Classical Greek Painting
History, Characteristics of Painting of Ancient Greece.

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Greek Painting: Classical Period (480-323 BCE)

Symposium Scene, Tomb of the Diver
(475 BCE)
Fresco on the north wall.
Paestum Museum, Italy.


Polygnotus of Thasos
Lekythoi Vase-Painting
Painting Methods
Sicyon School of Painting
Four-Colour Painting, Monochrome and Drawing
Subject Matter
Painterly Technique

For more about the background to Greco-Roman arts and crafts,
please see: Art of Classical Antiquity (800 BCE - 450 CE).

Polygnotus of Thasos

Just before 500 BCE, as the period of Archaic Greek painting ended, oblique and other novel views of the human body and limbs became established in Greek sculpture and vase painting. A revolution which was the first step towards illusionism. Polygnotus of Thasos, an island in the North Aegean, was the first Greek painter whom the later critics recognized as a great master. Much of his work was done in or near Athens soon after 480 BCE and was still seen more than six hundred years later. His figures were celebrated for their expression of character, and it seems probable that they had the aristocratic detachment of the best High Classical art (500-450 BCE). His influence would almost certainly have been felt in the Parthenon, especially in its sculpture-painting. (See also: Greek Architecture: 900-27 BCE.) Pliny attributes to him various innovations, most of which had occurred already even in vase painting, but another important innovation did appear in Polygnotus's pictures. This was the representation or rather recognition of depth, by setting figures at different levels: a greater height denoting a greater distance, and letting them thrust forwards or backwards out of the plane of the surface.

The formula, without any diminution of linear perspective, is found on a few Attic red-figure vases of the 460s BCE together with three-quarter faces, which are almost equally abnormal in the vase painting of that time, and unusually statuesque poses. These also were presumably characteristics of Polygnotus, if (as is very likely) the painted vases show an abortive attempt to transfer to their medium the new style of pictures.

The technique was still that of line drawing with flat washes for colour, though rocks and other inanimate objects were probably filled in with paint of uneven density. Inner lines may have been thickened to show depth of folds, and the edges of shields and other curved objects were perhaps lightly hatched. The background was presumably blank white with separate base lines for the various figures or groups of figures and occasional trees and other simple scenery. As on the Thermon metopes, names were often written against the figures.

Though 'primitive', Polygnotus with his contemporary Mikon of Athens was always admired, and in the first century CE some connoisseurs even preferred him to the maturer masters. The recorded titles of pictures in the grand style of Polygnotus and his circle, whether quiet tableaux or scenes of action, came mostly from mythology and only occasionally (like the Battle of Marathon) from recent history. Other High Classical paintings of good quality were less heroic and at the bottom of the scale the cheap little votive plaques, produced for dedication in sanctuaries, must often have ignored or been slow to follow the advances made by the leading artists. By now painting had a much wider range of subjects, treatment and quality than the other figurative arts and such originals, copies or reflections as survive need to be assessed very cautiously.

Lekythoi Vase-Painting

The Attic white lekythoi (vases), a style of ancient pottery which began in the 460s BCE and ended about 400 BCE, have been recognized as having a close relation to painting in their technical characteristics of white ground and range of added colour, and a painting of the first century found on a wall of the Famesina house in Rome shows a very similar style to that of the earlier lekythoi. Since the Farnesina picture can hardly have copied the lekythoi, which had been buried for several centuries, its model was presumably a painted panel that had survived from the mid fifth century. In such simple decorative compositions, it looks as if the style too was more conservative, though there is here shading in folds of drapery and on the framework of the chair - the three-quarter face, for instance, was not yet fashionable.

In vase painting indications of setting are rare, partly because of the small size of the field, but Polygnotus' big pictures at Delphi showed some trees and reeds and even the pebbles of the shore. Much greater importance is given to the setting in murals of the inner room of the Etruscan 'Tomb of Hunting and Fishing', where the style though probably retarded is that of the end of the sixth century and the figures are in scale, both for size and importance, with the natural surroundings. It is often asserted that an interest in nature is a special characteristic of Italian or at least Etruscan art; but the only parallel in Italy around that time is at Greek Paestum and, though there are of course no original pictures from Greece to compare with them, we have an earlier seascape at Kizibel in Lycia and something of the same kind can be found in Attic vase painting. Some interest in setting can indeed be traced back beyond the middle of the sixth century in vase painting and curiously in a pedimental sculpture from the Acropolis at Athens, which shows a well-house and a tree. Presumably, with its more convenient medium, painting did not lag behind.

[Note: For information about ceramics from ancient Greece, including the Geometric, Black-figure, Red-figure and White-ground technique, see: Greek Pottery: History & Styles. For chronological information about dates and styles, see: Pottery Timeline (26,000 BCE - 1900).]

Painting Methods

In spite of its mastery of foreshortening, the technique of early Classical painters was still outline drawing with economical linear detail. Modelling, by hatching or gradation of colour, seems to have come slowly and perhaps intermittently. Just before 500 BCE, some Attic red-figure vase painters had begun occasionally to fill in the outlines of pelts and rocks with an uneven wash of dilute paint, though probably only to indicate roughness of texture or to give substance to a shape that had no self-explanatory contour.

By the second quarter of the fifth century, folds were sometimes (but not very often) emphasized by thickened lines or shading, so giving some effect of shadow - this occurs also on the Famesina panel (c.460 BCE). At about the same time, light hatching or shading now and then reinforces the edges of round objects, such as the bowls of shields.

By the 420s BCE, a red-figure vase painter could do a rapid and passable job of modelling the form of a wine bowl and the deep folds of drapery, but there is still no sign of experiment on human anatomy, though that was the principal interest of Greek art. Such experimentation appears first in a small and otherwise mediocre group of Attic white lekythoi of the last ten or fifteen years of the fifth century. Here, male flesh is modelled strongly, though female flesh is not. A fragment from a South Italian vase painting (an Apulian Red-figure bowl, by the painter of the Birth of Dionysus, c.390 BCE) of slightly later date and more advanced technique, depicts a figure which is high-lighted with added yellow, while a neighbouring figure is rendered in a purely red-figure technique.

This obdurate fidelity of red-figure vase painting to its linear tradition makes one wonder whether modelling may have developed appreciably earlier in painting. Still the nickname of 'Skiagraphos' ('Shadow-painter') given to Apollodorus, who was working in the late fifth century, suggests that he was one of the first to exploit the new technique. His younger contemporary Zeuxis is said to have gone still further. As for women's flesh, copies of major and surviving specimens of minor Greek painting and the wall pictures in Etruscan tombs, show that modelling was admitted about the middle of the fourth century.

Cast shadows are more puzzling; they do not appear in pictures or copies of pictures till the late fourth century nor were they used with strong effect till the third; yet there is an instance in a second-rate Attic red-figure vase painting, soon after the middle of the fifth century, and a hundred years or so later the 'Boy blowing a fire' of Antiphilus, which was admired for the reflection of the flames on the boy's face, presumably required strong shadows. Probably, though, an even vertical lighting was usual in Classical pictures and so in general cast shadows were considered fussy.

For later artists inspired by the classical painting of ancient Greece, see: Classicism in Art (from 800).


In much the same way, painters were reluctant to make regular use of perspective - in the sense of diminution of size according to distance - a phenomenon on which so much ordinary observation depends. In any event, there is no sign of perspective in Polygnotan painting, in spite of its conscious feeling for spatial depth, and it was in stage scenery (presumably architectural) that according to the Roman architect Vitruvius (c.78-10 BCE) it was attempted for the first time. The occasion was the production of a play by Aeschylus and, though this may have been after the dramatist's death in 456 BCE, the theory was investigated by Anaxagoras, a contemporary of Aeschylus. Since Anaxagoras was an intelligent geometrician, it should follow that a useful system of perspective was available not long after the middle of the fifth century. Except that Attic vase painters commonly rejected use of spatial depth and were content with occasional foreshortening of furniture; the rare copies of later Classical pictures and the ones we have of Hellenistic Greek painting do not need much perspective in their composition, and it is not perhaps till the second century that we find a coherently receding interior in paintings.

Yet during the fourth century, Greek sculptors carving reliefs for Lycian dynasts occasionally put a little perspective into their views of towns, and some ambitious vase painters in South Italy were already indulging in bold if inaccurate architectural recession.

Some students deny that Greek painting ever achieved consistent perspective with a single vanishing point, but in the first century, a few of the architectural vistas painted by interior decorators on the walls of houses at Pompeii show a system too coherent to be accidental and Vitruvius evidently knew of theoretical principles. An aerial perspective - that is the toning down of colours in the distant background - did not appear, so far as we know, until the second century. With this Greek artists had all the technical devices needed for fully illusionist painting.

Sicyon School of Painting

The training of painters was normally by working as assistant in a master's workshop, a system much like that of apprenticeship, though about the middle of the fourth century Pamphilos set up a painting school at Sicyon and had distinguished pupils. Painting from life had begun by the end of the fifth century, as Xenophon mentions in his memoirs of Socrates. Theory too was studied. Several painters wrote about their art, and Pamphilos included arithmetic and geometry in his curriculum, insisting that they were indispensable to proper practice. Through his efforts, painting (or drawing) also became a recognized subject in the education of Greek boys, with what effects we do not know.

Four-Colour Painting, Monochrome and Drawing

Not all Classical and Hellenistic painters exploited the full repertory of technical devices that were available. In the fifth and fourth centuries, there was a vogue for four-colour painting, the four colours being black, white, red and yellow and their combinations. Why painters chose so to restrict their palette is not known, but since these were the colours that vase painters had found satisfactory for firing, it is tempting to guess that at this time they were also the most satisfactory in encaustic painting. There was monochrome painting too, which sometimes had the effect of pastel, and sometimes simulated sculpture in relief. Simple line drawing also had its admirers, and Pliny remarks that Parrhasios's figure drawing studied by later artists. It is worth remembering that the Greek word 'arapbo' includes both painting and drawing.

Note: For details of colour pigments used by Classical Greek painters in fresco, tempera, encaustic and watercolour painting, see: Classical Colour Palette.

Subject Matter

Subjects varied too. Large compositions, especially battle pieces, had a steady though limited market; but to judge from titles listed by Pliny, the standard masterpiece was a mythological painting with a small group of figures, such as Leto and Niobe, Perseus freeing Andromeda, or the sacrifice of Iphigeneia. It was probably the demands of private customers which encouraged the production of erotic pictures, mentioned already in the late fifth century, and of still life, which began not later than the fourth. Caricature may go back to the end of the fifth century and portraiture to the middle of the fourth. Landscape, as an independent branch of art, did not develop till the second century, since our written sources first mention a landscape painter in 164 BCE, though the painting of stage scenery (without figures) must go back to the fifth. As for treatment, the range - at least in the Hellenistic period - was from the sublime to the sentimental.

Painterly Technique

Clearly the technical equipment of Greek painters from the late fifth century on was very highly developed, but the quality of the work they produced is much harder to judge. The originals that survive are all second-rate or worse, and most of them provincial too. Nor do they represent fairly the more important kinds of painting. The copies or supposed copies are on the whole not only unreliable but disillusioning. Of the more ambitious, most are wan paintings, especially from Pompeii and Herculaneum, works done by hacks, presumably working under contract and without the opportunity (to say nothing of the ability) to reproduce an original with fair accuracy. An accurate representation could only be made in front of the original or of another accurate reproduction and the inferior painters, so evident at Pompeii, could have had nothing better than rough copy books and their memory. So it is less surprising that they often altered the style of figures from old masterpieces, reset them in enlarged compositions and modernized the backgrounds. For instance, in a c.75 CE mural copy of ‘Perseus and Andromeda’ (originally painted by Nicias c.360 BCE); the brush work is impressionistic, the character of the faces perhaps insufficiently heroic and the cast shadows too emphatic. In short, the quality of the copy is so poor, that one would never suppose that the original represented the beginning of the period - the second half of the fourth century - which was afterwards regarded as the age when Greek painting was at its greatest.


The so-called 'Astragalizusae' (or 'Girls playing knucklebones' c.400 BCE) is a smallish picture on marble found at Herculaneum. The marble was imported from Greece, presumably already painted. The painting technique is monochrome in various shades of brown, the style relies very much on line without shading of the female flesh, and the background is blank and white. The subject is in appearance a domestic scene - a genre painting - rendered with Classical serenity, but neat little names beside each figure label it as mythological - an incident in the relations of Leta and Niobe before their disastrous quarrel. The picture seems to be a faithful copy of an original of the end of the fifth century, except for the forms of the letters, which are of the early first century. (The signature, Alexander of Athens, like those on some statues should be that of the copyist.) The 'Astragalizusae' cannot be considered fully typical of the time of its original. Apart from its technique, it has very little of the expression of character and emotion attributed to some contemporary masters such as Timanthes, who was famous for the gradations of grief he depicted in his 'Sacrifice of Iphigeneia'.

For more articles about the visual arts of classical antiquity, see:

Sculpture of Ancient Greece (Introduction)
Daedalic Greek Sculpture (c.650-600 BCE)
Archaic Greek Sculpture (c.600-480 BCE)
Early Classical Greek Sculpture (c.480-450 BCE)
High Classical Greek Sculpture (c.450-400 BCE)
Late Classical Greek Sculpture (c.400-323 BCE)
Hellenistic Greek Sculpture (c.323-27 BCE)
Hellenistic Style Statues and Reliefs (c.323-27 BCE)
Greek Mural and Panel Painting Legacy
Greek Metalwork Art (8th century BCE onwards)
Roman Sculpture (c.55 onwards)

• For more about the evolution of the visual arts, see: History of Art.
• For more about murals and vase-painting in Ancient Greece, see: Homepage.

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