Painting Before 1300 AD (5): Greek

Painting Before 1300 AD (5): Greek

Greek painting is a play that enthralls you with its opening act. Then you discover that the last two acts are missing, and that you can only learn the ending from a summary by a second-rate translator.

Greek painters made tremendous advances over Egyptian and Minoan painting. Alas, not a single large-scale Greek painting survives from the time the Dark Ages ended in Greece (ca. 800 BC) until the Greek mainland became a province of the Roman Empire (1st century BC). We have to piece most of the story together from other sources.

For the early period (ca. 800-480 BC), we can reconstruct large-scale painting based on pottery. While pottery is usually considered a craft rather than an art, the Greeks, particularly the Athenians, created works of extremely high quality.

On early vase paintings (“vase” is used by Greek archeologists to refer to all sorts of pottery shapes, not just flower-holders), pictures were drawn in white and black. Figures such as those on the amphora with Odysseus and his men blinding the cyclops Polyphemus (ca. 600 BC) have some features similar to those we saw in Egyptian and Minoan art, especially the full-frontal eye in a profile face.

Even at this early period, though, Greek artists display an interest in motion that seldom appeared even among the lively Minoans. On this vase, Odysseus leaps up to help drive the stake into Polyphemus’ eye, bending one knee as he does so. In other vase paintings, figures run, crawl, wrestle or dance. And, nearly always, they tell a story we can recognize. The Greeks are the first civilization to have recorded not just the glories of the current ruler and the contents of his treasure houses, but lengthy stories about gods and men, how the world was created, and why. Because Greek civilization has been so influential through the centuries, many of these myths remain familiar.

At about the time the amphora with Odysseus and Polyphemus was painted, the Athenians switched to the “black-figure” technique, in which the figures are silhouetted against a reddish-orange background, with details such as the eye incised into the black paint.

Black-figure Greek vase with Ajax and Achilles playing draughts, by Exekias, ca. 550-540 BC. Vatican Museum. Image: Vatican Museums

One of the outstanding black-figure painters was Exekias, whose sense of composition and eye for detail were remarkable. We know that this type of painting accurately reflects contemporary painting in color on wood because of the style of the wooden “Pitsa Tablets” and a few surviving fragments of architectural decoration. On these, color is applied in flat washes and human figures are presented in a way very similar to those on black-figure vases.

One of the “Pitsa tablets,” ca. 540 BC. Athens, National Museum. Image: Wikipedia

Around 525 BC, another major change occurred: the introduction of the “red-figure” technique. Now figures were in red against a black ground, with details not incised but drawn in by a brush in black or watered-down black. If you have ever tried carving your initials rather than writing them with a pen, you will understand why the red-figure style allowed artists more precision and more flowing lines.

The painter Euphronius, working ca. 500 BC, delighted in showing every possible detail of human musculature in figures with extremely contorted positions.

Calyx crater with Hercules and Antaeus, signed by Euphronius, ca. 510-500 BC. Paris, Louvre.

Note the dramatic foreshortening of the foot on the right-hand figure; note also that, like most men on Greek vases, this one is naked. (Women were usually modestly clothed.)

Amphora with revelers signed by Euthymides, ca. 510-500 BC. Munich, Antikensammlung.

Euphronius’ contemporary Euthymides was equally interested in representing anatomy and movement, and went so far as to scratch on the base of one of his vases: “Euphronius never did anything like this”! 

This is one of the few verbal expressions of that endless curiosity and eagerness to learn that one sees throughout the Archaic Period in Greek sculpture and vase painting. No subject was too difficult or too obscure to tackle: horseback riders, barbarians, Dionysiac revels, domestic activities.

Around the time of the Persian Wars (490-479 BC), Athenian artists began to show figures at different levels to suggest spatial depth, to shade and blend colors to indicate volume, and (for the stage sets of Athens’ great playwrights) to attempt what we know as linear perspective. None of these achievements was ever used with complete consistency. Shading was done on an object-by-object basis, rather than using a single light source for the whole painting. Likewise, if more than one object was shown with receding lines to indicate perspective, each had its own vanishing point, rather than a single one for the whole painting. But for the first time in prehistory or history, artists moved from a flat, two-dimensional representation of man and his world to a reasonably accurate, three-dimensional one.

Why are there no illustrations in that paragraph? Because no large-scale Greek painting of the fifth century BC or later has survived. Our information comes from literary sources and a few hints in vase paintings. In the one below, the artist suggests that certain figures are further from the viewer by placing them higher.

Calyx crater with the Argonauts (?), by the Niobid Painter, ca. 460-450 BC. Paris, Louvre.

The use of shading to indicate the three-dimensionality of figures was a major advance for painters. One of the few unquestionably Greek works that displays it is the stag-hunting mosaic of ca. 300 BC from Pella, the site in northern Greece where Alexander the Great was born.

Mosaic of a stag hunt from Pella, ca. 300 BC. Pella Museum.

Otherwise, we rely for evidence of Greek painting on frescoes from Roman villas of the first century BC and the first century AD. Ancient authors tell us that the wealthy people of the early Roman Empire liked to fill their homes with reproductions of Greek masterpieces. For sculpture, the Romans developed a highly precise method of copying Greek originals. By far most of the statues now on display as Greek are Roman copies in marble of lost Greek bronzes. Often we have more than one copy of a famous work. Paintings were also copied and sometimes adapted to the site, but we occasionally find several versions of a subject from Greek mythology, suggesting that all of the paintings go back to a Greek original.

Fresco with Hercules and Telephus, ca. 70 AD, from Herculaneum. Naples, Archeological Museum.

The most complete frescoes are from houses at Pompeii and Herculaneum (about 120 miles south of Rome) that were buried under 15 to 20 feet of ash when Mt. Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD. Subjects include landscapes, still-lifes, complex vistas of architecture, and many narrative scenes with subjects from mythology or daily life.

Fresco with architectural vistas from villa at Boscoreal. Metropolitan Museum, New York. Photo: http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/247017

Styles range from great detail and precision to quick, almost impressionistic brushstrokes. Shading is used, although the light doesn’t come consistently from one source. Textures are carefully rendered, so that one can see the difference between a piece of fruit and a glass bowl full of water.

Fresco of fruit in a glass bowl from villa at Boscoreale. Metropolitan Museum, New York. Image: http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/247017

In a famous series of scenes from the Odyssey, the colors of the mountains in the background seem to become less intense, to indicate that they are further away – an early example of atmospheric perspective. (This is the best image I could find, but it’s not as clear as some I’ve seen.)

Fresco with the Laestrygonians one of the Odyssey Landscapes, late 1st century BC. Vatican Museums.

Greek artists’ advances in paintings were mostly lost with the fall of Rome and the destruction of her pagan monuments, except for a faint, lingering influence on Byzantine art and, through it, on medieval art. Direct influence did not recur until the excavations at Pompeii and Herculaneum in the late 18th century.

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  • Almost 20 years ago, I wrote a couple dozen essays on the history of painting for BeyondBooks.com, a subscription service that provided online supplementary materials for high-school students. The site’s owners have given me permission to publish the essays (copyright © 2001 Beyond Books) on my website. This lightly edited essay is the first of six in the section on painting before 1300 AD. I’ve only lightly edited this essay because copyright issues could get thorny … I’m using this series to get my mind back in gear for getting into book form my Innovators in Painting, a companion to Innovators in Sculpture. Both focus not on the art of separate civilizations, but on the major innovations that gave all artists greater power to make viewers stop, look, and think about sculptures. I’m using it to get my mind back in gear for getting into book form my Innovators in Painting, a companion to my Innovators in Sculpture. The Innovators books focus not on the art of separate civilizations, but on the major innovations that gave all artists greater power to make viewers stop, look, and think about sculptures.
  • Want wonderful art delivered weekly to your inbox? Check out my free Sunday Recommendations list and my Patreon page (free or by subscription): details here.
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