Looking at Pictures: Terracotta lekythos

Wendy Shalen comments on a Greek Terracotta lekythos.


Terracotta lekythos (oil flask)
Greek, attic, white-ground,
ca. 440 B.C. (Rogers Fund of 
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1908,
11 7/8 inches tall.)
Attributed to The Achilles Painter
Woman and youth.

by Wendy Shalen

Many years ago I wrote a college thesis analyzing the painting and glazing techniques used to create the beautiful white-ground lekythos produced in Attica, Greece, in the fifth century B.C. These vases served as funerary offering vessels and were often placed in tombs alongside the deceased. In the vase  (left) the “scene may be one of greeting or farewell… set in the women’s quarters of a house.” (From The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s label)

The lekythos was made of red clay in sections on a pottery wheel. Technically, the white ground was a white-clay slip that was painted over the red clay.  The palmette floral decoration on the shoulder of the vase, the Greek key motif below that, and the figurative outlines were painted with diluted glaze. The clothing was often painted with solid washes of pigmented glazes over the fine outlines. Here “the pigment of the youth’s himation (cloak) is lost.”

This example, by the Achilles Painter, shows how extremely gifted the artist was at painting an exquisitely sensitive and elegant line. As Gisela M.A. Richter wrote in The Metropolitan Museum’s Handbook of the Greek Collection, “The work of the Achilles Painter reflects more, perhaps, than that of any other vase-painter the serene spirit of the Periclean sculpture. Most of his pictures are …lekythoi and consist of one or two figures doing the simple things of everyday life, but with a quiet poise that gives them distinction.” His figures and the feeling of intimacy and connection between them seem lifelike even today. He has caught the tension in a glance between a woman and a youth. The hand gestures and eye contact of the woman and youth seem to anticipate a sad farewell. Perhaps the youth has died in battle and the woman is shown saying her final goodbye, as they are about to clasp hands….” 

Anyone interested in viewing this wonderful vase or numerous others should visit the new Greek Galleries of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York City.

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