Contrapposto (‘counter-pose’) is the position of a standing human body takes when it is relaxed and naturalistic. If you think about the way you stand, you realize that you generally favor one leg, putting more weight on one side of your body over the other and switching occasionally. This causes the figure’s hips and shoulders to lean in at opposite angles. This stance is first seen in sculptures such as Kritios Boy, made around 480 BCE but it is, of course, quite possible that this realization may have existed before this time and been in use.

Before this more natural style of depicting the human form, the statues that dominated Greece were of the archaic Kouros (male) and Kore (female) variety – straighter, more rigid depictions of the human form with locked knees.

Greek sculptor Polykleitos wrote the treatise Kanon (which translates to ‘measure’ or ‘rule’) in 440 BCE in which he illustrates a written set of rules on ideal proportions with a sculpture known as the Doryphoros (‘the spear bearer’). We can observe the anatomy of the Doryphoros through posterior Roman copies.

The difference between the Kouros and the Doryphoros are obvious. The latter looks like it could begin moving about on its own if it wanted to. The Doryphoros, essentially, looks more lifelike than the Kouros and other sculptures made in the same style. Kouros is a more symbolic and austere representation of the human form whereas Doryphoros is based on observation and analysis of the human anatomy.

The shift to the Contrapposto pose highlights, in a way, Greece’s cultural and artistic growth at the time. They were pioneers, dissatisfied with the status quo and ‘conventional standards’. They strove for excellence and achieved it with the Kanon.

In the 2nd century, the Greek medical writer, Galen, even wrote about the Doryphoros, describing it as the perfect visual expression of the Greeks’ aspirations of beauty in their work:  

“Chrysippos holds beauty to consist not in the commensurability or “symmetria” [i.e. proportions] of the constituent elements [of the body], but in the commensurability of the parts, such as that of finger to finger, and of all the fingers to the palm and wrist, and of those to the forearm, and of the forearm to the upper arm, and in fact, of everything to everything else, just as it is written in the Canon of Polyclitus. For having taught us in that work all the proportions of the body, Polyclitus supported his treatise with a work: he made a statue according to the tenets of his treatise, and called the statue, like the work, the ‘Canon’[1].”

The Contrapposto was revived in Italy during the Renaissance and artists such as Leonardo Da Vinci or Michelangelo rediscovered the Ancient Greek and Roman canons. Through this natural-seeming twist in the torso, the pose creates a sense of movement and brings out the subtle curvatures of the body. The masters of the Baroque took the Contrapposto to a new dramatic level by exaggerating and distorting the human body.

Mastering the portrayal of the Contrapposto has become an essential part of the classic-realistic ateliers’ training programs. Through the study of the human figure, students learn to analyse and represent accurately the movement of the body.

Below, you can find a few examples by some of the BAA teachers and students: