Echoes of success

Around 530 BCE, a revolution took place in Greek art, one that changed the face of Greek pottery forever.

The black-figure style

Until then, pottery vessels were decorated according to the black-figure style, in which figures were depicted black against a background in the color of terracotta. Details were shown by engraving or applying some color after firing. This style was invented in Corinth and rapidly spread to many parts of Greece.

As with every artistic trend, the style which had been more than satisfactory was soon exhausted and reached the limits of its evolution. Surviving experimental vases prove that artists had begun searching for ways to overcome the style’s limitations, until someone discovered the red-figure style, which was in turn eagerly adopted.

The red-figure style

The solution was simple and elegant: the figures were now the color of terracotta, on a black background. Details were drawn using a brush dipped in the same black glaze that covered the entire vase – save the figures. The brush allowed for more flexible lines, while the artist could also change the thickness of the line or the transparency of the glaze. This allowed for a more naturalistic depiction of the figures and the ability to show movement better.

Sarpedon, Euphronios, crater

Bell krater, bearing a scene from the Iliad and the inscriptions “Euphronios drew” and “Euxitheos made.” New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 515-510 BCE.

Artists’ signatures

As artists often signed their work, the names of many painters survived. Archaeologists and art historians refer to the artists who worked in the first two decades of the red-figure style as “the pioneer group”.

It takes some effort to not draw parallels with the Italian Renaissance but, despite the differences, one fact was similar: vase painters like Fintias, Euthymides, Smikros and Euphonios worked in the same city and catered to the same market. Among them there was constant artistic communication as well as rivalry.

Perhaps the best among them was Euphonios, who worked as a painter for about twenty years (520-500 BCE), as proved by a good number of vases bearing his signature.

The picture shows a krater (vessel for the mixing of wine with water) carrying the names of the painter (Euphronios drew) and the potter (Euxitheos made).

Carrying the body of Sarpedon

Winged deities Hypnos (sleep) and Thanatos (death) carry Sarpedon’s body. The young man’s head and limbs hang lifelessly, as blood flows from wounds sustained in defence of Troy. Behind them, Hermes supervises the scene. Bell krater, 515-510 BCE, New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

A trail of signatures

For the next thirty years (500-470 BCE) Euphronios’ signature as a painter disappears. Instead we find lots of drinking cups (kylix) signed “Euphronios made”.

It could be a synonym, though this would be unlikely. It is more probable that Euphronios stopped painting, either because he got older and his sight deteriorated or because his success bought him a workshop of his own. In the latter case, the signature would denote the owner of the workshop, not the man who actually worked on the potter’s wheel.

A telling inscription

An inscription found on the Acropolis seems to confirm the latter hypothesis. It is on the base of a statue that was dedicated there. The statue is missing but the inscription reads clearly: Euphronios, the potter.

Euphronios inscription, statue base, Acropolis

Broken base of a statue from the Acropolis, bearing the name “Euphronios, the potter”

Dedicating a statue was not cheap; the marble had to be quarried, then carried by ox cart to the city, where it would be custom sculpted by a skilled artist. If nothing else, this inscription proves that Euphronios was a successful professional and quite well-off.

The Epigraphic Museum

Today, the base of Euphronios’s statue can be seen at the Epigraphic Museum in Athens. A museum of inscriptions may not sound particularly exciting, but this one houses a veritable treasure trove of Greek history.

I find it extremely moving when I wander among the cold stones, peeking into the thoughts, ideas and hopes of people who lived so many centuries ago, just by reading the traces they left on marble or clay.

Expect to see more articles of mine on the treasures of this little-known museum.



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