Nasher Museum of Art

  • DCC1964_27_v3_700

    Attributed to the painter Polygnotos, Athenian, Red-figure calyx krater, 460-450 CE. Ceramic, 18 1/8 x 18 5/16 x 18 5/16 inches (46 x 46.5 x 46.5 cm). Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, Durham, NC, USA. The Duke Classical Collection, gift of Dr. and Mrs. James H. Semans; the Thomas and Virginia B. Semans Teaching Collection; DCC1964.27. Photo by Peter Paul Geoffrion.

  • 2006_1_203_v3_700

    Greek or Etruscan, Ladle, 4th century BCE. Bronze; L. 13 inches (33 cm), D. bowl 2 inches (5 cm). Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, Durham, NC, USA. Collection of Walter Kempner, M.D., gift of Barbara Newborg, M.D.; 2006.1.203. Photo by Peter Paul Geoffrion.

  • DCC_1964_20_v1_700

    Roman, Statuette of Mars, 2nd century CE. Bronze, 3 3/8 x 1 9/16 x 13/16 inches (8.5 x 4 x 2 cm). Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, Durham, NC, USA. The Duke Classical Collection, DCC1964.20.

  • 2006_1_218_v3_700

    Greek, Roundel with bees, 7th century BCE (?). Gold, D. 1 ½ inches (4 cm). Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, Durham, NC, USA. Collection of Walter Kempner, M.D., gift of Barbara Newborg, M.D.; 2006.1.218. Photo by Peter Paul Geoffrion.


The term “classical art” typically refers to the art of ancient Greece and Rome. Both Greeks and Romans created architectural and free-standing sculpture. Sculptures made for architectural sites often related to mythology and history. The subjects of free-standing sculptures ranged from mythological and cult statues to public honors and religious dedications, the latter of which varied from small terracotta figures to large marble or bronze works. Portraiture was especially important to the Romans.

Other kinds of classical art that have survived to the present include pottery, painting, and metalwork. What many people think of as “classical vases” were primarily Greek. Only rare examples of painting exist today, and most of these are architectural decorations. Examples of metalwork are more abundant. The ancient Greeks and Romans also created jewelry, coins, tools, and household objects out of metal.

How do you look at classical art?

Look at the material and its condition.

  • What condition is the work in?
  • Is it worn down from exposure to the weather and/or from use?
  • Do you see any traces of polychrome (colors)? Many works were originally painted, but the colors may have worn off over time.
  • Is the work complete or is it a fragment?
  • Has anything been restored? How can you tell?

Look for figures.

  • Is the person young or old? Male or female? Individualized or generic? Realistic or idealized? Naturalistic or exaggerated? Expressive or not?
  • Is it a real person or an ideal type? A local or historic person, religious being, mythological character, or allegorical figure? How can you tell, or why do you think this?
  • Can you identify the figure? Who is it? What attributes (visual characteristics) make the individual recognizable?
  • Where else have you seen the figure, if at all? Where would you expect to see him or her? Why do you think this?
  • If there are multiple people, how do they interact with each other? What do you think is the significance of this interaction, or lack thereof?
  • If the figures were originally installed in an architectural setting, how do you think they interacted with the architecture? Why do you think they were specifically chosen for the particular structure?

Look for a narrative.

  • Does the work depict a narrative? Is the whole story portrayed, or do you think the work was part of a larger narrative? What story is illustrated? Is it religious, mythological, or literary?
  • How is the narrative visualized? How does it unfold? Is it sequential? How can you tell the order of events?
  • What message(s) do you think the viewer was supposed to interpret from the narrative? What moral and/or spiritual lesson(s) do you think the viewer was supposed to learn?
  • Do you think different viewers would have understood the story and its lesson(s) the same way or differently? Why do you think this?

Look for ornamentation (decorative elements and embellishments).

  • Is the ornamentation design geometric or organic? Dynamic or static?
  • What is the relation between it and the overall form and function of the work?
  • If there are also figures in the work, what is the relation between the ornamentation and the figures? How does the ornamentation draw attention to the figure, or not, and vice versa?
  • What do you think is the significance of the ornamentation? What sort of meaning do you think it conveyed? Why do you think this?   

Look like you lived in ancient Greece or Rome.

  • How was the work originally used and displayed? What was its original function?
  • What was its original setting and context?
  • Who would have used, seen, and interacted with the work?
  • From what position or angle would the work have been seen? What do you think the lighting would have been like?
  • Is the work didactic?
    • Does it tell a story? What sort? How is the narrative visualized?
    • Does it teach about particular beliefs or history? What beliefs or historical event(s)? How so?
  • Does the mediate a relationship with god? How so?
  • Was it an everyday, household item or decorative object? How can you tell?
  • Do you see any evidence of exchange between different peoples, cities, and cultures in the work?

Look like a 21st-century viewer.

  • How do you think your interaction with and experience of the work in the museum compares to people’s interactions with and experiences of the work in ancient Greece or Rome?
  • What do you think is the distinction between religion, mythology, and history, if there is one? What do you think the ancient Greeks and Romans thought about the relationship between religion, myth, and history? How can the objects help you grapple with this question?

Look at the work’s history and provenance.

  • Where did the work originally come from? Was it created for a public or private space? Why do you think this?
  • Where was the work made? Who made it—an individual or a workshop?
  • Who commissioned the work, and why?
  • If it is a fragment, what is missing? How and why was the original work partially destroyed?
  • How did it get to the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University? Where else has the work been? Who else has owned it?
  • If we don’t know where the object came from, how could you go about finding out its provenance?

Want to know more?


Ancient Greece comprised independent city states that shared a culture and language. It was centered around the Greek mainland, but also included Crete, islands in the eastern Mediterranean, the coast of Asia Minor (Turkey), southern Italy, and Sicily.

Rome, in contrast, was an empire. Centered in Rome, the civilization spread through the military conquest of territories. At its largest, the Roman Empire stretched across all of Europe, including Britain, North Africa, and east to Mesopotamia. Rome generally allowed its conquered peoples some independence—for example, letting them keep their language and religion.

Related “How Do You Look” Guides

Collecting, Collection, Collector and Sculpture

Works in the Nasher’s Collection

Exhibitions at the Nasher

The Collection Galleries (ongoing)

Containing Antiquity (Oct. 21, 2010 – April 12, 2015)


A Generation of Antiquities: The Duke Classical Collection 1964-1994. Durham: Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Studies, 1994.

Antonaccio, Carla M., and Sheila Dillon, eds. The Past is Present: The Kemper Collection of Classical Antiquities at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University. Durham: Nasher Museum of Art, 2011.

Art of the Classical World in the Metropolitan Museum of Art: Greece, Cyprus, Etruria, Rome. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2007.

Barringer, Judith M. The Art and Archaeology of Ancient Greece. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015.

Beard, Mary, and John Henderson. Classical Art: From Greece to Rome. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Boardman, John. The History of Greek Vases: Potters, Painters and Pictures. London: Thames & Hudson, 2001.

Boardman, John, ed. The Oxford History of Classical Art. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Clark, Andrew J., Maya Elston, and Mary Louise Hart. Understanding Greek Vases: A Guide to Terms, Styles, and Techniques. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2002.

Daehner, Jens, and Kenneth D. S. Lapatin, eds. Power and Pathos: Bronze Sculpture of the Hellenistic World. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2015.

Kleiner, Diana E. E. Roman Sculpture. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992.

Kondoleon, Christine. Classical Art. Boston: MFA Publications, 2008.

Onians, John. Classical Art and the Cultures of Greece and Rome. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999.

Small, Jocelyn. The Parallel Worlds of Classical Art and Text. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

The J. Paul Getty Museum Handbook of the Antiquities Collection. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2010.

Van Keuren, Frances. Guide to Research in Classical Art and Mythology. Chicago: American Library Association, 1991.

Williams, Dyfri. Masterpieces of Classical Art. London: British Museum, 2009.

Woodford, Susan. An Introduction to Greek Art: Sculpture and Vase Painting in the Archaic and Classical Periods. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2015.

Woodford, Susan. The Art of Greece and Rome. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Zanker, Paul. Pompeii: Public and Private Life. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998.

Zanker, Paul. Roman Art. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2010.