In Depth: The Berlin Painter and His World

Princeton University has always been a center of classical studies, including the art and archaeology of ancient Greece and Rome. This spring the Art Museum puts the focus on Greece with the major international loan exhibition The Berlin Painter and His World. The exhibition and its accompanying catalogue are celebrations of ancient Greece and of the ideals of reason, proportion, and human dignity that are its legacy to all the peoples of the world.

Greek, Attic, ca. 500–490 B.C., attributed to the Berlin Painter. Red-figure amphora of Type A, with satyr and Hermes. Ceramic, h. with lid 81.5 cm. Antikensammlung, Staatliche Museen, Berlin / Preussischer KulturbesitzThe exhibition features eighty-four objects, including fifty-four of the finest vases attributed to the Berlin Painter, an anonymous red-figure vase-painter named after a justly famous amphora in Berlin. Early in the last century, the Oxford scholar Sir John D. Beazley (1885–1970) began compiling lists of vases that he attributed to individual painters, assigning names to those who left no signature. Basing his approach on the study of Renaissance paintings, Beazley paid close attention to everything from the shape, subject, and decorative scheme to the manner in which small details were habitually, even unconsciously, rendered—ears, ankles, drapery folds. Certainty is impossible, and disagreements over attributions are common, but this methodology, when applied rigorously and combined with knowledge and experience, makes it possible to identify with confidence works by individual vase-painters and to date their creations more closely than is possible through purely archaeological means.

The Berlin Painter’s earliest works date from about 505 B.C. and attest his apprenticeship in the principal red-figure atelier of the late sixth century. For a century, Attic pots were decorated in the black-figure technique, with black figures on a red clay ground. In the red-figure technique, which appeared about 530 B.C., this process is inverted: the background is coated with black slip and the figures are left “reserved” in red. The greater freedom and clarity of red-figure allowed vase-painters to keep pace with larger developments, as when, after about 480 B.C., the robust conventions of Archaic art began to yield to the increased simplicity and naturalism of the Early Classical style.

Greek, Attic, ca. 500–490 b.c., attributed to the Berlin Painter. Red-figure amphora of Type A, with Herakles (detail). Ceramic. Antikenmuseum Basel und Sammlung LudwigThe Berlin Painter’s style is distinguished by a suave elegance and a palpable tension between shape and decoration. His figures, and the ornament accompanying them, are executed with taut, dexterous precision, whether on water jars (hydriai), large wine bowls (kraters), or smaller shapes such as jugs (oinochoai) and oil bottles (lekythoi). The single figures on either side of his amphorae frequently share the same conceptual space. Accompanied by little or no ornament and spotlighted against the black ground, they are framed only by the contours of the vessel itself. Said Beazley of the artist’s early works, “The delicate grace of his figures has nothing weak or cloying; they charm as youth and springtime charm.”

The scale of the exhibition is ambitious, with masterpieces lent by such institutions as the State Museums of Berlin and Munich; the Musée du Louvre; the British Museum; the Metropolitan Museum of Art; the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford; the J. Paul Getty Museum; the Harvard Art Museums; and the Vatican’s Museo Gregoriano Etrusco. The vases featured range in size from capacious kraters and stately amphorae to slender lekythoi and delicately potted oinochoai. The painted subjects extend from scenes of cult, athletics, and musical performance to numerous encounters between gods and heroes, with Athena, Herakles, and Dionysos being particular favorites. Other works draw on the rich body of Greek myth and epic, with many stories portrayed in novel compositions that demonstrate the Berlin Painter’s remarkable sophistication as an artist.

Greek, Attic, ca. 480–470 b.c., attributed to the Berlin Painter. Red-figure stamnos of special shape, with Chiron, Nereus, and Fleeing Nereids (detail). Ceramic. Staatliche Antikensammlungen und Glyptothek, MunichThe Berlin Painter lived in Athens, and many vases attributed to him have been found there and at other Greek sites. More, however, have been discovered in Italy, to which thousands of Attic vases were exported in the sixth and fifth centuries B.C. In his early period (ca. 505–480 B.C.), the most frequent destination of the Berlin Painter’s work was Etruria, the central Italian homeland of the Etruscans. Some of the finest vases in this exhibition were found in Etruscan tombs at Vulci, Cerveteri, and Chiusi. Although influenced by Greek religion and material culture, the Etruscans were ethnically and linguistically distinct, and their appetite for Attic pottery served their own traditions and practices.

The people of Athens created the world’s first democracy, where citizens chose their laws and their leaders by the ballot—a system, with all its flaws, that has never been improved upon. It was a time of new hopes but also of great troubles. In 490 B.C., Athens was invaded by the powerful Persian Empire, based in Iran and extending from Egypt to India. Repulsed at the Battle of Marathon, the Persians returned ten years later to mount a massive invasion of all of Greece. Against heavy odds, the Greeks prevailed, and the leading role played by Athens in this victory imbued the city with new wealth, confidence, and prestige. Depictions of myths, cult, and daily life on red-figure vases provide important insights into Greek culture in this period, but iconography is sterile unless considered alongside the nuances of style, both of the period and of individual artists. Although he would have been considered a humble craftsman within Athenian society, the painstaking identification of the surviving oeuvre of the Berlin Painter now affords him a place among the finest artists of ancient Greece.


J. Michael Padgett

Curator of Ancient Art