Bryn Mawr Classical Review 96.12.5


Susan B. Matheson, Polygnotos and Vase Painting in Classical Athens. Wisconsin Studies in Classics, Barbara Hughes Fowler and Warren G. Moon (1945-1992), edd. Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1995. Pp. xvii, 537. $60.00. ISBN 0-229-13870-4.


Reviewed by Guy Hedreen, Williams College, guy.m.hedreen@williams.edu.

In art history, there are, generally speaking, two types of books dedicated to individual artists. One is the monograph, a book that often has a biographical orientation and is often lavishly illustrated, but does not generally presume to cover the complete oeuvre of the artist. The other is the catalogue, an exhaustive list of every work of art attributed to an artist, with an illustration and complete publication record for each work. While the audiences for the art-historical monograph and the catalogue overlap to a large extent, there are differences between them. The catalogue is a specialist's tool; it is usually large and expensive, and found more often in libraries (both academic libraries and the libraries of art dealers) than in student's carrels. The monograph often has a broader appeal; non-specialists hoping to learn about an artist will usually find a monograph more succinct, accessible, and interesting than a catalogue. The chief reason is that the monograph aims to provide some kind of context -- biographical, social, economic, or whatever -- for an artistic oeuvre, whereas the catalogue assumes that the reader can supply the context on his own.

With a few exceptions (such as some of the volumes in the series Bilder griechischer Vasen), most books dedicated to individual vase-painters are more comparable to a catalogue than a monograph. The catalogue-trend is exemplified by the volumes in the recent series entitled Kerameus. The catalogs of these studies often exceed in size or prominence the descriptive or analytical text, and the illustrations are so numerous that they usually require a separate volume. Susan Matheson's book, Polygnotos and Vase Painting in Classical Athens, is something of an exception to the trend toward catalog-style books on ancient vase-painters. To be sure, it is the first in-depth study of the Athenian red-figure vases attributed to members of the Group of Polygnotos, which dates to the second half of the fifth century B.C. As such, the book aims to provide comprehensive accounts of the stylistic development of the group and the subjects represented on its vases. A great many of the vases attributed to this group by Beazley, as well as a number of vases attributed by scholars since his death, are described or analyzed in detail in this book. It includes a large number of illustrations (180 plates). They are, for the most part, of high quality, and there are useful illustrations of details. The illustrations vary in size, but many are quite large. Only a few are not large or clear enough to support the discussion of the vases (e.g., pl. 7, pl. 155). The book includes a catalogue in which Beazley's publication-records for the vases are updated. There are five indices: a general index to the text of the book, and four indices to the catalogue (museum, subject matter, provenience, and concordance to Beazley). In short, as primary source of information about the Group of Polygnotos, a scholarly tool, this book is very useful.

Although it will serve de facto as a catalogue of the Group of Polygnotos, this book is organized more along the lines of a monograph. The catalogue is a small part of the book and provides only brief statements of the subjects depicted on the vases. The bulk of the book is the text, which is divided into two major parts, one concerning style and chronology (chaps. 1 and 2), the other, subject matter (chaps. 4-9). An individual vase-painting might be discussed in several different places in the book. For example, the famous krater depicting a sacrificial procession to a temple of Apollo, attributed to the Kleophon Painter (pl. 123), is discussed in three different contexts: style, the iconography of Apollo, and the representation of religious ritual (pp. 139-141, 198, 277-278). The illustrations are interleaved within the text, and organized according to the discussion of the style of Polygnotos and the various members of the group. This is useful when one is reading the chapters on style, less so when one comes to the chapters on subject matter, where one has to refer back constantly to the early pages of the book. It is also not always easy to find a given plate, especially the higher plate-numbers: pls. 167 and 168, on pp. 237 and 238, are surrounded by pages of text and are not to be found without a certain amount of searching. But the point is, the multiple discussions of vases and the in-text location of the illustrations favor the reader who is following Matheson's presentation page by page, rather than the user who is consulting the book as a source of reference. A desire to create something more than a catalogue is expressed in Matheson's preface (p. xv): "[t]his book grew first out of the focus on Periclean Athens that has been shared for more than a decade by four of my colleagues at Yale ..." The full treatment of the subject matter depicted on the vases and the many attempts to relate the iconography to influences from outside of the potters' quarter reflect Matheson's interdisciplinary interests.

Turning from the organization of the book to the quality of its scholarship, I would like to state at the outset that this is a very fine book. In addition to its great usefulness as a scholarly tool, it is both pleasant and stimulating to read. It is well written in an easy, confident, and often lively style. The author has a good ear for adjectives and turns of phrase, "Bebrykian thug" (p. 229) being one of my favorites. She is adept at characterizing the overall tone or mood of a work of art in a compact space: see, e.g., the comparison of the solemnity of the Kleophon Painter to the sweeter approach of the Dinos Painter (pp. 148-149). One wishes that more scholarly writing in classical archaeology were as engaging as Matheson's.

The book is also characterized by thorough research and sound reasoning. The author is up to date on the scholarship in remarkably large number of fields. One expects a book with this title to be learned in scholarship pertaining to the style and attribution of vases to the Group of Polygnotos and its contemporaries. But the many different subjects represented on the vases are as well researched as the connoisseurship. There are detailed and useful discussions of many different themes or problems. To list only a sample: the stylistic relationship between the centauromachy on pl. 38 (London, B. M. 1898.7-16.5) and the Parthenon metopes (pp. 50-54), the epigraphical and archaeological evidence for interrelations among the Group of Polygnotos (pp. 83-86), the Return of Hephaistos (pp. 188-190), the identification of the woman on pl. 62B (Vienna, University 505) as Briseis (pp. 250-252), the interpretation of the scene of hammer-swinging satyrs on the krater in Bologna (pp. 261-262), departure scenes (269-276), the identification of the deities on the well-known krater in Ferrara by the Curti Painter (pl. 116, pp. 278-279), the representation of women (pp. 288-290). In the iconographical analyses, Matheson often struck a nice balance between accessibility and rigor, the result being discussions that are useful to specialist and non-specialist alike.

Perhaps it is unfair to ask for more: after all, the book is broader in scope and more accessible -- aimed at a wider audience -- than many studies of ancient vase-painters; and the scholarship and writing are of high quality. Furthermore, the author was restrained from diving too deeply into any one area by the desire to present the work of the Group of Polygnotos in a more or less comprehensive fashion -- or, to return to the analogy with which we began, by the need for a kind of catalogue of the Group of Polygnotos. But, in my view, the few weaknesses of this book are due precisely to its adherence to some of the strictures of that type of book.

First of all, catalogues are aimed at a narrow audience of specialists, and one shortcoming of this book is that the author seems to have had in mind primarily scholars of Athenian vase-painting when writing it. Not enough contextual information is provided. Perhaps the most obvious instance concerns the title of the book: it suggests that the book will be concerned, in part at least, with classical vase-painting generally. The introduction includes a lucid sketch of the place of the Polygnotan group in fifth-century vase-painting (p. 4), but it lacks specific examples of the styles of the other artists mentioned; and, more fundamentally, it is simply not large enough -- it is only one paragraph in length. There are references to many other classical vase-painters in this book, and several pages of the conclusion are devoted to vase-painting outside of the Polygnotan group, but nowhere is there the kind of substantial discussion of classical vase-painting as a whole that a non-specialist needs to appreciate fully the place of the Polygnotan group. A measure of this is the small number of illustrations devoted to sculpture or vase-paintings from outside of the Group of Polygnotos: four vases by the Niobid Painter and four illustrations of the Parthenon sculptures, out of 180 plates.

The second limitation of the book, in my opinion, is that it does not ask enough questions about the framework within which it was conceived. The subject of the book, the entity known as the Group of Polygnotos, was first defined by Beazley (see chapter 52 of ARV2); it is not an entity that is discussed as such in the ancient sources or unified through its archaeological provenance. The lists of vases attributed by Beazley to this group seem more tentative than the lists of vases that he assigned to many other artists. Beazley wrote (ARV2 1027): "[w]e distinguish many hands: but there is a large residue of vases about which all that can be said at present is that they belong to the Group of Polygnotos." The Hector, Peleus, and Coghill Painters are said to be "sometimes hard to tell from one another" (ibid.); of the rest of the group, the Lykaon and Christie Painters are said to be "the most definite personalities" (ibid.), implying it seems that other painters were not necessarily thought of as distinct artists. Judging from the many reassignments and reorganizations of vases between his first attempts (e.g., Attic Red-figured Vases in American Museums, Attische Vasenmaler) and his last (Paralipomena), Beazley seemed to regard some of his lists as provisional. The provisional nature of the lists of vases in chapter 52 of ARV2 is suggested above all by the words "at present"; if he had been Methuselah, perhaps Beazley would eventually have streamlined the Group of Polygnotos.

One is a little surprised, then, to read in Matheson's book that the list of vases assigned to 'the Group of Polygnotos, undetermined' has grown in number from Beazley's 165 vases to almost 200 vases today (Polygnotos, p. 162). A reader may be forgiven for thinking that this may be the reverse of progress. Matheson also discusses a number of artists (e.g., Midas Painter, Guglielmi Painter, Coghill Painter) whose oeuvres consist of very few vases (the Coghill Painter's consists of two vases and a fragment) without raising the methodological question, do these small groups of vases really represent distinct hands? In what sense is it meaningful to speak of a group of three or four unsigned vases as a 'painter'? Two of the painters are specified by Beazley as being "near" or "very close" to other artists, as Matheson points out. Is it not possible that some of the smaller groups of vases in the Group of Polygnotos represent the longer lived or more prolific artists on an off day? It may be that there are good arguments for maintaining the distinctions among the groups of vases articulated in chap. 52 of ARV2, but they are not presented in Polygnotos. It is as if Beazley's assignments were the point of departure for the book, rather than the object of inquiry.

One final shortcoming: as pointed out at several points in the book (pp. xv, 82, 162), it has proved very difficult to define precisely what kind of unity the 'Group' of Polygnotos as a whole represents. The author devotes a number of pages to this problem (pp. 162-175), but the conclusion is disappointing: "we simply cannot tell whether Polygnotos was the head of a multicelled workshop or one artist among many who were loosely related by style" (p. 175). The weakness of the analysis lies not in the evidence that the author presents, which is soundly evaluated, but in what is absent. There is no definition or discussion of what a pottery workshop might have consisted of in the fifth century; no discussion of what the archaeological evidence of a workshop might look like; no comparative analysis of other groups of vase-painters, e.g., the workshop of the Penthesilea Painter, in which collaboration between artists on the same vase was common enough to suggest that they worked together in the same physical space. In short, no real background to the notion of a 'group' of vase-painters.

The strength of this book, then, lies in the quality of the research and writing on the individual vases assigned to the Group of Polygnotos, and on the chronology of the more clearly delineated hands. I wish that the author had probed more deeply into or questioned more radically the significance of some of Beazley's groupings of vases, which he practically invited in his notes on the Group of Polygnotos, but I am happy nonetheless to have this book on my shelf.