BMCR 2007.04.23

The History of Greek Vases. Potters, Painters and Pictures

, The history of Greek vases : potters, painters, and pictures. London: Thames & Hudson, 2006. 320 pages : illustrations, maps ; 26 cm. ISBN 0500285934. $29.95 (pb).

Greek pottery is one of the most familiar crafts of classical antiquity, the richest and most numerous. This book is the paperback edition of the hardcover published in 2001 and complements previous books by Boardman (hereafter B.) each of which deals with a specific period, technique, or theme. The present book takes the reader beyond the parameters of style, date, iconography, etc. and presents valuable information regarding manufacture, function, subject, relation to other art forms, and the role of viewers and buyers in antiquity. The preface concludes with criticism directed at scholars who favor trendy theory over close observation. B. presses for more balance: “[theory] is valuable, and where properly practised it complements the older approaches without in any way replacing them — indeed, as we shall see, it depends on them. It is, however, remarkable how much scholarship of a hundred years ago anticipated much that is thought novel today.” (p. 10) How true.

Chapter 1: A History of Greek Vases. This cogent overview of a vast amount of material ranging from Late Minoan stirrup vases to Hellenistic clay unguentaria summarizes the detailed accounts in the author’s handbooks. Since B. cites these in many of the endnotes accompanying this and other chapters, the reader is best served to have them at hand.1 Figural pottery in Greece begins in the Bronze Age. B. gives a brief introduction, then settles into styles and fabrics starting with Geometric, noting this is when classical Greek culture in its broadest meaning began: painting became pictures and writing became literature, innovations leading to the exciting changes by 7th-century artists, especially the invention of mythological subjects depicting unmistakable situations and inscriptions naming otherwise anonymous figures. Influence from the aAncient Near East prompted adoption of new ornaments and figural forms. Diversity of regional style characterizes this innovative century, ranging from jewel-like Protocorinthian vases to large vessels decorated with energetic figures by Athenian and Cycladic artists. Relief and plain pottery of the seventh century are also included, especially relief pithoi.

Next comes a discussion of black-figured pottery in Corinth and Athens, the most important production centers in the early sixth century, with the Corinthian shapes, figures, and technical features, especially the use of incision, influencing Athens. We are not sure why Corinthian pottery declined in popularity, but by around 550 B.C. Attic had become dominant, remaining so until the fourth century. B. does not concentrate on just the famous artists of the first half of the sixth century, but mentions such uninspired individuals as the Polos Painter whose incompetent work is found all over the Mediterranean world. The glory years for Attic black-figure are from about 560-520 B. C. when superb vases were created and exported to all parts of the Greek world, especially to Etruria. We may be grateful to the Etruscans for purchasing Greek vases in such large quantity; otherwise our knowledge of this important material would be diminished considerably. Narrative became fully developed, especially by Exekias and the Amasis Painter. B. makes sure his reader is aware of other black-figured fabrics not as prominent as Attic, but of value for the interested reader: vases made in Sparta (called Laconian), Boeotia and Euboea, the latter often inspired by Athens, the colorful East Greek pottery, especially Chian, Rhodian and Clazomenian. Chalcidian was made in the west, probably at Reggio, a Chalcidian colony. The section on black-figure ends with the Caeretan hydriai, fashioned by an innovative group of painters known for their amusing and colorful compositions.

The invention of red-figure initiated great changes in the expressive possibilities of vase painting. Good black-figure continued in quantity until the early fifth century, but younger artists preferred to explore the possibilities of the new technique. The Andokides Painter is the earliest red-figure painter, an elegant, but cautious artist when compared with the next generation, progressive artists designated ‘Pioneers’ by Beazley. Particularly important are Euphronios and Euthymides who explored with brilliant success the possibilities of the new technique. Their use of dilute glaze and relief line resulted in subtlety of drawing impossible in black-figure which relied on incision as well as judicious use of accessory red and white for expressive purposes. The achievements of the Pioneers were continued by the Kleophrades Painter and his colleague the Berlin Painter who specialized in pots. Their important colleagues are Onesimos, the Brygos Painter, Makron and Douris, who preferred to decorate drinking cups. These artists brought new dimensions to the art of vase painting. Subjects from myth continued, but many painters depicted scenes from daily life, a focus that continued until vase painting ceased in the third quarter of the fourth century.

During the middle years of the fifth century elegant white-ground funerary lekythoi were a prominent shape. Construction of the Parthenon was a high point for Athens; many vases of the late fifth century reflect the style of its sculpture and some of its subjects, such as the Gigantomachy krater in Naples near the Pronomos Painter. The end of the Peloponnesian War was another watershed. In vase painting, the style became more precious and delicate with fine linear drawing. The Meidias Painter was its principal exponent and his people inhabit a paradisiacal world filled with sunshine and light. Scenes of women in the home became more frequent as well as shapes appropriate to women’s life.

In the fourth century Athenian pottery diminished in prominence, which is not surprising since Athens was no longer a political and cultural center. Good vases continued to be made and exported, especially to powerful northern Greece. The most popular shapes are bell-kraters, pelikai and hydriai. The drawing is looser, often not as competent as it had been. A notable exception is the hydria found at Pella depicting the contest between Athena and Poseidon.2 Major centers of production for Greek vases during the fourth century are the colonies of Italy, in particular Apulia, Campania and Lucania, also Sicily. Initially, these vases look very Attic, but in time they acquire a local character.

Chapter 2: Connoisseurship. The term, as used here, refers to attributing unsigned vases to known painters, a skill achieved by recognizing the ‘handwriting’ so to speak, which includes not only the style of drawing, but also the choice of shape, ornament, compositions and subjects. Considerable progress in the attribution of vases was made long ago by Adolf Furtwängler and Paul Hartwig, but the principal exponent of the technique was Beazley beginning with his seminal articles published early in the last century. B. discusses Beazley’s method and how he constantly questioned his attributions, on occasion changing them, demonstrating flexibility. B. bristles at the assessment of one author that ” ‘Beazley’s artists prove to be shadowy figures…’ ” and offers an acserbic answer: “We cannot know many things about antiquity but it has become easier, thanks to connoisseurship, to answer such questions about the painters than for most ‘historical’ figures of antiquity. These are no shadowy figures. One is bound to suspect that the motivation for the complaint quoted went beyond ignorance” (p. 137). I agree.

Chapter 3: Potters and Painters. B. begins with a general discussion of the set-up of a potter’s workshop: space and equipment needed, proximity to clay beds, wood for firing the kiln, and water. Not very many workshops have been found, but Corinth yielded an informative one. In Athens, the potters’ quarters was located near the Kerameikos and the Agora. B. discusses what the division of labor might have been: a master potter, one or more painters, assistants with various skills and responsibilities. A large pottery could probably support a fairly sizable work force. Ancient texts are silent about all this, so conclusions must be drawn from the artefacts themselves and common sense. Some of the potters have non-Athenian names and may have been metics.

Chapter 4: Trade. After the vase was made, decorated, fired and cooled, what happened next? Obviously, customers could visit the shop to select vases for purchase. Of more interest is the non-local market. B. thinks a successful potter may have had an arrangement with a merchant to deliver a shipment overseas, which makes good sense, especially in view of the mercantile marks on the undersides of the feet of many vases. B. explores the various possibilities other than direct selling: was there a second-hand trade; were vases purchased as sets, such as for a symposium; did a single merchant work for more then one potter; how were the vases packed for transport, so they would not break; if they broke, who mended them, especially if they were expensive? While none of these questions has a firm answer, asking them is worthwhile.

Chapter 5: Pictures and Painters I. Pictures on Greek vases were the first attraction; shape and style of drawing followed. B. sets forth some of the criteria important for ‘reading’ pictures and warns against imposing modern values on antiquity but, instead, urges us to try to understand them on their own terms. Scenes from mythology (divine and heroic) as well as daily life comprise the largest proportion of figural decoration. What we define as ‘mythology’, the Greeks regarded as part of their history and an appeal to the past was a regular part of any attempt to explain new situations or solve dilemmas. A visual vocabulary had to be invented: posture, gesture, direction of movement, as well as dress, are important elements in reading pictures, also attributes which identify a specific deity or hero. Inscriptions simplify the recognition of figures as well as the moment depicted, and help to interpret similar uninscribed compositions. B. stresses the importance for us to try to comprehend how the pictures were created by the painters and understood by the ancient viewer. Some scenes prove particularly elusive simply because there are not enough clues or because more than one explanation may be possible. Sometimes one figure stands for many; the artist focuses on the high point of the drama and the main protagonists, expecting the viewer to imagine the others. B. also remarks that it is not always possible to distinguish myth from daily life. Consideration should also be given to how scenes are presented on the vase: sometimes front and back are linked thematically; occasionally two or more connected episodes from a single context may be presented, but most common is a single scene in the available space. Vase painters are not interested in depth of field or scale, which would sacrifice narrative. The artist’s competence may also be a factor in understanding a painting. In other words, many criteria serve the observant viewer and “any single theoretical explanation [of a scene] is bound to be wrong for many instances” (p. 179).

Chapter 6: Pictures and Painters II. Having discussed criteria for reading and understanding pictures, B. brings us to the heart of a main interest, iconography. Pictures began as generic illustrations in the eigh8th century and quickly developed into narratives populated by specific individuals in recognizable situations. B. warns that the “study of iconography [is] not a subject for the faint-hearted or those unwilling to look around long and hard” (p. 199). Good advice. B. wisely does not try to recapitulate all the material he has dealt with so deftly in the past, but limits his discussion to a few key choices that may stand for very many, in particular Herakles and Theseus in Athens, Herakles favored by the Peisistratids, Theseus who rose to prominence after the birth of Democracy. Herakles remained popular, however: adventures of the two appear on the Athenian Treasury and they were credited with helping the Greeks defeat the Persians at Marathon. B. discusses late Athenian vases and their counterparts in the Greek colonies of South Italy, noting that the choice of subjects is very different in each place. Theatrical scenes, complete with props, are more popular in the former than they were in Athens where performances were rare and fleeting. The symposium, with its special furniture, vessels for wine, also the dancing and games, was a favorite subject beginning in the late 6th-century. Here, B. asks who chose the subjects and he opts for the painter, but it could also be the potter who, as the owner of the shop, had the larger vested interest in the establishment. Some subjects may have been special commissions and certain shapes, such as the white-ground lekythos, were for special use. The chapter closes with a brief discussion of the emotional content of some depictions, feelings conveyed chiefly by posture and gesture, not by facial expression.

Chapter 7: Greek Vases in Use. The majority of Greek vases were for everyday use, especially plain ware, but also figured ones too, as nicks and scratches attest. Drinking vessels were the most popular, then kraters for holding wine, dippers for ladling it into cups, also vases for storing dry and liquid commodities; shapes for special use, such as fish plates, alabastra and aryballoi, also measures. Size is important for a vase to be useful to its user and extremely large vases were probably for display or funerary use.

Chapter 8: Pottery and other Arts. B. considers Greek pottery one craft among many and asks to what degree vase painters were influenced by outside sources. This is tricky territory and there may not be as much direct influence as some scholars believe. B. opts for caution and believes that “all the evidence is against close copying of major art by vase painters” (p. 273). Probably, but I think there are reflections, for example the Niobid Painter’s use of the multiple ground line for figures, which coincides with its introduction in the famous contemporary monumental wall paintings in Athens and at Delphi, known today from Pausanias’s descriptions. Toward the end of the fifth century, the painters successfully render in drawn line the sculpted linear subtlety of High Classical drapery.

Chapter 9: Tricks of the Trade. B. focuses on technical matters often overlooked. First is skillful use of the wheel for fashioning separate parts of a vase which must fit together, for example, pot and lid, for example. Added color is important, not just accessory red and white, but special techniques such as Six’s and coral red (add here, the superb new book on color by Beth Cohen).3 Other topics for brief discussion are brush and compass, use of a template (probably not very often), and the difficulty of applying human figures to a spheroid form.

Chapter 10: Tools of the Study. Science and statistics comprise the major portion of this chapter. Science is an archaeologist’s friend, and for the person studying vases, analysis of clay and gloss can be equally productive, though B. is quick to caution that this requires “an alliance of skills and interest between archaeologist and scientist, and mutual confidence…” (p. 290). Statistics are another matter and can be of value only as long as the researcher realizes “that antiquity has never left us any body of material that can reasonably be called a random sample of the type and quantity to guarantee effective results” (p. 293). A few remarks about dating vases and presentating them for study close the chapter.

This worthwhile book is well illustrated with crisp black and white photographs (exceptions are the two lekythoi by the Amasis Painter in the Metropolitan Museum which are blurry just as they are in the hard cover edition; surely new prints could have been acquired). Also, the reviewer could not find a vase by Onesimos; this is an odd omission. On p. 288, endnote 12 should appear on p. 287 after “relief Hellenistic bowls”.


1. Athenian Black Figured Vases. A Handbook, 1974; Athenian Red Figured Vases, the Archaic Period. A Handbook, 1975; Athenian Red Figured Vases, the Classical Period. A Handbook,1989; Early Greek Vase Painting. A Handbook, 1998; The Greeks Overseas, 1999.

2. See Michalis Tiverios, “Der Streit um das attische Land. Götter, Heroen und die his-torische Wirklichkeit,” Meisterwerke. Internationales Symposion anlässlich des 150. Geburtstages von Adolf Furtwängler, Freiburg im Breisgau, 30. Juni – 3. Juli 2003 (ed. Volker Michael Strocka, Munich, 2005) pp. 299-319.

3. Beth Cohen, The Colors of Clay. Special Techniques in Athenian Vases, Los Angeles, 2006.