The Legacy of Ancient Greece

Greek Art


Prev | Next | Contents | Greek History | Roman Empire |


The art of painting was in as high esteem in Greece as the art of sculpture and, if we may believe the testimony of Greek and Roman writers, achieved results as important and admirable. But the works of the great Greek painters have utterly perished, and imagination, though guided by ancient descriptions and by such painted designs as have come down to us, can restore them but dimly and doubtfully. The subject may therefore here be dismissed with comparative brevity.

In default of pictures by the great Greek masters, an especial interest attaches to the work of humbler craftsmen of the brush. One class of such work exists in abundance--the painted decorations upon earthenware vases. Tens of thousands of these vases have been brought to light from tombs and sanctuaries on Greek and Italian sites and the number is constantly increasing. Thanks to the indestructible character of pottery, the designs are often intact. Now the materials and methods employed by the vase- painters and the spaces at their disposal were very different from those of mural or easel paintings. Consequently inferences must not be hastily drawn from designs upon vases as to the composition and coloring of the great masterpieces. But the best of the vase- painters, especially in the early fifth century, were men of remarkable talent, and all of them were influenced by the general artistic tendencies of their respective periods. Their work, therefore, contributes an important element to our knowledge of Greek art history.

Having touched in Chapter II. upon the earlier styles of Greek pottery, I begin here with a vase of Attic manufacture, decorated, as an inscription on it shows, by Clitias, but commonly called from its finder the Francois vase (Fig. 188). It may be assigned to the first half of the sixth century, and probably to somewhere near the beginning of that period. It is an early specimen of the class of black-figured vases, as they are called. The propriety of the name is obvious from the illustration. The objects represented were painted in black varnish upon the reddish clay, and the vase was then fired. Subsequently anatomical details, patterns of garments, and so on were indicated by means of lines cut through the varnish with a sharp instrument. Moreover, the exposed parts of the female figures--faces, hands, arms, and feet--were covered with white paint, this being the regular method in the black- figured style of distinguishing the flesh of female from that of male figures.

The decoration of the Francois vase is arranged in horizontal bands or zones. The subjects are almost wholly legendary and the vase is therefore a perfect mine of information for the student of Greek mythology. Our present interest, however, is rather in the character of the drawing. This may be better judged from Fig. 189, which is taken from the zone encircling the middle of the vase. The subject is the wedding of the mortal, Peleus, to the sea- goddess, Thetis, the wedding whose issue was Achilles, the great hero of the Iliad. To this ceremony came gods and goddesses and other supernatural beings. Our illustration shows Dionysus (Bacchus), god of wine, with a wine-jar on his shoulder and what is meant for a vine-branch above him. Behind him walk three female figures, who are the personified Seasons. Last comes a group consisting of two Muses and a four-horse chariot bearing Zeus, the chief of the gods, and Hera, his wife. The principle of isocephaly is observed on the vase as in a frieze of relief-sculpture (page 145). The figures are almost all drawn in profile, though the body is often shown more nearly from the front, e.g., in the case of the Seasons, and the eyes are always drawn as in front view. Out of the great multitude of figures on the vase there are only four in which the artist has shown the full face. Two of these are intentionally ugly Gorgons on the handles; the two others come within the limits of our specimen illustration. If Dionysus here appears almost like a caricature, that is only because the decorator is so little accustomed to drawing the face in front view. There are other interesting analogies between the designs on the vase and contemporary reliefs. For example, the bodies, when not disguised by garments, show an unnatural smallness at the waist, the feet of walking figures are planted flat on the ground, and there are cases in which the body and neck are so twisted that the face is turned in exactly the opposite direction to the feet. On the whole, Clitias shows rather more skill than a contemporary sculptor, probably because of the two arts that of the vase- painter had been the longer cultivated.

The black-figured ware continued to be produced in Attica through the sixth century and on into the fifth. Fig. 190 gives a specimen of the work of an interesting vase-painter in this style, Execias by name, who probably belongs about the middle of the sixth century. The subject is Achilles slaying in battle the Amazon queen, Penthesilea. The drawing of Execias is distinguished by an altogether unusual care and minuteness of detail, and if the whole body of his work, as known to us from several signed vases, could be here presented, it would be easily seen that his proficiency was well in advance of that of Clitias. Obvious archaisms, however, remain. Especially noticeable is the unnatural twisting of the bodies. A minor point of interest is afforded by the Amazon's shield, which the artist has not succeeded in rendering truthfully in side view. That is a rather difficult problem in perspective, which was not solved until after many experiments.

Some time before the end of the sixth century, perhaps as early as 540, a new method of decorating pottery was invented in Attica. The principal coloring matter used continued to be the lustrous black varnish; but instead of filling in the outlines of the figures with black, the decorator, after outlining the figures by means of a broad stroke of the brush, covered with black the spaces between the figures, leaving the figures themselves in the color of the clay. Vases thus decorated are called "red-figured." In this style incised lines ceased to be used, and details were rendered chiefly by means of the black varnish or, for certain purposes, of the same material diluted till it became of a reddish hue. The red-figured and black-figured styles coexisted for perhaps half a century, but the new style ultimately drove the old one out of the market.

The development of the new style was achieved by men of talent, several of whom fairly deserve to be called artists. Such an one was Euphronius, whose long career as a potter covered some fifty years, beginning at the beginning of the fifth century or a little earlier. Fig. 191 gives the design upon the outside of a cylix (a broad, shallow cup, shaped like a large saucer, with two handles and a foot), which bears his signature. Its date is about 480, and it is thus approximately contemporary with the latest of the archaic statues of the Athenian Acropolis (pages 151 f.). On one side we have one of the old stock subjects of the vase-painters, treated with unapproached vivacity and humor. Among the labors of Heracles, imposed upon him by his taskmaster, Eurystheus, was the capturing of a certain destructive wild boar of Arcadia and the bringing of the creature alive to Mycenae. In the picture, Heracles is returning with the squealing boar on his shoulder. The cowardly Eurystheus has taken refuge in a huge earthenware jar sunk in the ground, but Heracles, pretending to be unaware of this fact, makes as though he would deposit his burden in the jar. The agitated man and woman to the right are probably the father and mother of Eurystheus. The scene on the other side of the cylix is supposed to illustrate an incident of the Trojan War: two warriors, starting out on an expedition, are met and stopped by the god Hermes. In each design the workmanship, which was necessarily rapid, is marvelously precise and firm, and the attitudes are varied and telling. Euphronius belonged to a generation which was making great progress in the knowledge of anatomy and in the ability to pose figures naturally and expressively. It is interesting to note how close is the similarity in the method of treating drapery between the vases of this period and contemporary sculpture.

The cylix shown in Fig. 192 is somewhat later, dating from about 460. The technique is here different from that just described, inasmuch as the design is painted in reddish brown upon a white ground. The subject is the goddess Aphrodite, riding upon a goose. The painter, some unnamed younger contemporary of Euphronius, has learned a freer manner of drawing. He gives to the eye in profile its proper form, and to the drapery a simple and natural fall. The subject does not call, like the last, for dramatic vigor, and the preeminent quality of the work is an exquisite purity and refinement of spirit.

If we turn now from the humble art of vase-decoration to painting in the higher sense of the term, the first eminent name to meet us is that of Polygnotus, who was born on the island of Thasos near the Thracian coast. His artistic career, or at least the later part of it, fell in the "Transitional period" (480-450 B.C.), so that he was a contemporary of the great sculptor Myron. He came to Athens at some unknown date after the Persian invasion of Greece

Prev | Next | Contents | Greek History | Roman Empire |


History of Greece | | Site Map | Privacy

History of Greece Online

Exploring Ancient World Cultures