BMCR 2007.03.09

The Colors of Clay: Special Techniques in Athenian Vases

, , The colors of clay : special techniques in Athenian vases. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2006. xii, 371 pages : illustrations (some color), map ; 29 cm. ISBN 9780892365715. $85.00.

This is the catalogue of a fascinating exhibition, curated by Beth Cohen, that was at the J. Paul Getty Museum from June 8 to September 4, 2006, the first large international exhibition to be held in Malibu at the newly renovated and expanded Getty Villa. The catalogue, most of which is by Cohen (hereafter ξ, is truly excellent and makes an important contribution to the study of Greek art. This heavy tome can hardly be called a handbook, but it surely will become the primary reference work for special techniques in Athenian vases.

Coral red, white ground, Six’s technique, gilding, and raised clay relief are techniques familiar to vase specialists, but they remain poorly understood by most people. Appreciating their nuances requires close examination of the vases themselves, for which the best photographs often are no substitute. Cohen, whose knowledge of these techniques is unrivaled, several times mentions her own surprise at finding new details on vases that she formerly had known only from published images. Having said that, the photographs in this catalogue, nearly all in color, are exceptionally good, and the layout is pleasing, spacious, and clear. Several vases receive less than full coverage, presumably to emphasize the passages most relevant to the theme. This is not a CVA, and we should not expect images from every angle. Those desirous of more information will find it in the entries, some of which would put the CVA to shame. Indeed, there is more information than the average reader will want, sometimes offering a level of detail that only the most hardened vase scholar will wish to wade through. Museum catalogues, even on so esoteric a subject, should make some concession to the average reader, but this is no work for beginners. Although only a few new attributions are ventured, the approach is Beazleyan in the sense that style and technique are the focus. Iconography is not ignored, but it clearly is secondary. While some might wish for a more well-rounded approach, it would behoove those impatient with connoisseurship to pay more attention to these devilish details. If there is one message conveyed by this book, it is that one should look very closely at works of art.

The director’s Foreword is followed by Acknowledgments, a Map, Abbreviations, and C.’s Introduction. An initial essay by Jeffrey Maish, Marie Svoboda, and Susan Lansing-Maish presents “Technical Studies of Some Attic Vases in the J. Paul Getty Museum,” conducted in collaboration with the Getty Conservation Institute. These studies focus on the nature of coral red “gloss,” the term preferred by the Getty editors to “glaze” (to C.’s evident annoyance: p. 116 n. 4), of applied gilding, and of distinctive colors on select vases. There is still uncertainty about the composition of coral red and what role the kiln environment, temperature, and firing sequence played in its production. It has been successfully reproduced, by forgers as well as scientists, but there is more to be learned. Its appearance is very close to that of misfired black gloss, as this reviewer can testify after puzzling over fragments from excavation. Their compositions must have been different, however, for them to acquire such distinct characteristics during the same three-stage firing. Techniques of gilding also continue to be debated. Gold has a higher melting temperature than that required for firing black gloss. Although this means it could be applied before firing, the researchers conclude that it usually was not. Analysis of various red colorants reveals that both common “added red” and the red used on some Six’s Technique vases contain hematite, which is not really surprising. On the other hand, it comes as news that, on one vase, red cinnabar was applied after firing (p. 13, fig. 5).

The 105 Attic vases featured in the catalogue come from seventeen American and European museums. The quality of the works selected is mind-boggling, combining famous masterpieces with lesser known vessels of equal beauty and importance. They range in date from the Acropolis dinos fragments signed by the black-figure artist Sophilos, ca. 580 BC (cat. 40), to a trio of spectacular Kerch-style vases of the mid-fourth century (cat. nos. 103-105). The entries are divided into nine chapters, each preceded by an essay describing a particular technique, type, or tomb group and synthesizing the latest scholarship. All but two of the entries are by C., as are the first five essays; the last four are by Joan Mertens, Marion True, Dyfri Williams, and Kenneth Lapatin. In the back are a Glossary, Concordances, an Index of Painters, Groups, and Classes, Abbreviations for References, and a list of cited References. There is, alas, no index.

In her first essay, “Bilingual Vases and Vase-painters,” C. presses her view that the black-figure Lysippides Painter and the red-figure Andokides Painter were not the same artist, even providing a lengthy quotation from Mary Moore that praises her conclusion (p. 20). She probably is correct, but the debate—and the hairsplitting—will certainly continue.1 For example, in her discussion of a red-figure amphora in Basel (cat. no. 27), by the Andokides Painter, with Herakles and the Lion, she emphasizes the unusual treatment of the hero’s curly hair, rendered in relief as large, S-shaped spirals. Nearly three decades ago, C. noted that the only close parallel to this technique, augmented by incision, is on a fragment of a black-figure amphora with the same subject, attributed to the Lysippides Painter and now at Emory University.2 Her conclusion then was that on the Emory vase—which she does not mention here—the Lysippides Painter was imitating the Andokides Painter, but so unusual a motif also could be adduced as evidence that both works are from the same hand.

In the next essay, “Coral-red Gloss: Potters, Painters, and Painter-Potters,” C. enlarges on the aforementioned technical studies with some acute analysis. The examples catalogued are mostly cups—black-figure, red-figure, and white ground—but the Getty also contributes two phialai and a unique volute-krater with a coral red body and red-figure scenes on the neck, the latter said to recall the Kleophrades Painter (cat. no. 13).3 C. resolves the question of whether the black gloss or the coral red was applied first: it could be done either way, as shown by examples in which one overlaps the other, which also demonstrates that they were applied together for a single firing. C.’s review of the potters and painters who employed coral red in a variety of schemes and formats is comprehensive and magisterial. The potting of the two Getty phialai (cat. nos. 11-12) has been attributed to Euphronios, who is present here also as the painter of a kylix recently discovered in the Athenian Agora (cat. no. 10), a reminder that not every vase by him is part of the national patrimony of Italy; indeed, some would say none of them are.

In the Six’s technique, figures in added color, usually red or white, are painted on a ground of black gloss, sometimes in combination with forms directly incised in the black. C.’s entries and essay (“Six’s Technique: Black Ground”) place the technique’s origins in the context of the innovative spirit pervading Athenian ceramic ateliers in the late sixth century, particularly that of the potter Nikosthenes. A range of shapes were decorated in Six’s technique, including amphorae, phialai, kyathoi, and stamnoi,4 and in the early fifth century, lekythoi. A broken but beautiful Heron Class skyphos, in the Getty, is apparently unique (cat. no. 21).

By 530, red-figure artists began augmenting their painted designs with raised clay relief, used for the texturing of hair and beards and to impart plasticity to furniture, jewelry, wreaths and other details. By 480, selected details might also be gilded. C. traces this development in an essay (“Added Clay and Gilding in Athenian Vase-painting”) and in entries describing examples ranging from Psiax and the Andokides Painter to an astonishing squat lekythos in the Hermitage, signed by the early fourth-century potter Xenophantos (cat. 37), on which all the figures are in relief.5 Pointing to Renaissance panel paintings featuring details in gilded relief ( pastiglia), she advances the interesting notion that raised relief may have figured in the innovations of fifth-century Greek muralists.

C.’s last essay, “Outline as a Special Technique in Black-and Red-figure Vase-painting,” precedes a group of vases in which figures or other elements are drawn in outline, usually on a reserved ground, though on one vase, a pelike in Boston (cat. no. 49), the Africans binding Andromeda are limned in white-on-black. Of the techniques explored in this book, outlining is the least “special.” Partial outlining of figures is not uncommon in red-figure—it occurs whenever figures overlap—and even red figures abutting the black ground were first drawn in outline.6 While most black-figure artists used added white to distinguish the fair flesh of women, the Amasis Painter sometimes outlined his females against a reserved ground (cat. no. 43). The effect is pleasing, but was this brilliant innovation or simple laziness?

Outline drawing did not truly come into its own until the advent of vessels whose principal decoration was on a ground of white slip, the subject of Joan Mertens’ essay, “Attic White Ground: Potter and Painter.” Mertens skillfully summarizes the complex history of white ground and the artists it attracted. Although it appeared much earlier, the technique did not take off until the last quarter of the sixth century. Once again, Psiax and the Andokides Painter played major roles. The vases catalogued represent a range of shapes, including funerary lekythoi, whose evolution is outlined in full, from black-figure, to semi-outline, to outline with—sequentially—relief lines, dilute gloss, and matt black. The pale ground, sensitive drawing, and rainbow of supplementary colors, some added after firing, make these among the most beautiful of all Greek vases. Examination in ultraviolet light of a “huge” (h. 75.5 cm.) lekythos from Berlin (cat. no. 69), dating to the end of the fifth century, reveals a sophisticated use of shading that surely reflects the latest advances in contemporary wall painting.

Marion True’s essay on “Athenian Potters and the Production of Plastic Vases” traces the history of head-vases, rhyta, and more elaborate sculptural vessels, such as a mounted Amazon in Boston, signed by the potter Sotades (cat. no. 87). These illustrate the technical skills of Athenian potters, who combined molded and wheel-thrown elements in imaginative ways. One recently discovered red-figure vase (p. 244, fig. 3), from Ravanusa, is in the form of a psykter carried by a donkey being violated by a satyr! Other vases are relatively normal in shape but have a variety of plastic adjuncts, from female heads to the startling phallus-shaped “foot” of an eye-cup in Oxford (cat. no. 74).

The final two sections and essays do not focus on particular techniques. In “The Sotades Tomb,” Dyfri Williams marshals evidence that ten vases from about 460 BC, now in three different museums, were found together in a tomb in Athens in 1890: a pair of fluted phialai, two fluted mastoi, and six delicate cups with wishbone handles, all making use of white ground or added white, and all but three employing coral red gloss or a matt equivalent. Four of the vases are signed by the potter Sotades and one by Hegesiboulos, whom Williams distinguishes from a Late Archaic forebear of the same name, possibly his grandfather (p. 296). He believes all ten vases originated in the same workshop, and this is surely correct. The unusual iconography of three of the cups (cat. nos. 90, 92, 93), the crisp potting, the presence of multiple potter’s signatures, the bright polychromy of the fluted mastoi and phialai, and Williams’ tour de force of contextual reconstruction make this a particularly intriguing and appealing group of Early Classical vases.

A final essay by Kenneth Lapatin, “Kerch-style Vases: The Finale,” introduces six fourth-century red-figure works exhibiting raised relief, gilding, and a range of bright colors. The Kerch-style proper is best represented by a marvelous lebes gamikos from the Hermitage, attributed to the Marsyas Painter, with a bride surrounded by fluttering, white-skinned erotes and tall, glamorous women bearing gifts and swathed in elegant gowns (cat. no. 103). Lapatin succinctly describes this last hurrah of Athenian vase-painting and brings into sharper focus the careers of three great exponents of the style: the Pourtales Painter, the Marsyas Painter, and the Painter of the Wedding Procession.

The Getty has had its problems recently, and these unfortunately cast a shadow over the reopening of the Villa, now one of the finest museums in the world dedicated to Classical art. After the exhibition closed, the museum decided to return to Italy an extraordinary red-figure kantharos, attributed to the Foundry Painter, with large, molded masks of Dionysos on either side (cat. no. 82). Marion True, the museum’s beleaguered former Curator of Antiquities, wrote an excellent essay for the catalogue, and it is hoped that she will continue to make significant contributions to the field. Beth Cohen’s own contributions are now legion, and this splendid book will join others from her hand in the library of every serious student of Greek pottery.


1. C. finds convincing Elizabeth Simpson’s argument that differences in the drawing of the klinai on the bilingual amphora Munich 2301 reflect the two painters’ fundamentally different understanding of the actual joinery, but this sets a standard of consistency and exactitude that would have astonished the artists.

2. Carlos Museum, Emory University 2005.87.4. See B. Cohen, Attic Bi-lingual Vases and their Painters (New York 1978) 28, pl. VIII.1.

3. I am among the minority inclined to attribute these depictions of Herculean Labors and the encounter with Alkyoneus to the Kleophrades Painter himself.

4. C. mentions (p. 80 n. 37) that some scholars believe some of the stamnoi in Six’s technique might instead be Etruscan, but the example she cites, Brussels R 280, is surely Attic, probably by the same painter as a stamnos formerly in a Swiss private collection (C. Isler-Kerényi, Stamnoi [Lugano 1976] 29-34), and another, with tumescent satyrs pursuing a goat, formerly in the American art market.

5. C. accepts Joan Mertens’ attribution to Euphronios of a fragmentary kylix in the Getty (cat. no. 30), with semi-outline figures on a white ground. Dyfri Williams has argued that the cup instead is by Onesimos: Jahrbuch der Berliner Museen 24 (1982) 37-38. I can only echo Martin Robertson’s opinion, that it doesn’t particularly look like the work of either artist: The Art of Vase Painting in Classical Athens (Cambridge 1992) 54.

6. The outlining often was done with black-gloss relief lines. C. remains sympathetic to Noble’s suggestion that relief lines were executed with a syringe-like instrument (p. 159 n. 10), but this is unlikely. The best fakers of Attic vases routinely make perfect relief lines by simply laying and lifting a very thin brush (consisting, in one case, of rodent whiskers).