Ancient Greek Art - Pottery


The Ancient Greeks made pottery for everyday use, not for display; the trophies won at games, such as the Panathenaic Amphorae (wine decanters), are the exception. Most surviving pottery consists of drinking vessels such as amphorae, kraters (bowls for mixing wine and water), hydria (water jars), libation bowls, jugs and cups. Painted funeral urns have also been found. Miniatures were also produced in large numbers, mainly for use as offerings at temples. In the Hellenistic period a wider range of pottery was produced, but most of it is of little artistic importance.

At the end of the Geometric phase, the Orientalizing phase of vase painting saw the abstract geometric designs replaced by the more rounded, realistic forms of Eastern motifs, such as the lotus, palmette, lion, and sphinx. Ornaments increased in amount and intricacy.

In earlier periods even quite small Greek cities produced pottery for their own locale. These varied widely in style and standards. Distinctive pottery that ranks as art was produced on some of the Aegean islands, in Crete, and in the wealthy Greek colonies of southern Italy and Sicily. By the later Archaic and early Classical period, however, the two great commercial powers, Corinth and Athens, came to dominate. Their pottery was exported all over the Greek world, driving out the local varieties. Pots from Corinth and Athens are found as far afield as Spain and Ukraine, and are so common in Italy that they were first collected in the 18th century as "Etruscan vases". Many of these pots are mass-produced products of low quality. In fact, by the 5th century BCE, pottery had become an industry and pottery painting ceased to be an important art form.

The history of Ancient Greek pottery is divided stylistically into 5 periods:

  • the Protogeometric from about 1050 BCE;
  • the Geometric from about 900 BCE;
  • the Late Geometric or Archaic from about 750 BCE;
  • the Black Figure from the early 7th century BCE;
  • and the Red Figure from about 530 BCE.

The range of colors which could be used on pots was restricted by the technology of firing: black, white, red, and yellow were the most common. In the three earlier periods, the pots were left their natural light colour, and were decorated with slip that turned black in the kiln.

The fully mature black-figure technique, with added red and white details and incising for outlines and details, originated in Corinth during the early 7th century BCE and was introduced into Attica about a generation later; it flourished until the end of the 6th century BCE. The red-figure technique, invented in about 530 BCE, reversed this tradition, with the pots being painted black and the figures painted in red. Red-figure vases slowly replaced the black-figure style. Sometimes larger vessels were engraved as well as painted.

During the Protogeometric and Geometric periods, Greek pottery was decorated with abstract designs. In later periods, as the aesthetic shifted and the technical proficiency of potters improved, decorations took the form of human figures, usually representing the gods or the heroes of Greek history and mythology. Battle and hunting scenes were also popular, since they allowed the depiction of the horse, which the Greeks held in high esteem. In later periods erotic themes, both heterosexual and male homosexual, became common.

Greek pottery is frequently signed, sometimes by the potter or the master of the pottery, but only occasionally by the painter. Hundreds of painters are, however, identifiable by their artistic personalities: where their signatures haven't survived they are named for their subject choices, as "the Achilles Painter", by the potter they worked for, such as the Late Archaic "Kleophrades Painter", or even by their modern locations, such as the Late Archaic "Berlin Painter".

  • Late Geometric pyxis, British Museum.

  • Corinthian orientalising jug, c. 620 BCE, Antikensammlungen Munich.

  • 7th century BCE plate with sphinx from Rhodes, Louvre.

  • Black-figure olpe (wine vessel) by the Amasis Painter, depiciting Herakles and Athena, c. 540 BCE, Louvre.

  • Interior (tondo) of a red figure kylix, depicting Herakles and Athena, by Phoinix (potter) and Douris (painter), c. 480-470 BCE, Antikensammlungen Munich.

  • Detail of a red-figure amphora depicting a satyr assaulting a maenad, by Pamphaios (potter) and Oltos (painter), c. 520 BCE, Louvre.

  • White-ground lekythos with a scene of mourning by the Reed Painter, c. 420-410 BCE, British Museum.

  • Hellenistic relief bowl with the head of a maenad, 2nd century BCE (?), British Museum.

Read more about this topic:  Ancient Greek Art

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    There is on the earth no institution which Friendship has established; it is not taught by any religion; no scripture contains its maxims. It has no temple, nor even a solitary column. There goes a rumor that the earth is inhabited, but the shipwrecked mariner has not seen a footprint on the shore. The hunter has found only fragments of pottery and the monuments of inhabitants.
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