Greek Painting

Introduction

Table Summary

Summary of Greek Painting
Greek Dark Age
ca. 1200-800 BC
Archaic age
ca. 800-500 BC
Classical/Hellenistic age
ca. 500 BC-0
pottery decoration protogeometric geometric > orientalizing > black-figure red-figure > decline
murals flat murals (Tomb of the Diver) realistic murals (Vergina Tombs)

General Features

Greek painting has survived mainly as pottery decoration. The few surviving Greek murals are remarkable, however, as they exhibit significant advances in techniques of realism (namely shading and perspective).1 The heart of Greek culture (including painting) was Athens; this was true even in the Greek Dark Age, during which Athens (like all other Greek settlements) had yet to grow into a city (see History of Greek Europe).

Apart from painting, the leading form of ancient graphic art (two-dimensional visual art) was mosaic (see Mosaic).

Main Article

Greek Dark Age

ca. 1200-800 BC

Mycenaean civilization collapsed, possibly due to civil strife, ca. 1200 BC. Thus began the Greek Dark Age, during which the Aegean region languished in deurbanized poverty. Nonetheless, this period witnessed the development of the protogeometric style, which features concentric circles and patterns of straight, wavy, and zigzag lines.

The precision of the protogeometric style distinguishes it from earlier forms of geometric decoration. This reflects technological innovations, namely the multi-headed brush (for painting parallel lines) and the compass (for painting circles). The impact of protogeometric decoration is often emphasized by its sparseness.2,3

Protogeometric Jar
Protogeometric Jar
Protogeometric Jar

Archaic Age

ca. 800-500 BC

The Archaic period encompassed three phases of Greek jar painting: geometric, orientalizing, and black-figure.

The geometric style elevated geometric decoration to new heights of complexity. A geometric style vessel features a variety of patterns, such as checkers, repeated shapes, and meanders. (A meander is a pattern formed by a single continuous line; see example.) If human or animal figures are present, they are rigidly stylized so as to blend in with the pure geometric elements (see Realism vs. Stylization).4

Geometric Jar
Geometric Jar

The next phase of Greek painting is known as orientalizing, due to its adoption of images from eastern lands (e.g. lions, sphinxes). Orientalizing pottery decoration can be divided into two main styles. The bold and lavish protoattic style of Athens, well-suited to large jars, essentially takes the geometric style and adds large figures. The delicate protocorinthian style of Corinth, on the other hand, features small figures and light geometric elements (e.g. rosettes), making it perfect for smaller vessels.5

Protoattic Jar
Protoattic Jar
Protoattic Jar
Protocorinthian Jar
Protocorinthian Jar
Protocorinthian Jar

The orientalizing period was succeeded by the black-figure style, in which the silhouettes of figures are painted in solid black (typically on a vibrant orange background); details are then added by cutting lines into the silhouettes.6 Other colours of paint are sometimes used for accents. The black-figure period marks the beginning of narrative scenes in Greek pottery decoration (i.e. scenes that tell a story; see Realism vs. Stylization); these scenes are usually framed with geometric elements.

Black-figure Jar
Black-figure Jar
Black-figure Dish

The Archaic age also witnessed the rise of Greek wall painting, which (during the Archaic period) featured a flat, sharply outlined style.8 Few examples survive; the finest collection may be that of the Tomb of the Diver, discovered at a Greek settlement in southern Italy.

Mural in the Tomb of the Diver
Mural in the Tomb of the Diver
Mural in the Tomb of the Diver

Greek mural painting was adopted by the Etruscans of central Italy, who used it to decorate the walls of their own rock-cut tombs.10 Since the style of Etruscan painting was firmly Greek-based, these tomb murals (of which many more survive than Greek murals) provide a valuable glimpse into Greek painting.16

Etruscan Mural
Etruscan Mural
Etruscan Mural
Etruscan Mural
Etruscan Mural

Classical/Hellenistic Age

ca. 500 BC-0

The last major school of Greek pottery painting was red-figure, in which the black-figure technique was reversed: orange silhouettes were formed by painting around them in black, allowing interior details to be painted rather than incised. This gave the artist much more control in drawing smooth curves or varying the thickness of lines when adding details. It also allowed for gradients of colour, since the black paint could be diluted to acquire shades of brown.7

Red-figure Jar
Red-figure Jar
Red-figure Cup

The red-figure style flourished primarily during the early Classical period. In the late Classical period, the art of pottery painting fell into permanent decline.12

Meanwhile, the Classical period witnessed major strides in realistic painting technique. While Archaic murals are (like pottery painting) quite flat, Classical murals feature three-dimensional perspective and shading. (These techniques are also seen, to a limited extent, in some late pottery painting.) The Greek "age of realistic wall painting" spanned the Classical and Hellenistic periods.H160,12

Once again, only a handful of works (all anonymous) survive.12,16 The foremost collection is found at the Vergina Tombs, a royal Macedonian burial complex. The walls of these tombs were decorated by Greek artists; for Macedonia, like Rome, admired and commissioned much Greek art.

The finest painting of the Vergina Tombs may be Abduction of Persephone. Skilful use of shading in this mural gives the deities' bodies a convincing sense of roundness, and provides realistic shadows among the folded draperies. The physical realism is heightened with foreshortening (the law of perspective that, the more an object is angled toward a viewer, the shorter its length appears to be); note, for instance, that the width of the chariot wheel appears to be compressed (since it is angled toward the viewer).

Abduction of Persephone
Foreshortening
Chariot Mural (Vergina Tombs)
Chariot Mural (Vergina Tombs)
Hunt Mural (Vergina Tombs; see <a href='http://www.livius.org/a/greece/aegae/aegae_fresco.jpg'>reconstruction</a> of this mural)
Greek Tomb Mural (from another tomb)

Starting in the Archaic period, panel painting also flourished in ancient Greece, in both tempera (water-based paint) and encaustic (wax-based paint). The style of Greek panel painting mirrored that of murals: flat during the Archaic period, realistic during the Classical/Hellenistic age. Almost nothing survives of ancient Greek panel painting, however.8,12

Instead, ancient panel painting survives chiefly in the form of Roman mummy portraits. Given that the Romans absorbed Classical/Hellenistic art, these mummy portraits are direct descendants of Greek panel painting.

Etruscan art, including tomb murals, was also influenced by Classical/Hellenistic realism.D90,F76,11

Etruscan Mural (showing the influence of realistic Greek painting)
Etruscan Mural (showing the influence of realistic Greek painting)
1 - "Greek Art and Architecture: Vase Painting", Encarta. Accessed April 2009.
2 - "Western Painting: Ancient Greek » Dark Ages", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed April 2009.
3 - "Proto-Geometric Style (Greek Art): Main", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed April 2009.
4 - "Western Painting: Ancient Greek » Geometric Period", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed April 2009.
5 - "Western Painting: Ancient Greek » Orientalizing Period", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed April 2009.
6 - "Greek Art and Architecture: Vase Painting » Black Figure Style", Encarta. Accessed April 2009.
7 - "Greek Art and Architecture: Vase Painting » Red Figure Style", Encarta. Accessed April 2009.
8 - "Western Painting: Ancient Greek » Archaic Period", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed April 2009.
9 - "Greek Art and Architecture: Wall and Panel Painting", Encarta. Accessed April 2009.
10 - "Western Painting: Western Mediterranean » Etruscan", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed April 2009.
11 - "Western Painting: Western Mediterranean » Roman » Etruscan and Hellenistic Greek influences", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed April 2009.
12 - "Western Painting: Ancient Greek » Classical period » High Classical", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed April 2009.
13 - "Western Painting: Ancient Greek » Hellenistic Period", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed April 2009.
14 - "Aigai", Encarta. Accessed July 2009.
15 - "Ancient Greece", Encarta. Accessed July 2009.
16 - "Painting", World Book Encyclopedia. Accessed November 2009.
17 - "The Tomb of Philip at Vergina: Which Philip?", Classical Art Research Centre: the Beazley Archive. Accessed November 2009.
18 - "Mosaic", Encarta 2004.
19 - "Mosaic", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed January 2010.
20 - "Apelles", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed January 2010.