1902 Encyclopedia > Mural Decoration > Greek Painting.

Mural Decoration
(Part 10)


Greek Painting.

Greek Painting.— This is a very obscure subject, for, although Strabo, Pliny, Pausanias, and others have left us minute descriptions of Greek paintings and ample accounts of painters and styles, yet of the pictures themselves almost nothing now remains. Even in Egypt the use of colours does not appear to have been more universal than it was among the Greeks, who applied it freely to their marble statues and reliefs, the whole of their buildings inside and out, as well as for the decoration of flat wall-surfaces. They appear to have cared but little for pure form, and not to have valued the delicate ivory-like tint and beautiful texture of their fine Pentelic and Parian marbles, except as a ground for coloured ornament. A whole class of artists, called agalmaton egkaustai [Gk.], were occupied in colouring marble sculpture, and their services were very highly valued.[Footnote 40-3] In some cases, probably for the sake of hiding the joints and getting a more absorbent surface, the marble, however pure and fine in texture, was covered with a thin skin of stucco made of mixed lime and powedered marble. Among the extremely rare specimens of Greek painting still existing, the most important is an alabaster sarcophagus, found in a tomb near Corneto, and now in the Etruscan museum at Florence.[Footnote 40-4] This is decorated outside with very beautiful and purely Greek paintings, executed on a stucco skin as hard and smooth as the alabaster itself. The pictures represent combats of the Greeks and Amazons, drawn with marvellous beauty of outline and grace of movement and composition. The colouring, though rather brilliant, is very simply treated, and the figures are kept strictly to one plane without any attempt at complicated perspective. Other most valuable specimens of Greek art, found at Herculaneum and now in the Naples museum, are some small paintings, one of girls playing with dice, another of Theseus and the Minotaur. These are painted with miniature-like delicacy on the bare surface of marble slabs; they are almost monochromatic, and are of the highest beauty both in drawing and in their skillfully-modelled gradations of shadow—quite unlike any of the Greek vase-paintings. The first-mentioned painting is signed ALEXANDROS ATHENAIOS [Gk.]. It is probable that the strictly archaic paintings of the Greeks, such as those of Polygnotus in 5th century B.C., executed with few and simple colours, had much resemblance to those on vases, but Pliny is certainly wrong when he asserts that, till the time of Apelles (c. 350-310 B.C), the Greek painters only used black, white, red, and yellow.[Footnote 41-1] Judging from the peculiar way in which the Greeks and their imitators the Romans used the names of colours, it appears that they paid more attention to tones and relations of colours than to actual hues. Thus most Greek Latin colour-names are now quite untranslatable. Homer’s "wine-like sea" (oinox [Gk.]), Sophocle’s "wine-coloured ivy" (Oed. Col.), and Horace’s "purpureus olor" probably refer less to what we should call colour than to the chromatic strength of the various objects and their more or less strong powers of reflecting light, either in motion or when at rest. Nor have any work like Virgil’s "flavus," which could be applied both to a lady’s hair and to the leaf of an olive-tree.[Footnote 41-2]

During the best periods of Greek art the favourite classes of subjects were scenes from poetry, especially Homer, and contemporary history. The names pinakotheke [Gk.] and stoa poikile [Gk.] were given to many public buildings from their walls being covered with paintings. Additional interest was given to the historical subjects by the introduction of portraits; e.g., in the great picture of the battle of Marathon (490 B.C.), on the walls of the stoa poikile [Gk.] in Athens, portraits were given of the Greek generals Miltiades, Callimachus, and others. This picture was painted about forty years after the battle by Polygnotus and Micon. One of the earliest pictures recorded by Pliny (xxxv. 8) represented a battle of the Magnesians (c. 716 B.C); it was painted by Bularchus, a Lydian artist, and bougth at a high price by King Candtules. Many other important Greek historical paintings are mentioned by Pausanias and earlier writers. The Pompeian mosaic of the defeat of the Persians by Alexander is probably a Romanized copy from some celebrated Greek paintings; it obviously was not designed for mosaic work.

Landscape painting appears to have been unknown among the Greeks, even as a background to figure subjects. The poems especially of Homer and Sophocles show that this was not through want of appreciation of the beauties of nature, but partly, probably, because the main object of Greek painting was to tell some definite story, and also from their just sense of artistic fitness, which prevented them from attempting in their mural decorations to disguise the flat solidity of the walls by necessarily delusive effects of aerial perspective and distance.

It is interesting to note that even in the time of Alexander the Great the somewhat archaic works of the earlier painters were still highly appreciated. In particular Aristotle gives high praise to Polygnotus, both for his power of combining with idealization in his portraits and for his skill in depicting men’s mental characteristics; on this accoung he calls him ho ethographos [Gk.]. Lucian too is no less enthusiastic, and praises Polygnotus alike for his grace, drawing, and colouring. Later painters, such as Zeuxis and Apelles, appear to have produced easel pictures more than mural paintings, and these easy to move, were mostly carried off to Rome by the early emperors. Hence Pausanias, who visited Greece in the time of Hadrian, mentions but few works of the later artists. Owing to the lack of existing specimens of Greek painting it would be idle to attempt an account of their technical methods, but no doubt those employed by the Romans described below were derived with the rest of their art from the Greeks. Speaking of their stucco, Pliny refers its superiority over the made by the Romans to the fact that it was always made of lime at least three years old, and that it was well mixed and pounded in a mortar before being laid on the wall; he is here speaking of the thick stucco in many coats, not of thin skin mentioned above as being laid on marble.

Greek mural painting, like their sculpture, was chiefly used to decorate temples and public buildings, and comparatively rarely either for tombs [Footnote 41-3] or private buildings, -- at least in the days of their early republican simplicity. They were in the true sense of the word works of monumental art, and were no doubt designed and executed with that strict self-restraint and due subordination to their architectural surroundings which we see so strongly marked in all Greek sculpture of the best periods.[Footnote 41-4]


(40-3) This process, circumlitio, is mentioned by Pliny (H. N., xxxv. 40).

(40-4) See Mon. Inst. Arch., Rome, ix. Plate 60.

(41-1) Pliny’s remarks on subjects such as this should be received with caution. He was neither a scientific archaeologist nor a practical artist.

(41-2) So also a meaning unlike ours is attached to Greek technical words—by ponos [Gk.] they meant, not "tone," but the gradations of light and shade, and by harmone [Gk.] the relations of colour. See Pliny, H. N., xxxv. (5); and Ruskin, Mod. Painters, pt. iv. cap. 13.

(41-3) One instance only of a tomb-painting is mentioned by Pausanias (vii. 22). Some fine specimens have recently been discovered in the Crimea, but not of a very early date; see Stephani, Compte rendu, &c., St Petersburg, 1878, &c.

(41-4) Some of the following works contains accounts of the painting of the Romans as well as of the Greeks:— Letronne, La Peint. histor. murale (1835); Hittorf, L’Arch. polychrome chez les Grecs (1851); Wornum, Hist. Of Painting (1847); Newton, Lect. On the Painting of the Ancients, deliv. at Univ. Coll. Lon. (1882); Hermann, Die Polygnotischen Gemälde; Lenormant, Les Peintures de Polygnote (1864); Winckelmann, Storia dell’ Arti (1784); Müller, Handbuch d. Archäol. der Kunst, &c. (1830); Pliny, H. N. Books xxxvi.; Pausanias, x. 25-31,—description of paintings in the Lesche at Delphi ,– and various other passages throughout his work; Artaud de Montor, Peintres primitifs (1841-42); Humphrey Davy, "Colours used by the Ancients," Trans. Roy. Soc. (1815,pp. 97-124); Bluemner, Gewerbe u. Kunst bei Griechen u. Römern (18679); Brunn, Gesch. der Griech. Künstler (1853-56); Durand, Hist. de la Peinture Ancienne (1725); Meyer, Gesch. der bildenden Künste (1824); Raoul Rochette, La Peinture des Grecs (1840), and Mon. d’ Antiq. (1833); Poynter, Decorative Art, series of lectures published by the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (1882).

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