Classics Greek Vase Painting
Tyler Jo Smith
  • LAST REVIEWED: 20 September 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 November 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0346


Greek vase-painting is one of the best studied areas of classical antiquity. Figure decorated pottery, often called “vases,” was produced in large quantities in many regions of the ancient Greek world. Although decorated pottery had been made in Greece since prehistoric times, the field of Greek vase-painting is a branch of classical archaeology which focuses on vessels produced between the late Geometric and late classical/early Hellenistic periods (8th–3rd century BCE). Early modern connoisseurs and collectors during the 18th century were attracted to Greek vases coming out of tombs in Italy, often mistakenly considering them to be Etruscan rather than Greek. Formal study of vases began during the late 19th century, but it was throughout the 20th that the sub-discipline truly gained momentum. Through the efforts of J. D. Beazley (b. 1885–d. 1970), a professor at Oxford University, the black- and red-figure vases of Athens (also termed “Attic”) which survive in enormous quantities were categorized according to painter and published in his magisterial lists (Attic Black-Figure Vase-Painters, 1956; Attic Red-Figure Vase-Painters, 1963; see Beazley 1956 and Beazley 1963 under Connoisseurship and Attribution). Beazley concentrated on attributing unsigned works, and his attributions remain for many scholars an important framework for the study of Greek vases. A. D. Trendall (b. 1909–d. 1995) created a similar typology for the Greek vase-painters of South Italy and Sicily. Also foundational is the Corpus Vasorum Antiquorum, launched by the Louvre in 1922 (see under Digital and Special Resources), which provides illustrated catalogues of Greek vases from museum collections, and also continues to feature vital information about individual vessels. Since the death of Beazley, research on Greek vase-painting has evolved greatly. The 1980s and 1990s saw increased attention to vase iconography, including studies of both myth and everyday life. At the same time, there emerged an updated series of regional studies for vases made outside of Athens, including those of Corinth, Boeotia, Laconia, East Greece, and western Greece. These studies too have focused to an extent on painter attribution, production, and distribution, while important developments in archaeological science have greatly benefited our understanding of local fabrics and techniques. In recent decades, scholarship has shifted toward contextual studies that emphasize social, historical, and religious functions and meanings of vases and their images. At present, there is an interest in the role of archaeological context and how it may have impacted the choices of both artist and consumer.

General Overviews

There are several beautifully illustrated, large-format books on Greek vase-painting that also serve to introduce the topic broadly. Arias and Hirmer 1962 and Simon 1981 cover a wide range of examples and time periods, while Lissarrague 2001 limits itself to Athenian vases. Thoughtful overviews of the topic, suitable for both novice and specialist include Cook 1997, Sparkes 1991, and the better illustrated Boardman 2001. Robertson 1992 is more limited in scope, but filled with information. Rasmussen and Spivey 1991, though now dated in some ways, is clearly laid out for ease of use, and thus ideal for students. The collected lectures of J. D. Beazley in Kurtz 1989 underscore the often overlooked breadth and depth of Beazley’s scholarship. An up-to-date overview that reveals the many aspects of Greek vases is Oakley 2013.

  • Arias, P. E., and Max Hirmer. 1962. A history of Greek vase painting. Translated and revised by B. B. Shefton. London: Thames and Hudson.

    Attractively illustrated introduction intended for scholars and the general public. An introductory essay summarizes the chronological development and includes both Attic and non-Attic wares. Each example is represented by either a color or black and white plate accompanied by a detailed catalogue entry. There are separate sections devoted to major artists.

  • Boardman, John. 2001. The history of Greek vases. London: Thames and Hudson.

    Surveys the record of the Greek pottery industry from approximately the 10th century to the 2nd century BCE. Well-illustrated throughout with chapters on connoisseurship, industry, trade, iconography, relation of vases to other arts, and scientific analysis.

  • Cook, R. M. 1997. Greek painted pottery. 3d ed. London and New York: Routledge.

    Offers an authoritative overview organized according to period, style, and region. Additional chapters cover shapes, technique, inscriptions, chronology, the pottery industry, and the history of the study. Includes a glossary and excellent bibliography to date.

  • Kurtz, D. C., ed. 1989. Greek vases: Lectures by J. D. Beazley. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

    A collection of eight lectures, some previously unpublished, delivered by John Davidson Beazley between 1928 and 1965. Covers individual techniques, artists, industry, imports, and the training of classical archaeologists. A few plates have been added and some references brought up to date.

  • Lissarrague, François. 2001. Greek vases: The Athenians and their images. Translated by Kim Allen. New York: Riverside Book Co.

    Nicely written and lavishly illustrated introduction, initially published in French as Vases grecs: Les Athéniens et leurs images (1999). Chapters are divided thematically and reveal a wide range of subjects: the symposion, love and courtship, games and competition, rites of passage, religion and cult, gods and heroes.

  • Oakley, John H. 2013. The Greek vase: Art of the storyteller. Los Angeles: The J. Paul Getty Museum.

    Well-illustrated introduction written for the general reader and based on the collections of the British Museum and the J. Paul Getty Museum. Examines how vases were made, their different methods of decoration, and scenes of both myth and daily life.

  • Rasmussen, Tom, and Nigel Spivey, eds. 1991. Looking at Greek vases. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    Useful series of introductory essays written, with a notable exception (i.e., M. Beard), by authorities in the field. Provides for students a combination of chronology, technique, and style, alongside key issues such as approach and the marketplace.

  • Robertson, Martin. 1992. The art of vase-painting in classical Athens. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    A detailed overview suited to specialists of Athenian red-figure from its invention in the later 6th century BCE until its decline in the 4th. The presentation is largely driven by painter, with essential discussion of dating, historical circumstances, and relationships with other arts throughout.

  • Simon, Erika. 1981. Die griechischen Vasen. 2d ed. Munich: Hirmer Verlag.

    Beautifully illustrated introduction available only in German showcasing examples from c. 1000 BCE to the late 4th century. Includes a detailed description of each object and thorough bibliography to date.

  • Sparkes, Brian A. 1991. Greek pottery: An introduction. Manchester, UK, and New York: Manchester Univ. Press.

    Introduces various aspects and approaches, and is organized into chapters on making, dating, shapes, decoration, and distribution. Although intended for students of classics, the glossary of shapes, bibliography, and details of production are valuable in general.

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