Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

Tanagra Figurines

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By the last quarter of the fourth century B.C., a new repertoire of terracotta figurines entered the market. Appreciated for their naturalistic features, preserved pigments, variety, and charm, these figurines are known as Tanagras, from the site in Boeotia where great numbers of them were found. The majority of Tanagra figurines depict fashionable women (07.286.2) or girls (07.286.31; 09.221.28), elegantly wrapped in thin himations (cloaks), and sometimes wearing broad-brimmed hats and holding wreaths or fans. Previously, in the fifth and fourth centuries B.C., terracotta statuettes had been produced in Athens primarily for religious purposes, or as souvenirs of the theater. In contrast, the entirely new repertoire of Tanagra terracottas was based on an intimate examination of the personal world of mortal women and children, occasionally young men, and other characters, who are believed to have had their origins in the New Comedy of Menander.


The variety of gesture and detail that makes Tanagra figurines so appealing is due to a fairly complex method of manufacture. Like most earlier terracotta statuettes, they were formed in concave terracotta molds. The original three-dimensional figure from which the mold was taken was usually handmade of wax or terracotta, although existing figurines of terracotta, bronze, or wood occasionally were used. Clay was pressed over this prototype and, when slightly hardened, it was removed, touched up, and fired in a kiln.


Until the mid-fourth century B.C., it was customary to mold only the front of the figure and to attach a simple unmodeled back; the hollow statuette was then fired. Tanagra figurines, however, were made in two-part molds—one for the front and one for the back. Often the heads and projecting arms were made in separate molds and attached to the statuette before firing. By varying the direction of the head and the position of the arms, a single type of figure could be given many slightly different poses. Wreaths, hats, or fans were handmade and separately attached. A rectangular plaque was added as a base, and vents were cut into the back of each statuette to allow moisture in the clay to escape during firing. A white slip, composed of clay and water, was applied to the entire statuette before it was fired.


After firing, the Tanagra figurines were brightly colored in a naturalistic manner with water-soluble paints. Red was used for hair, lips, shoes, and accessories, and black marked eyebrows, eyes, and other details. The flesh was painted a pale orange pink, and a reddish purple made from rose madder often was used for the drapery. Blue was used sparingly, as the pigment was expensive, and green, which was made from malachite, was never employed.


Department of Greek and Roman Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art