Black Figure and Red Figure Pottery of Ancient Athens

Pottery in ancient Athens differed from that in the rest of Greece, partly due to the style of the paintings on the pots, and partly due to the type of clay used. Attica (the area surrounding Athens) had iron-rich red clay, which gave all their pots a red look.

Black figure pottery is where the figures on the pots are painted black and then detail is incised onto the black glaze. Red figure pottery is where the outline of the figures and the detail is painted on in black, and then the background of the pots glazed on black so you get red figures (the color of the unglazed pot) with details in black on them.

The other important thing is that these pots were created at the time Athens was just about to invent democracy, and the individuality and independence of the potters screams out.

Unlike pots from Ming dynasty China (14th and 15thC AD) and the Wedgewood pottery of 18thC England, the classical Athenian potters signed their works. The Ming dynasty pots only have the insigna of the Emperor stamped on them, and the Wedgewood pots have the brand name stamped on them (and the potters making the Ming and Wedgewood probably couldn't write anyway). The Ancient Athenian potters from 2500 years ago were not important people (they weren't mentioned by Greek historians of the time nor referred to in the great political speeches given in the agora), but they could not only write, but proudly insisted on crediting themselves on their pots. Not only that, but they credited the potter separately from the painter of the pots - all the pots have either "_____ mepoiesen" ("____ made me") or "___ megraphsen" ("____ painted me") or both.

One potter called Euthymides went so far as to write things like "Euthymides the best" and one pot announces "Euthymides painted me, as Euphronios couldn't" - a dig at a fellow potter Euphronios (whose pots we also have). Euthymides would have been the Muhammed Ali of the 6th Century BC Athenian potters quarter!

They were also thrilled enough with their writing skill as to write all over the pots - so when they depict scenes from the Illiad or stories about the Gods, they helpfully label all the figures so the person looking at the vase knew who they were (and this is incredibly helpful to us modern people too). For example in the pottery fragment above, which was found on the Acropolis and is dated back to 560BC, we know that the man with the horses is Achilles because he's been neatly labelled next to his head (it's a scene from the Illiad where just before the battle where Achilles dies, he gets up early to talk to his horses). The painter is Nearchos (if you look closely, you will see Νέαρχος written lengthwise by Achilles' leg).


Exekias was renowned as the best vase painter in Ancient Athens and modern scholars agree with that assessment. Some scholars believe he is the son of Nearchos (there are similarities in style and in the dignity of the subjects of the paintings).

Exekias favored painting serious scenes with references to the Illiad and Odyssey. In the amphora above, he's done something different - imagined a scene that is not in the Illiad but involves the characters. Achilles and Ajax are sitting together playing dice (Achilles is on the left, again we know this because it's labelled). We even know that Achilles scored tessara (four) and Ajax tria (three), because Exekias has put little words coming out of their mouths. (Achilles has to win because of course he's a greater hero than Ajax). The most striking thing when you see this pot in person is the incredibly exquisite filigree designs on their cloaks plus the huge muscles of their thighs. It's in the Vatican city museum.

On other vases he depicts scenes of Ajax carrying Achilles' dead body off the battle field and the scene where Ajax is preparing to commit suicide (because Ajax was the second strongest soldier after Achilles, he should have received Achilles' shield and spear after his death, particularly as he carried him off the field, but a council of the Greek warriors decides to award these to Odyseus instead - Ajax is so devastated by the perceived rejection of his peers, he kills himself).

The Amasis Painter

We have eight pots made by the Amasis painter, all signed "Amasis mepoiesen" ("Amasis made me"). There is no other name on the pots, so the potter and the painter were the same person. There is some speculation that Amasis was an Egyptian who somehow ended up as a citizen in the Athens potters quarter as Amasis is an Egyptian name, though all the writing on his pots is in Greek. There are some other pots that scholars believe were painted by the Amasis painter - they have the trademark long fingers in the figures, plus all the scenes tend to be cheerful, another characteristic of the Amasis painter.

The amasis painter either paints scenes of the god Dionysius partying, or paints scenes of everyday life - men standing talking or riding horses, or women making things in the home.

In the picture of the little oil jar above right, we see pictured all the stages women would go through to make cloth, from spinning to weaving to folding the finished product.    


Euthymides was one of the first potters to experiment with red figure (and the pot shown right is the one he signed "Euthymides painted me, as Euphronios couldn't").

What was exciting about red figure was that instead of incising detail with a knife onto a black glazed figure, you were painting directly onto the pot, which meant that you could be more fluid with your brush stokes - the glaze is only on the background. This meant you could put in a lot more detail, and allow for a lot more movement in your figures.

Part of the reason he's chosen to depict revellers on his pot, is that he's depicting all sorts of movement, some of which are anatomically impossible!, but hey he's thrilled at the ability to depict people half turned and moving. It's a world away from the sideways view of people that we see in black figure painting.

Within a century, other artists will have built on what Euthymides did and will be depicting humans in full movement naturally and correctly, right down to how the muscles flex in a runner's thighs (a feature of Greek art not found in other cultures).


You are probably wondering what Euphronios' pots looked like, and here's an example right. In the pot, the gods Thanatos (death) and Hypnos (sleep) carry off Sarpedon's dead body watched by the god Hermes in the middle. (Sarpedon was an ally of the Trojans and fought on their side).

Euphronios not only labels the figures, but includes some text explaining everything, which makes this krater (a pot used for mixing wine and water) unusual.

Though we know that Euphronios made this pot in Greece (as he made several other signed pots found in Greece), this particular krater was found in Italy, which indicates that some of the work the Athenian potters made was done for export.

The pot itself has an unusual modern history: it suddenly turned up in the 1970's and was sold to the New York Metropolitan museum for $1 million. But questions immediately were raised as to whether it had been illegally excavated and looted from Italy. In 2006 a deal was done between the Metropolitan museum and the Italian govt whereby the Euphronios krater was returned to Italy, and the Met was loaned several objects from Italy for display on a long term basis.

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Tolovaj on said:
Ancient pottery is not only good looking. It can also turn out as great investment. Thanks for this beautiful leaf:)
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7 forum posts
A beautiful and informative leaf! I love anything about Ancient Greece and we're thinking of visiting there next year if all goes to plan

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