History of Western Paintings – Ancient Greece

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Around 1100 B.C. invaders from northwest of the Balkan Mountains entered what is today the Greek mainland, the islands of the Aegean and Asia Minor, the western part of Turkey. These invaders mixed with the Bronze Age peoples already inhabiting these areas, forming the civilization of ancient Greece. Organized into city-states, the ancient Greeks shared a common language and religion, but had dif­ferent governing structures. Often there was fierce rivalry between city-states, although on occasion the Greeks would combine forces against the Persians, who were a constant threat to the Aegean until the fifth century b.c. Around the sixth century B.C. the city of Athens rose to political, economic and cultural prominence.

Krater. 750-735 B.C.

Dipylon Cemetery, Athens. Geometric Style. Height: approx. 40″ (101cm). National Archaeological Museum, Athens

Some of the oldest surviving works of art created by the ancient Greeks are their ceramic vases. Many early vases served as monuments marking graves in cemeteries, thus explaining their large size and the funerary scenes often found adorning their exterior surfaces. One such vase from the Dipylon cemetery in Athens, dating to 750-735 B.C., is decorated in the “geometric” style. Unlike the more organic, curvilinear, free-floating designs seen on Minoan vases, geometric-style vases have more rectilinear and programmatic decoration, organized in bands. The torsos of the figures making up the funeral proces­sion in the second register from the top – the deceased himself can be seen laid out on his bier at the far right – consist of triangles, while their arms are composed of long, very thin rectangles. The humanity of these abstracted figures is subordinated to their role as decorative elements in the overall patterned design. The geometrically conceived human figures and patterns alternate and mix together on the surface of this vase, creating a two-dimensional rhythm.

Rhodian Oenochos (wine jar). Second half of the 7th century B.C.

Height: 13″ (32.5cm). Musee du Louvre, Paris

“Orientalising” vases such as the one illustrated here, so called because of the influence of works from the Near East and Egypt on the decoration, were produced in Greek pottery centers, such as Rhodes, in the seventh century B.C. The elegantly stylised deer and geese on this wine jar resemble animal forms in the art of the ancient Near East. The decorative plant forms at the base are very similar to the lotus buds found depicted in the ancient Egyptian art.

In the seventh century B.C., “orientalising” style vases were produced in several Greek pottery centres. As the name suggests, the decoration of these ceramic vessels was often influenced by motifs found in the art of the Near East and Egypt. Many of these vases were produced in Corinth, a major port which imported objects from the East. The orientalising style oenochos, or wine jar, from Rhodes, another centre of pottery production, is decorated with elegantly stylized deer and geese, resembling animals seen in many works from the ancient Near East. Interspersed between these animals are geometric design elements, while a plant motif resembling the lotus bud forms found in Egyptian painting and sculp­ture adorns the lowest register of the jar.

The flourishing of Athens as a cultural centre is attested to by the great quantity and high quality of painted vases produced in Attica (the name given to Athens and its surrounding area) from the late seventh century until around 480 B.C., known as the Archaic period in Greek art. Archaic Greek vases tend to be smaller than the earlier geometric and orientalising vases, and many of these utilitarian vessels – kylixes, or drinking cups; amphorae, for storing oil or wine; kraters, for mixing wine and water; and so on – were exquisitely decorated, frequently with narrative scenes that are often mythological in sub­ject. In this period, decorative patterning now functions almost exclusively as a framing element. The human figure, whether mortal or immortal – unlike the hybrid forms of Egyptian and Mesopotamian gods, the immortal gods and goddesses of Greek mythology are entirely human in appearance – becomes the main theme of Greek vase painting. The same humanism inspired artists to start rejecting the composite depiction of the human body, that is, the combined frontal and profile views, and move toward a more realistic rendering of human form in three-dimensional space. In this new art, the musculature is often carefully delineated and figures foreshortened.

Exekias. Dionysus in His Boat. c.540 B.C.

Interior of an Attic black figured kylix. Diameter: 12″ (30cm). Staatliche Antikensammlungen, Munich

Dionysis relaxes in his boat after having frightened off a band of pirates by causing grape vines to spring up. The pirates, after jumping overboard in fear, are turned into dolphins. Suitably, this stroy about the god of wine decorates a kylix, or drinking cup

A detail from the inside of one kylix shows a depiction of Dionysus, the god of wine, reclining on his boat. The scene represents an episode from a Homeric hymn in which Dionysus, having been abducted by pirates, causes grape vines to sprout from his boat. The pirates jump overboard in fear and are turned into dolphins. The talented artist who painted this wonderful scene is actually known to us by name: Exekias (flourished c. 550-525 B.C.). Many Greek vase painters of the Archaic period signed their works – another example of Greek humanistic tendencies – and thus, for the first time, an artist’s oeuvre can be documented. An outstanding example of Exekias’ sensitivity can be seen in one of his amphorae; he created a simple composition consisting primarily of two figures, Achilles and Ajax, whose curved forms beautifully echo the amphora’s rounded contours.

Exekias. Achilles and Ajax Playing Dice. c.540-530 B.C.

Attic black figure amphora from Vulci. Height: 24″ (61cm). Museo Gregoriano Etrusco, Vatican

In the black-figure technique of Greek vase painting, figures were painted using slip which turned back when the vase was fired. The red background is the unslipped area of the ceramic surface. A stylus was used to scratch through the slipped surface to create details in red – the complex, delicate, deftly incised patterns on the cloaks worn by Achilles and Ajax in this image testify to Exekias’ genius. Although engaged in a game of dice (Achilles calls out “tesara” [four] and Ajax calls out “tri” [three]), both heroes sit poised for action, holding their spears at the ready. Many Greek vases owe their survival to the Etruscans in pre-Roman Itlay. The Etruscans were avid collectors of Greek vases. This vase comes from the Etruscan site of Vulci, roughly half way between Rome and Florence.

These vases by Exekias are two of the best examples of the black-figured style. In this technique, the figures are painted using a slip – clay mixed with water – that turns black when the vase is fired. The red background is the un-slipped area of the ceramic surface. Details of the black figures can be scratched through the slip surface with a stylus; white and reddish-purple glosses were often added over the black. The red figured technique leaves the un-slipped figures to be fired to the reddish colour of the clay, while the background is painted in with slip to fire black. The artist can then add detail simply by applying slip to the red figures with a thin paintbrush. Red-figured vases became more popular around the end of the sixth century B.C., perhaps because that technique better expressed the developing Greek interest in the physical and psychological natures of individual human beings.


Hydria with Women at the Fountain. 530 B.C.

Vulci, Museo di Villa Giulia, Rome

Non-mythological subjects also appear on vases. In one example, a group of women at a fountain appropriately decorates a hydria, or water jug. Several vases have images relating to the Panathenaic games, festivals held in Athens similar to the Olympic games which first took place in 776 B.C. (The Olympics were discontinued by the Romans in 394 A.D. only to resume more than fifteen hundred years later, in 1896). Greek vases often depict actual athletic events, such as footraces. Because they com­peted nude, athletes were a favourite subject for Greek artists interested in depicting the human body. This type of vase might have been given as a prize to a winning athlete.

Three Participants in a Footrace at the Panathenaic Games. 6th centrury B.C.

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Black figured apmhora. Musee Vivenel, Compiegne, France

This vase was given as a prize to the winner of a footrace at the Panathenaic Games. What the Greeks considered the naturally beautiful human figure, whether the mortal or immortal, had become the main subject of vase painting by this time. Athletes, because they competed nude, were a favourtite subject of Greek artists perfecting the depiction of the human form. The arrangement of small figures and patterns in the horizontal registers, characteristic of the “geometric” and “orientalising” styles, is replaced in Archaic Greek vases, such as the one illustrated here, by larger less crowded scenes

The Greeks saw themselves as a rational, civilized, and dignified people, and thus superior to the Persians, whom they considered barbarians. When the Greeks finally succeeded in halting the onslaught of their foes from the East, they embarked on an age of great prosperity, known as the High Classical period, which lasted from about 450 to 400 B.C. During this time, the humanistic tendencies of the Greeks came to fruition, and were expressed in all media. The core principle and aesthetic tenet of the time are best summed up by the Greek philosopher Protagoras (c. 485-410 B.C.), who said, “Man is the measure of all things.” This interest in humanity, this confidence in human capabilities, is probably best seen, as far as the visual arts are concerned, in Greek sculpture and architecture; it was at this time that the Parthenon was rebuilt, under the famous Athenian statesman Pericles, and decorated with some of the best examples of High Classical sculpture.

Niobid Painter. Apollo and Artemis Slaying the Chilldren of Niobe. c. 455-450 B.C.

Attic red-figure calyx-krater from Orvieto. Height: apporx. 21″ (53cm). Musee du Louvre, Paris

In Greek mythology, Niobe was the granddaughter of Zeus, ruler of the gods. After boasting about the number of children she had (seven sons and seven daughters) in comparison to the goddess Leto, Niobe was punished for her hubris by Apollo and Artemis, the two offspring of Leto, who slaughtered all Niobe’s offspring. The red-figure technique was more conductive to the Classical Greek artist’s interest in realism, qualified by idealism, in the depiction of the human form. In portraying the nude figure of Apollo, the Niobid Painter has clearly delineated musculature. Despite the horror of the event, Apollo and Artemis have typically controlled, rational expressions on their faces – the essence of the Classical ideal


The human form in art was infused with realism; the musculature was carefully modelled, movement was implied and drapery fell naturally over the body. This realism encompassed an ideal of humanity that resulted in dignified, confident, emotionally restrained, and rational expressions and postures. Painting at this time also reached great new heights, primarily in the form of wall and panel painting, virtually none of which survives. Vase painting, especially the red-figure style, continued, although it had reached its heyday during the Archaic period. Interestingly, the painters of late fifth century red figure vases seem to have been influenced by large scale painting, with mixed results. The compositions become complex and crowded, better suited to a flat wall or panel, while the Archaic harmony between the painted figures and the curved shapes of the vases is no longer as suc­cessfully achieved. Furthermore, vase painting is not conducive to the depiction of light and shad­ow or to the creation of the illusion of space receding into the distance, both advanced techniques in Greek wall paintings of this period.

Banqueting Scene, a Guest Reclines on a Coach Lsitening to a Musician Play the Double-Flute. 460-450 B.C.

Centre medallion of a red figured cup. Musee du Louvre, Paris

The youthful flute player, rendered in full profile (including the eye), is successfully depicted occupying space and stands with his weight concentrated on his right leg. The Greek artist’s keen interest in the rendering of the human form is clear here. Compare this figure with painted depictions of Egyptian pharaohs, with their awkward combined frontal-profile forms and rigid stances. Thin, black lines delineate musculature and drapery folds in this banqueting scene. The reclining figure holds a kylix, or drinking cup, similiar to the one which this image decorates.

It is, however, during the Classical period that white-ground vases became more popular. In this style, either the red-figure or black-figure technique served to decorate a white ground; in addition, artists employed tempera paint. Tempera allowed for a wider range of colours, but the tem­pera additions, unfortunately, often have not survived, given their tendency to flake off. The lekythos painted with a scene of a warrior taking leave of his wife was probably made to be placed either in or on a tomb. The graceful figures on this vase magnificently display the “noble simplicity and quiet grandeur” that the German scholar Johann Joachim Winckelmann considered to be characteristic of High Classical Greek art.

Achilles Painter. Warrior Taking Leave of His Wife. 440 B.C.

Eretria. Atiic white-ground lekythos. Height: approx. 17″ (43cm). National Archaeological Museum, Athens

The Greeks colonized southern Italy, where they were in contact with the indigenous Etruscan culture. An ancient Greek wall painting from the so-called “Tomb of the Diver” in Paestum, Italy, probably reveals Etruscan influences. The dive taken by the figure could be interpreted as the passage of the deceased into the otherworld. The Greeks did not build large tombs to house their dead; for them, the realm of the dead seems to have been a vaguely defined, mysterious place.

Diver. c.480 B.C.

Ceiling fresco from a Greek tomb at Paestum, Italy. Height: approx. 40″ (102cm). Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Paestum

We know that in addition to vase painting, the Greeks painted large scale compositions on panel, what have not survived the tests of time. A few mural paintings do survive, like this one from a Greek tomb in Paestum, Italy. The dive taken by the youth perhaps symbolises the passage from life to death

In the fourth century B.C., the Greek city-states were dominated by the kings of Macedon, an area to the north of Greece. The most famous of these conquerors was Alexander the Great (356-323 B.C.), who also subjugated the Persian Empire and Egypt. In a Roman floor mosaic, based on a Greek painting of the battle between Alexander the Great and the Persian king Darius III, the artist has applied foreshortening and shading techniques to create an effect of three-dimensional space. The emotional and physical intensity of this image – conveyed through the facial expressions of the participants and the depiction of dramatic movement – is probably typical of late Greek wall painting.

Perhaps by Philoxenos or Helen of Egypt. Alexander the Great and Darius III at the Battle of Issos. Roman mosaic copy after a Greek painting 310 B.C.

106″ x 200″ (270cm x 510cm), Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Naples

The 5th century Peloponnesian War weakened Greece considerably. By the end of the fouth century B.C. the Greeks were under Macedonian rule, the most famous leader of which was Alexander the Great. This Roman floor mosaic from a house in Pompeii is a copy of a large scale Greek painting and depicts the battle between Alexander and the Persian king Darius III. Foreshortening – note in particular the horse seen from behind in three quarter view in front of Darius’ chariot – is masterfully employed here. Light is reflected from the shiny surfaces of armour and figures cast shadows. The dramatic emotionalism of this image is probably typical of 4th century Greek panel painting, none of which survives

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