Bryn Mawr Classical Review 04.02.11

Robertson, Martin, The art of vase-painting in classical Athens. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992. Pp. 350; black-and-white illus. 300. ISBN 0-521-33010-6.

Reviewed by Jenifer Neils, Case Western Reserve University.

In a perceptive essay on scholarly approaches to Greek vase-painting,1 Martin Robertson compares the conceit of hearing Mozart played on period instruments with the notion of modern classicists that they can share the ancients' sensibility to painted pottery by identifying its practitioners and reconstructing its stylistic development. R. notes that, just as we cannot really "hear" Mozart because of all the subsequent music of which we are inevitably conscious, so our "seeing" of Greek vases is colored (and enhanced) by our appreciation of later epochs of art history. We must also always bear in mind that the "art history" of vase-painting is largely a construct of modern scholarship, since the subject barely warrants a mention in ancient literature. The well-wrought urn seems not to have played such a major role in ancient life as it does in contemporary aesthetics, to say nothing of the art market.

The process of mapping out the terrain of Athenian vases began with the well-known scholar, Sir John Beazley. He successfully applied a method developed by the 19th-century art historian Morelli for distinguishing hands in Italian Renaissance figural paintings. Known as the Morellian method, it is based on the premise that every artist has an individual way of rendering details, such as a nose or anklebone. Beginning with a morass of largely anonymous material (approx. 30,000 black- and red-figure vases) Beazley ended up with hundreds of painters and potters, groups and classes, arranged in roughly chronological order. Subsequently, most scholars in the field have occupied themselves with re-fining his lists by studying an individual painter, a shape or a subject.

Until now the student who wished to fathom the intricacies of Athenian vase-painting during the city's heyday, that is from the foundation of the city's democracy to the loss of its hegemony to the Macedonians, would have had to choose from one of two extremes: either elementary surveys, or Beazley's 1700-page, 3-volume, unillustrated lists of attributed red-figure vases with their often arcane abbreviations, supplemented by various paralipomena. The latter can be bewildering to students and offer few clues to the development of the subject, while the former necessarily give short shrift to vase-painters' artistic personalities and workshop interconnections, iconography, shape development, the role of ornament, etc. At first it might seem surprising that this fundamental chapter in Greek art has remained unwritten, but when one considers the daunting task (some 1,000 artists and groups), it is perhaps more understandable. Even Beazley who fleshed out his list of black-figure vase-painters (ABV) with The Development of Attic Black-figure (1951), never undertook a counterpart for Attic Red-figure Vase-painters (ARV second edition, 1963).

We are fortunate that R., an epigone of Beazley and one who knew him well, undertook this monumental task. His text, which spans 200 years (ca. 530-330), follows the master's main divisions beginning with the inventors of red-figure to the decline of the craft in the late fourth century. Along the way, as he deals with specific artists and their workshops, he draws our attention to subsidiary ornament, chronology, other techniques such as white-ground and coral red, and composition. In terms of chronology the text not only traces the internal development of many a painter's oeuvre, but, where possible, pegs it to a historical date. In his close study of vase-painters, R. does not simply blindly follow Beazley, but has suggested some innovative ideas and creative solutions to long-standing problems. In the first chapter dealing with the earliest red-figure, R. notes that the painter Psiax was a "finer and more boldly experimental draughtsman than the Andokides Painter" (13). He goes on to suggest that Psiax may have been inspired by his teacher's (the Amasis Painter's) use of outline for female figures (instead of the usual black silhouette with added white) to invent the red-figure technique. For, according to R., it is not the Lysippides / Andokides partnership (traditionally credited with the invention), but Psiax who proceeds to realize the artistic potential of the new technique. In a later chapter R. attributes the famous singleton, the Sosias cup in Berlin, to the young Kleophrades Painter (although I don't see such an accomplished and progressive work representing the juvenalia of any painter), and he would also reassign the cylindrical wine cooler with Alcaeus and Sappho, which Beazley considered a late work of the Brygos Painter, to the Dokimasia Painter (118).

Nor is R. unobservant of shape; he weaves in many perceptive observations about artists' preferences and adaptations. For instance he notes that in black-figure the neck-amphora was a predominantly "light" vase, whereas the hydria was "dark" with decoration set into reserved panels. While the new technique was easily accommodated to the latter shape, it could not be to the former and so artists preferred the one-piece amphora and eventually remodeled the neck amphora. The relationship of potters to painters is explored in light of the maddeningly capricious use of signatures. While R. accepts that egrapsen means painted by the artist himself, he feels that epoiesen is less clear, and rather than referring to the individual as the potter, he prefers the more ambiguous term poietes. R. admits that this is clumsy terminology, and that in most instances the potter himself is named, rather than the owner of the establishment. I would suggest that in the case of overly numerous signatures like those of Nikosthenes, the letters had simply become part of the decorative scheme and should not be taken literally.

R. is at his art historical best in comparing and contrasting similar scenes executed on various shapes by different artists. The Ilioupersis, which becomes a popular subject during the Persian incursions into Greece, appears on the interior of a large cup by Onesimos (Malibu), on the shoulder of a hydria (kalpis) by the Kleophrades Painter (Naples), and on the exterior of a cup by the Brygos Painter (Louvre). R. demonstrates how each artist excels in his own way within his chosen format: Onesimos prefers tondos where the viewer is forced to focus on the gruesome death of Priam; the Kleophrades Painter provides a narrative sequence of events and highlights the gravitas of the situation via the mournful gestures of the Trojan women. The Brygos Painter heightens the drama with swirling drapery, staccato movement, and complex groupings. "The structure of the picture on the kalpis, with the feet on the wide outer circle, leads to compact pyramidal groups. On the cup the feet are on the narrow inner circle and the figures reach up in spreading movements. There is a corresponding contrast in mood. The Kleophrades Painter's tone is given by still figures, mourners and the dead; with the Brygos Painter all is action" (94). Such perceptive analysis of shape and decoration moves us from noses and anklebones to a deeper understanding of each painter's particular niche in the history of Athenian vase-painting.

Throughout his text the author gives due consideration to Vickers and Francis' recent challenges to two mainstays of Beazley's system: chronology and Materialgerechtigkeit (or "truth to materials"). He does not accept the drastically lowered chronology, and refutes it with a variety of convincing evidence: material from dated contexts like the Marathon mound, stylistic affinities between datable relief sculpture and vase-painting, new iconography such as the appearance of Boreas and Oreithyia following the scattering of the Persian fleet by the north wind off Cape Artemision in 480. Much of this is not new evidence but it is brought together and argued in a cogent fashion. R. also refutes Vickers' theory about the influence of vessels in precious metals on the two main ceramic techniques: i.e. black-figure = tarnished silver inlaid on bronze, and red-figure = gold inlay on silver. He points out the existence on many vases of pentimenti or preliminary sketch, which indicates that the artists often changed their minds and so were not slavishly imitating metal prototypes. Most importantly he argues on behalf of the integrity of a craft which has its own traditions and conventions dating back to the Geometric period.

It may surprise some readers to find that in the last chapter there are as many illustrations of black-figure vases as red. The earlier technique in fact outlasted red-figure because it served as the religiously sanctioned mode of decoration for the prize amphorae awarded every four years to winners at the city's Panathenaia. Some of the finest draftmanship of the fourth century is found on these Panathenaics, which are conveniently dated by the archons' inscriptions. Here one might hazard the suggestion that metal engraving was at this time influential, given the fluidity of incision on the reverses of these fourth-century Panathenaics, which compares closely with the engraved cistae and mirrors of the period.

The disappointments of this long-awaited book are mainly of a technical nature. One wishes, particularly in an art history book, that the handles of the cups were not routinely cropped off, or that the contours of the Berlin Painter's bell krater, which are discussed at some length, were actually visible (fig. 64). The endnotes, alas, are decidedly not helpful, especially since a great many simply refer the reader to another note. There is an uneven quality to the text which careful editing could have corrected: on the one hand, it is peppered with the last names of scholars which would mean nothing to the average reader, while on the other it describes in great detail many aspects of Greek vase-painting, such as technique, which are now fairly well known. Some readers will welcome the incorporation of numerous new museum acquisitions, whereas others might deplore such overdependence on unprovenanced and illicitly excavated finds. And finally, a word of advice to the reader: it is absolutely essential to keep at one's elbows John Boardman's two handbooks of red-figure vases which together offer a compendium of over 800 illustrations,2 to which R.'s endnotes refer the reader in the many instances where a vase is discussed but not illustrated.

An outsider looking for the first time at a museum case filled with Athenian pots would likely conclude that the Greeks strove for verisimilitude but were unimaginative in terms of color, and enjoyed scenes of heroic action (aka violence), sports, drinking, and sex, and he would be not far wrong. R. has demonstrated another side, namely the phenomenon of vase-painting as a fine art. With this comprehensive and thoughtful book, he has proved his premise that the craft of painted pottery assumed in Athens an artistic importance rarely equaled in other cultures.


  • [1] M. Robertson, "Adopting an approach," in T. Rasmussen and N. Spivey, edd., Looking at Greek Vases (Cambridge: 1991) 11-12.
  • [2] J. Boardman, Athenian Red Figure Vases: the Archaic Period (London: 1975), and Athenian Red Figure Vases: the Classical Period (London: 1989).