Ancient Greek pottery survives in huge quantities, filling museums around the world. Decorated with scenes of gods, mythical heroes, and ritual activity, these vessels reveal how the Greeks visualized their myths and society. They also hold valuable insights about their manufacture.
Attic Black-Figure Amphora (Side A, grey background)The J. Paul Getty Museum
Black and Red Figures
Between around 600 and 400 BC, Athens was the primary producer of figure-decorated pottery.
Two decorative techniques dominated . . .
The first is black-figure, in which figures and ornaments were painted with slip on the pot, and the orange color of the clay served as the background. Details, such as textile patterns, could be incised with a sharp tool or marked out with clays that fired white or purple.
Attic Red-Figure Kylix Attic Red-Figure Kylix (510–500 B.C.) by Carpenter PainterThe J. Paul Getty Museum
The red-figure technique was introduced around 520 BC, and involves a reversal of the older method.
Figures and ornament were left the color of the clay, and the background was painted black.
Using a fine brush, painters rendered musculature with dilute lines.
Prominent features, like drapery folds, might be marked with lightly raised (relief) lines.
Who Made It? The Makers’ Signatures
Potters and painters occasionally signed the vessels they made, allowing us to develop an understanding of otherwise unknown artisans and their working relationships.
On this cup, the painter’s signature runs around the interior:
“Douris painted [it].”
Fragmentary Wine Cup with Odysseus Addressing Achilles (profile 2) (-0490/-0470) by Signed by Douris (Greek (Attic), active 500 - 460 B.C.) and Signed by Kleophrades (Greek (Attic), active about 490 B.C.)The J. Paul Getty Museum
Around the foot is the potter’s signature: “Kleophrades made [it], son of Amasis.”
Fragmentary Wine Cup with Odysseus Addressing Achilles (profile 3) (-0490/-0470) by Signed by Douris (Greek (Attic), active 500 - 460 B.C.) and Signed by Kleophrades (Greek (Attic), active about 490 B.C.)The J. Paul Getty Museum
This inscription reveals the passing of skills within a family, for Amasis was a potter too.
All the potter and painter names we know of seem to be male, but there is one pot that depicts a woman decorating a vessel, and it is possible that women participated in aspects of pottery production.
Names can also reveal aspects of an individual’s identity, such as their origins. While some potters and painters were Athenian citizens, others were enslaved, or metics—immigrants who had to pay a tax to live and work in Athens.
Under the handle of this cup is the signature of the potter Brygos, a name that might indicate a connection with Thrace (modern-day Bulgaria).
But for all the information that we can derive from signatures, most Greek painted vessels are unsigned. Scholars have worked to attribute these, often employing nicknames to identify otherwise-anonymous hands.
These nicknames have many sources of inspiration—perhaps a specific scene (for example, the Foundry Painter) or, in the case of the Painter of Malibu 85.AE.89, the name uses the Getty Villa’s location in Malibu and the vessel’s inventory number in the Getty’s collection.
Identifying Unknown Makers
There are other ways to track the work of individuals. A photographic technique called Reflectance Transformation Imaging can help to identify preliminary sketches (visible here in black and white).
Details of Apollo’s face from 77.AE.12.1 (left) and 77.AE.12.2 (right) (2018) by Sanchita BalachandranThe J. Paul Getty Museum
These details of the head of Apollo come from two different pots. They are near-replicas, and are attributed to the same painter. Similar sketching patterns outline the noses and chins.
Fragmentary Skyphos (Main View, front)The J. Paul Getty Museum
In other instances, all that’s needed is a keen eye. . .
Near the bottom of this fragmentary drinking cup is a painter’s fingerprint, captured as a smudge in the band of red and black tongues.
The Firing Process
This vessel also offers a good example of the shiny black gloss that is so distinctive of Athenian painted pottery. The lustrous color was obtained through the firing process, and the distribution of oxygen in the kiln was critical.
Attic Black-Figure Amphora (Side B/A, grey background)The J. Paul Getty Museum
If oxygen circulation was restricted, the result is what we see on the side of this amphora: a blotchy patchwork of dull red and black.
Even if misfired, painted pots remained functional and could endure frequent handling. But accidents did happen, and some vessels bear the markings of ancient repairs.
Attic Black-Figure Neck-Amphora (Left profile)The J. Paul Getty Museum
On this neck-amphora, small holes and cuttings would have held metal threads to secure the handle.
Attic Black-Figure Neck-Amphora Attic Black-Figure Neck-Amphora (530–520 B.C.) by Bareiss Painter, Medea GroupThe J. Paul Getty Museum
A new mouth was added too—it’s a perfect fit, but the floral pattern on the neck is slightly different.
Trade and Transport
Athenian pottery was widely exported, and some potters adapted their output to specific markets.
The distinctive form of this Athenian vessel, with looping handles and narrow neck, imitates an Etruscan shape produced in the region of Cerveteri in central Italy.
Attic Black-Figure Dinos and Stand (Side A/B, mouth , down angle)The J. Paul Getty Museum
After export, vessels might be used in ways their makers might not have intended. This bowl (dinos) is perfect for a symposium—an all-male drinking party—where wine was mixed with water prior to serving (and when full, the ships painted on the rim would seem to sail over the sea). Yet it was found in a grave at Capua, near Naples, where it was likely used as a cinerary urn.
Other vases preserve clues to their ancient movements on their surface, such as this amphora, which has the letters S O under the foot. This is termed a "graffito" and was inscribed after the pot had been fired, probably by a merchant. The mark occurs on other pots by the same painter, suggesting a link between workshop and trader.
Inscriptions and Decoration
Some vessels bear words and phrases that were painted before firing. Besides the signatures discussed earlier, there are many kalos inscriptions, which celebrate the desirability (kalos means “beautiful”) of an individual who may have been known to the vessel’s makers or users.
Here, Hermolykos—perhaps a famous athlete mentioned by Herodotos (Book 9, 105)—is praised.
Attic Black-Figure Lip Cup (Main View, Side A)The J. Paul Getty Museum
Some Athenian painters were able to write well, but many inscriptions seem to be nonsense.
Attic Black-Figure Lip Cup (Detail - Figured Scene)The J. Paul Getty Museum
The Greek letters on this cup read “E L O N CH (E) S CH N CH N E L CH N.”
This looks like gibberish, but it might not be meaningless. Potters' signatures often decorate the exterior of these cups, and this string of letters serves a similar visual effect.
Attic Red-Figure Lidded Skyphoid Fragment ("about 490 BC") by Attributed to Onesimos (Greek (Attic), active 500 - 480 B.C.) and Attributed to Euphronios (Greek (Attic), active 520 - 480 B.C.)The J. Paul Getty Museum
Other inscriptions serve as labels, identifying characters in a scene, as on this fragmentary vessel, where Theseus’s name runs above his head.
Attic Red-Figure Lidded Skyphoid Fragment (Prokrustes inscription identified) (about 490 B.C.) by Attributed to Onesimos (Greek (Attic), active 500 - 480 B.C.) and Attributed to Euphronios (Greek (Attic), active 520 - 480 B.C.)The J. Paul Getty Museum
The youthful Greek hero grasps the hair of his opponent, Prokrustes (ΠΡΟΚΡΟΥΣΤΗΣ), whose name is only partially preserved. The initial “P” is just visible, and the last two letters “E S” are painted on his arm.
Mythical episodes such as the deeds of Theseus were popular subjects, and many vessels were decorated with more than one scene.
On this large mixing vessel, there are two action-packed friezes running around the neck, and it’s possible to find thematic connections between them.
Attic Red-Figure Volute Krater (Detail - Side A 3/4 Right Top)The J. Paul Getty Museum
In the upper band, the Amazons— a fierce band of warrior women—arm themselves with shields, helmets, and shinguards before entering into battle with Herakles and the Greeks.
Attic Red-Figure Volute Krater (Detail - Frontal Bottom of Side A)The J. Paul Getty Museum
Below, the mortal Peleus wrestles the goddess Thetis so that he can marry her. She shape-shifts (a serpentine tail can be seen around Peleus’s leg) to elude his grasp.
Attic Red-Figure Volute Krater (Front)The J. Paul Getty Museum
The two scenes pit powerful women against men, but in both cases, the women are ultimately defeated. Depicted on a vessel made for the symposium, myths like these reaffirmed the structure of ancient Athenian society, which was dominated by its male citizens.
White-Ground Lekythos (470–460 B.C.) by Timokrates Painter and Vouni PainterThe J. Paul Getty Museum
But one realm in which women were essential was in mourning the dead. On this oil jar (lekythos), a young woman holds a basket with offerings for the grave.
The image conveys the modesty and decorum described by some ancient male authors when discussing what they believed to be good, wifely behavior.
Attic Red-Figure Kylix Attic Red-Figure Kylix (about 490 B.C.) by OnesimosThe J. Paul Getty Museum
The woman depicted on the interior of this cup, wearing only an amulet around her thigh and a wreath on her head, might have prompted a very different reaction. She wields a huge drinking cup to play kottabos, which involved throwing dregs of wine at a target.
If women were present at a symposium, it was usually to provide the male drinkers with music, dance, or sex.
Some may have been enslaved, hired as sex-workers. Others were hetairai, women who enjoyed greater independence, and were sought after for their wit and beauty.
This image of a kottabos-playing woman provides an intimate encounter for a drinker, appearing as he drained wine from his cup.
But some vases look back at you, such as those with large eyes on the exterior. On this cup, they frame a battle between a goddess and one of the primordial Giants.
On lifting an “eye-cup” like this, a drinker’s face would be partially covered, and the vessel would function like a mask, casting the reveler as a follower of the wine god Dionysos.
Attic Black-Figure Column Krater (Side A)The J. Paul Getty Museum
Sometimes eyes feature on other shapes. On this mixing bowl, they frame the Greek hero Odysseus as he flees from the Cyclops, strapped to the underside of a ram.
Are these eyes merely decorative? Or might they prompt viewers to recall that Odysseus had blinded the Cyclops in order to put his escape plan into action?
If so, might this be a hint to drinkers to refrain from getting too drunk? For Odysseus was only able to blind the Cyclops by getting him to drink to excess. . .
The images on so many of these vessels were deftly tailored to the occasions in which they were used. By looking closely, we can learn much about Greek craft, ideals, prejudices, and humor.
© 2022 J. Paul Getty Trust, Los Angeles
For more resources:
Uncovering Ancient Preparatory Drawings on Greek Ceramics
Video: Male relationships in ancient Athens, as depicted on painted pottery
Getty Art Break: Getting to Know the Makers of an Ancient Greek Drinking Cup
A short animated video developed recently by the MFA Boston engagingly describes the production of figure decorated pottery
A story about “Reclining and Dining (and Drinking) in Ancient Greece” on Getty News & Stories
Schreiber, Toby. Athenian vase construction: a potter’s analysis. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 1999.
Replicate an ancient vase or make your own design in this 3D game from Google Arts & Culture Experiments.
To cite this exhibition, please use: "From Fire to Wine: Ancient Greek Pottery" published online in 2022 via Google Arts & Culture, Getty Museum, Los Angeles.