Ancient Greece had its share of well-known painters, men named Polygnotos, Mikon, Parrhasios, Zeuxis, Apollodoros, Apelles, and Nikias. Ancient authors talk about their works, innovations, and rivalries, but not a single panel or wall painting by one of these artists has survived the millennia. Instead, countless small-scale images have endured in a sturdier medium: painted pottery. Painters of pots are not mentioned in ancient sources, and they clearly did not have the same prestige as their colleagues working on a larger scale. Some signed their names, however, and the products of workshops based in Corinth and Athens, especially, were widely exported. In modern scholarship, painted “vases” — as they tend to be called — have received significant attention, and rigorous connoisseurship has identified numerous artistic personalities. The large corpus of painted pottery supplies valuable information on the development of Greek visual representation.
This gallery shows major trends in Greek vase painting of the Archaic (600–480 BCE) and Classical (480–323 BCE) periods, including contributions by different city-states and the Greek colonies of South Italy. As in sculpture, the human figure takes center stage. Subject matter ranges from the mythological to the everyday. Although most well-preserved examples come from tombs, painted pottery was essentially utilitarian, and its intended function should be considered in any examination of the decoration. Many shapes belong to the symposion, the communal drinking party that was a central institution in ancient Greece. The imagery on the vessels would have expressed and shaped the concerns and identities of broad sections of the population, providing the modern viewer with a rare glimpse of how regular people saw the world. Coins, too, take us right into the midst of ancient Greek life, including industry and trade. In emblematic fashion, they speak to the individual identities of the city-states and how these could be reinforced by mythology.