On The Design Of Greek Vases

By: Eleanor F. Rambo

Originally Published in 1919

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To the voices uplifted in encouragement of a fresh interest in design may the classicist venture to add a treble note? It is now the fashion to deride, if not to ignore, all things classical. None the less, remembering the words of Aristotle that “Art is long,” I dare to hope that there is yet room for consideration of significant features of what some still think the greatest art the world has produced. I mean of course Greek art, which is great not only in itself but in its fruits, for it directly inspired Roman, Byzantine and Renaissance art, as well as the later art of China, India and Japan. In Greek art the designer of today can find much inspiration. I do not mean that we should suffer modern art to be submerged under a flood of Greek gods or hoplites, or even of maeanders. Happily, the world has come to realize that the Greek temple as a form of architecture is not congruous when located in the northern so-called temperate zone, and that the figures of eminent men of this generation, when translated into bronze or marble, need not be clothed in the toga. But although we rightly reject such forms as become empty when transferred to an unfriendly environment, we cannot without irreparable loss ignore the principles that underlie the forms.

Drawing of a design of a man on horseback with a patterned cloak
Fig. 1. — Design from the interior of a cup by Euphronios after Furtwangler-Reichhold. 1056.

On all sides today critics lament in modern art the lack of sanity and universality of appeal. The two characteristics all great art must display, and particularly must decoration do so. This must be self evident from the derivation of the word “decorate” from the Latin decet, “it is fitting.” Decoration is ornament that satisfies, and satisfies not one or two, but all who have any real right to express an opinion thereon. The claims of Greek decorative art for consideration at this point are based—first, on its primacy, second, on its transcendence. These claims are not generally pushed by teachers of Greek and Latin history and language, for, unfortunately, few of them have any real appreciation of ancient art. Appreciation of Greek art is not essentially esoteric, but it does presuppose intelligence of an especial sort, an intelligence that finds joy in a reasoned performance.

The chief characteristic of Greek art is that it is universal, not individual, in both concept and appeal. The second characteristic is that it is orderly, and this second characteristic by its workings produces the first. The two are interdependent. To the ancient Greek, the modern artist who does his work by what he terms “feel,” who gropes blindly for something that shall embody his inarticulate emotionalism, such a man must have seemed a very maniac. The Greek artist did all things by rule of reason. He was not in the least mechanical, but, on the other hand, he was never sloppy. If the craftsman of today were bent less on the creation of novelty than on the following of laws of reason and harmony, he would find that the innovations of creative work took care of themselves.

A drawing of a goose flanked to the right by a sphinx and a panther
Fig. 2. — Part of a frieze on a Corinthian oenochoe in the University Museum showing the principle of isocephaly and elongation in the horizontal.
Museum Object Number: MS548

All this, you may say, is apart from design. I am not sure that it is. What I would stress is not so much the potter’s technique as his realization of the essentialness of form. Form is the indispensable thing. Whether in shape or ornament it is the all important consideration and, consequently, it must be studied. Ratio, proportion, harmony, symmetry—in all its factors design depends on mathematics. For instance, formal design—and all good design is formal—depends very closely on ratio. Take any good anthemion or palmette pattern, and try it out. See if it is not constructed with mathematical precision. But let us pass on to some elements of design as employed by the Greeks.

We commonly date the beginnings of Greek history shortly after the Dorian Invasion, regarding the historical Hellenes as a sort of hybrid product of the amalgamation of the invaders with the peoples already in the peninsula. The invaders imposed their northern culture on the Greek peninsula, where had been destroyed the previous art of the Aegean people. This earlier art had been essentially decorative. Its exponents had a passion for marine forms, such as fish, snails, shells, waves, and they had a distinct talent for linear decoration, such as net patterns or scrolls. Some of this artistic tradition survived the wreck of time and the iconoclasm of the invaders in regions to which the remnants of the old race had fled, notably on the coast of Asia Minor. There, combined with artistic forces from Mesopotamia, it produced Ionic art. Ionic art sent westward across the Aegean a tidal wave of influences, which saturated the nascent artistic impulses of the Greeks, particularly in Corinth. That city during the seventh century B. C. was the greatest in the Mediterranean, with the possible exception of Miletus in Asia. In Corinth began real design. Corinth was an enormously wealthy trading centre, handling all the commerce of the western Mediterranean. She dispensed the products of the world, and needed containers for her trade. So what more natural than that there should arise in Corinth a large industry in pottery—pottery of many shapes and sizes, but all stamped with the indubitable seal of local manufacture. Corinthian decoration can never be mistaken for that of any other ware. The reason therefor is this. Corinthian ware is the earliest fabric that shows “style” and the principles of design. The Corinthian potters were the first to display conjointly schematization of figures, balance of masses, repetition without monotony. They loved exotic animals and hybrid creatures sprung from the riotous imagination of the peoples of Asia; and for every sort of animal they worked out a definite plan or scheme. Morin Jean’s book on the design of animals on Greek vases gives many such plans. The author was the first to point out that the Corinthians invented many schemes that are used today in wall papers and tapestries. He notes also that the Corinthian craftsmen were the first to appreciate the decorative possibilities which could result from changing the proportions of any given object so as to make it conform to the limitations of the space to be decorated; e.g., in a panel their animals are short bodied and long legged, in a frieze they are long bodied and short legged. Literally, the Corinthians were the earliest designers in European art. Their influence was lasting, and it is not to be ignored now.

A drawing of two roosters facing each other
Fig. 3. — Decoration on a Corinthian bombylios showing the principle of elongation in the vertical, after Morin Jean.

The University Museum possesses a good collection of Corinthian vases and of Italo-Corinthian ware, of which a careful study will not be fruitless. The larger vases are decorated in bands of animals, exotic and fantastic. One of the most striking features of these friezes is that within a given band all animals—lions, panthers, deer, birds—no matter what their relative actual size would be, all, whether seated or standing, have their heads in a straight line. This principle of “isocephaly” as it is called, always guided the Greeks in their decorative art. Today we do not follow it, and our decorative effects in a measure suffer. Our best decoration still shows a flatness of treatment, which is essential to effect, but it loses much by disregard of the value of straight framing lines.

It is not my intention to make here an exhaustive study of design on Greek vases, fabric by fabric. To do so would result in a monumental work. I merely wish to point out some of the more salient features.

The designs on Attic vases, both black and red-figured are worthy of considerable study. On large shapes such as the hydria, crater, or amphora, where the surface is large enough to afford a fair sized space not too much curved, the problem of decoration is relatively simple. It is necessary only to allow for a slight curve, block out the panel or frieze, and set to work. But in the cylix or wine cup, where the design in the interior must be framed in a circle and that on the exterior must be set in curving fields, here the Greek painter met with real problems. How well he solved them may be learned by tracing the history of the cylix through the fifth century B.C. The shape with its difficulties and its possibilities teased the painters’ interest, and became their favorite. Through the years the painters experimented with the setting of an upright figure within the circle, and came finally to make the very limitations of the space not blemishes but enhancements of their designs. How they learned to group figures on the exteriors, to fill space without crowding, to make drapery and accessories accentuate the design as well as beautify the figures—all this too may be watched and made profitable for the modern designer.

A drawing of a fragment featuring tow men, one on horseback
Fig. 4. — Decoration on the exterior of a black-figured fragment of cup in the University Museum.
Museum Object Number: MS4863.12

I would not indicate by this that the vases are products of great artists, or in themselves great works of art. On rare Italian plates there are designs made by world renowned painters, but though Leonardo built fortresses, one does not ordinarily expect Raphael to make pottery. The Greek potter, “thumping his wet clay” was by no means counted among his contemporaries a great art force. He loved his job, and did it well. Like him the vase painter who, more often than not, was a person distinct from the potter, was always experimenting, making many mistakes but invariably learning, gaining an enviable swiftness and sureness of line, never ashamed to owe his inspiration to the past as every good designer must, never ceasing to strive for perfection, signing his name with a flourish when he felt particularly proud, but mostly not troubling to insure his own fame, always sane in his conceptions, methodical, and inspiring.

I have confined my remarks to vases, because they afford the bulk of extant Greek decorative art. In addition, coins, especially those of Syracuse, and sculptured decoration of Imperial Roman times much of which was executed by Greek artists, offer a rich mine of suggestive material for modern design.


A drawing of a fanciful design
Fig. 5. — Design from a Corinthian pyxis in the University Museum.
Museum Object Number: MS542A
Image Number: 3416

Cite This Article

Rambo, Eleanor F.. "On The Design Of Greek Vases." The Museum Journal X, no. 1-2 (June, 1919): 8-14. Accessed February 21, 2024. https://www.penn.museum/sites/journal/693/

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