way of thinking about human beings and their place in the world. This first naturalistic image of humanity, of human beings in the West, gives us a sense that the Greeks have a confidence in human beings, in the human mind, in human reason, and we see that through their philosophy, through their love of athleticism, through their invention of the Olympics, their study of the heavens, the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle, the great Greek comedies and tragedies, the confidence of Greek culture in humanity, I think, is expressed in contrapposto. - [Steven] And this sculpture, because it's not actually Greek, but Roman, a Roman copy of these Greek principles, shows us the influence of these ideas. The way that the Ancient Romans emulated the Greeks, saw themselves as the inheritor of this tradition, and it is through the Romans that these ideas come down to us today. - [Beth] And then are revived in the Renaissance. And here we are in Renaissance Florence, where sculptures like this one were rediscovered, were collected, and artists like Donatello, Nanni di Banco, ultimately Michelangelo, and Raphael in his paintings, will create figures that look back to Ancient Greek and Roman sculpture, and the tremendous naturalism that the Ancient Greeks and Romans achieved. (jazzy piano music)