Classical Period Athenian Vases (5th-4th centuries BCE)

The 5th century BCE is the high point of Attic vase painting and of the red-figure style. Artists continued to investigate and build on the technical achievements of their predecessors, but now they also studied new poses and bodies in movement, part of their search for a more realistic portrayal of nature. Their breakthroughs in drawing and composition went hand-in-hand with something more important: a new spirit, a new conception of the human figure as a harmonious whole, with an introspective seriousness which was very different from the old formulas and analytical views of the Archaic period. Everyday life was now depicted with a vigour and wealth of detail never seen before. The new democratic ideals of Athens required images which would celebrate the values of the individual as part of a community. Young people’s education, public festivals, the world of women, the ritual of the symposium, were the subjects that, alongside mythology, would be reshaped as a vehicle for and way to integrate the new social and political order.

In the second half of the century, new painters emerged who were strongly influenced by the new concepts of sculpture developed by Phidias for the Parthenon. The new spirit of Phidias shines through in compositions and figure studies which glorify the heroic, almost Olympian beauty of the human figure and its divine youth, nobility and quiet dignity. Some of the best vases of this period are lekythos, used exclusively for funeral rites, with the white ground technique. Unlike the red-figure style, the subjects are drawn in black lines on a white clay background, with a few additional colours.

At the end of the 5th century, Athens was facing an outbreak of plague, incursions by the Peloponnesians, the loss of its naval power, and a severe economic crisis. The confidence and serene optimism of mature Classical art gave way to an art which sought escapism in refinement, grace and delicacy, exaggerated virtuosity and illusionism. The work of artists like Aison or the Pronomos Painter are perfect examples of this style.