Here at the Lounge, we often like to look to the past for our inspiration. Abandoned techniques, trends and limitations of a bygone age are often a necessary stimulus. With that said, I believe, today we are looking further than we ever have before. Over 2,400 years ago, to Classical Greece.
The Achilles Painter, is certainly not the birth name of the famous Athenian vase painter, but the one he is known by. Named for an amphora attributed to him with a painting of ‘Achilles and Briseis’. Between 200-300 vase paintings have been attributed to the Achilles Painter, on the basis of style of the Achilles and Briseis amphora.
He was a pupil of the Berlin Painter and decorated vases using the red-figure technique. Which was essentially the reverse of the dominant black-figure style, and went on to replace it. The new technique allowed for better internal details, as they were applied with a brush. Whereas the old technique, painters had to scratch in the details, which was far less accurate.
For much of the Achilles Painter’s red-figure pottery, he would illustrate the classical characters of Greek mythology. Capturing the drama with clean lines and clear forms, offset by a black background. Among many others, he depicted the aforementioned Achilles and Briseis, Oedipus and the Sphinx of Thebes, the death of Orpheus, and Zeus (often pursuing a female figure).
He later moved on to using, and developing, the white-ground technique. Special clay, free from the iron oxides, was applied on top of the common reddish clay to give a white ground to paint on. Making it more similar to painting on panels and walls. This technique allowed the Achilles Painter to draft pure outline drawings and permitted the use of some colours. His white-ground pottery depicted contemporary events, often in the home. Notably ‘Youth Bidding Farewell to Wife’, ‘Warrior Arming’, and less commonly painted scene such as two women visiting a funerary monument.
As was very much the style of the time, he always represented faces in profile. However in contrast to many, his delicate paintwork portrayed figures in a pensive and almost melancholy way. No matter what the scene, there is a sense of calm between his figures. This is both true in the death of Orpheus, and Zeus’ pursuit of females. The Achilles Painter’s style was extremely influential. He took over the Berlin Painter’s workshop, and began to teach students of his own. Many of whom later became prominent painters themselves.
Just taking a moment to study his work you quickly start to see how much you can learn from such an ancient master. The best place I have found to see some of his work online is the Boston Museum of Fine Arts website. You can even take a trip to the British Museum, who have just over a dozen objects attributed to the artist.
If you are interested in finding out more about ancient Greek art, I highly recommend watching Alastair Sooke’s Treasures of Ancient Greece. A couple episodes can be found on YouTube, but with any luck the BBC will put together a ‘Treasures of Ancient’ DVD.
I will leave you with the words of art historian, Sir John Beazley, describing the Achilles Painter:
He is the great master of the white lekythos. His red-figure vases nearly always have a sober beauty, but few of them–like the pointed amphora in the Cabinet des Médailles–reach the height of his best white lekythoi, which are among the masterpieces of ancient drawing.