Greek Black Figure Pottery

Caeretan Hydria (Water Jar) with Herakles and Iolaos attacking the Hydra. Attributed to Eagle Painter (Greek), active 530 - 500 B.C. Currently in the Getty Museum collection.

Caeretan Hydria (Water Jar) with Herakles and Iolaos attacking the Hydra. Attributed to Eagle Painter (Greek), active 530 - 500 B.C. Currently in the Getty Museum collection.

By no means an esoteric subject of design history, black figure pottery—very literally named for its color and subject matter—is familiar imagery even if you’ve never stepped foot in a museum. To be sure, if you have had only one experience viewing antiquities in a museum setting, it is probably one of the things you saw in your brief perusal.

Some things are well known because they deserve to be so; not to say that other less well known genres are less deserving, but this type of Greek pottery (later adapted by other regions as well) has proven itself to be a lasting example of a unified, developed style at a level which is extremely difficult to achieve. It is this well-defined, cohesive, recognizable quality that gives the style its iconic nature and has allowed the style to influence designers and artists for thousands of years.

The abstraction of complex narratives into relatively simple shapes that are easily digested by the viewer (many times using only one color) and the fluid translation of the same style into purely decorative motifs that merge seamlessly with the subject matter have made the imagery a touchstone for similar design ideas throughout the ages.

Corinthian Olpe from 6th century BCE. In the collection of the Indiana University Art Museum.

Corinthian Olpe from 6th century BCE. In the collection of the Indiana University Art Museum.

First produced circa 700 BCE in a region in what is now south-central Greece called Corinth, the style traveled and went on to define Athenian decorative arts from 625 BCE onward. Through Athens’s influence, it became the preeminent pottery on the Mediterranean market for 150 years. Other more minor contributors to the genre were Laconia in the early 6th century BCE and a similar style modified and adapted by the Etruscans.

Varying forms of Etruscan vessels. Graphics from  VectorStock .

Varying forms of Etruscan vessels. Graphics from VectorStock.

Etruscan Neck-Amphora, circa 540 BCE. Part of the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Etruscan Neck-Amphora, circa 540 BCE. Part of the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Neck-Amphora attributed to an artist near Exekias, ca 530 BC. From the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Neck-Amphora attributed to an artist near Exekias, ca 530 BC. From the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Perhaps even more significant than their stylistic importance is the value of black figure pottery as a historical record, as they “provide the oldest and most diverse representations of Greek mythology, religious, social, and sporting practices.

Greek Skyphos, mid-4th Century BCE. From the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Greek Skyphos, mid-4th Century BCE. From the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The black figure technique was closely followed by (and even overlapped with) its counterpart, the red figure technique, which was adopted to portray flesh tones more realistically.

A Calyx-Krater in the Red Figure style, from Calouste Gulbenkian Museum.

A Calyx-Krater in the Red Figure style, from Calouste Gulbenkian Museum.

Lucanian Nestoris from Late Antiquity, ca. 360–350 B.C. From the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Lucanian Nestoris from Late Antiquity, ca. 360–350 B.C. From the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Oenochoe portraying a battle between the Greeks and Amazons. From the Hellenistic Period, about 320-310 BC, collection of the Museum of Fine Arts Boston.

Oenochoe portraying a battle between the Greeks and Amazons. From the Hellenistic Period, about 320-310 BC, collection of the Museum of Fine Arts Boston.

A doctored image showing a flattened version of the artwork from the above Oenochoe.

A doctored image showing a flattened version of the artwork from the above Oenochoe.

Lasting Influence

Studies of Greek ornamentation in  Owen Jones’s ‘Grammar of Ornament,’  published 1856.

Studies of Greek ornamentation in Owen Jones’s ‘Grammar of Ornament,’ published 1856.

Studies of Greek ornamentation in  Owen Jones’s ‘Grammar of Ornament,’  published 1856.

Studies of Greek ornamentation in Owen Jones’s ‘Grammar of Ornament,’ published 1856.

Josiah Wedgwood Jasperware, probably ca. 1790. From the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Josiah Wedgwood Jasperware, probably ca. 1790. From the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Platter in Etruscan pattern by Elkin Knight and Bridgewood of Staffordshire, circa 1820-1830. Available through 1st Dibs.

Platter in Etruscan pattern by Elkin Knight and Bridgewood of Staffordshire, circa 1820-1830. Available through 1st Dibs.

Robert Adam's Etruscan Dressing Room, designed for Osterley Park, 1773-74; the Adam style was a highly influential Neoclassical interior design and architectural style which “ found its niche from the late 1760s in upper-class and middle-class residences in 18th-century England, Scotland, Russia. ”

Robert Adam's Etruscan Dressing Room, designed for Osterley Park, 1773-74; the Adam style was a highly influential Neoclassical interior design and architectural style which “found its niche from the late 1760s in upper-class and middle-class residences in 18th-century England, Scotland, Russia.

Henri Mattise’s  Interior with Etruscan Vase , 1940.

Henri Mattise’s Interior with Etruscan Vase, 1940.

Luke Edward Hall’s ‘Pink Urn’ print, currently available through Jonathan Adler.

Luke Edward Hall’s ‘Pink Urn’ print, currently available through Jonathan Adler.