Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Scenes of Everyday Life in Ancient Greece

By the mid-sixth century B.C., craftsmen of the Athenian potters’ quarter, known as the Kerameikos, had arrived at a fully developed style of black-figure vase painting. Many depicted scenes of hoplites putting on their armor, bidding farewell to loved ones, or advancing in phalanx formation. Most vases illustrated myths or heroic tales in which gods, goddesses, legendary heroes, and Amazons mingled with warriors in hoplite armor. These elegant battle scenes must have afforded great pleasure to an aristocratic class that embraced an ethos of military valor and athletic competition.

In the years around 530 B.C., the red-figure technique was invented, quite possibly by the potter Andokides and his workshop. It gradually replaced the black-figure technique as innovators recognized the possibilities that came with drawing forms, rather than laboriously delineating them with incisions. The use of a brush was suited to the naturalistic representation of anatomy, garments, and emotions. As vase painters were able to represent the human body in increasingly complex poses, they more frequently depicted scenes of everyday life–athletics, drinking, and warfare–that allowed them to show off their mastery of the new medium. Apart from a few significant exceptions, these vases depicted an Athenian man’s world. It was not until the mid-fifth century B.C. that vase painters broadened their repertoire to include scenes of daily life that focused on women engaged in domestic activities. This innovation reflected not only decorative preferences, but also the uses to which the finest vases were put.

By the late fifth century, there was another distinct change in tone as vase painters opted to depict more poignant moments. Warriors arming or fighting were replaced by statuesque youths taking leave of their families, and scenes of music making associated with symposia earlier in the century were transformed into intimate depictions of several figures listening to a performer. Scenes of women performing domestic activities became particularly focused on wedding preparations and celebrations of the bride.