In our modern era, very little is known about the ancient Greek painters and the Greek paintings they produced. Classical Greek artworks that still exist today are mostly sculptures, architecture, and some vases, but very few ancient Greek paintings even made it into the 20th century. So, what was significant about Greek paintings, and why do we know so little about the painting aspect of the Greek arts?
Table of Contents
- 1 An Introduction to Greek Paintings
- 2 Famous Ancient Greek Paintings
- 2.1 Akrotiri Frescoes (c. 1700 BCE)
- 2.2 Pitsa Panels (c. 540 – 530 BCE)
- 2.3 Achilles and Ajax Playing (540 – 530 BCE)
- 2.4 Euphronios Krater (c. 515 BCE)
- 2.5 Tomb of the Diver at Paestum (c. 470 BCE)
- 2.6 The Siren Vase (480 – 470 BCE)
- 2.7 Philip II Tomb (c. 4th century BCE)
- 3 Frequently Asked Questions
An Introduction to Greek Paintings
There are very few examples of ancient Greek paintings left for us to admire, and most of what we do know about the ancient Greek painters and their artworks comes from written descriptions. As with other Greek arts, much of what we have left today are Roman replications of the original Greek artworks that have been lost to time. These copies, however, give us much insight into the styles and techniques that were employed by the ancient Greek painters.
What Was Significant About Greek Paintings?
Ancient historians such as Pausanias and Pliny have stated that panel paintings were the most respected and common art form of the ancient Greek period. These depicted still-lifes and portraits painted in tempera and encaustic wax. Unfortunately, not even copies exist from the very early period due to the perishable nature of the medium, and political as well as environmental factors also destroyed many of them.
Many of the surviving ancient Greek paintings are those that had been painted on structures that would stand against the harsh elements over time, such as murals and wall paintings in the temples and tombs of Greece and Rome.
Wall painting of a procession of women from Hagia Triada. Depicted above are five women with their right hands raised to their head, perhaps as a gesture of mourning. Below are another seven women, walking in the same direction as those above, each laying her right hand on the shoulder of the woman in front of her, c. 1450-1350/1300 BC. Found at a Minoan villa in Hagia Triada; ArchaiOptix, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Many of the Greek sculptures were also originally painted in bright and vivid colors, in a technique known as polychromy. Most of the time, the paint was used to color clothing and hair, and the skin was left the natural color of the statue stone, although there are also examples where the skin has been painted a light brown color. Another useful source for learning about the techniques of the ancient Greek painters is from the ceramic vases that were discovered in Etruscan tombs.
Although not made by the Greeks themselves, they were imitations of the style of ancient Greek paintings and therefore still impart useful information to us about the early days of the Greek arts.
Famous Ancient Greek Painters
Virtually no paintings still exist that were originally created by the ancient painters of Classical Greek art. Although there has been much written about the artists and their art, we do not have many examples beyond a few frescoes and vases, and the descriptions of ancient historians. However, it is still useful to give you some information about the creators of these lost treasures.
Alexander the Great in the Workshop of Apelles (1792) by Giuseppe Cades, depicting Alexander the Great in the painting workshop of the famous ancient Greek painter, Apelles; Giuseppe Cades, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Cimon of Cleone (c. 8th to 6th century BCE)
Cimon of Cleone is so ancient a Greek painter that historians aren’t even sure what century he was born in! One of the earliest Greek painters, he was most well-known for his unique depictions of the human figure. He employed a technique that was not heard of at the time where he would foreshorten his objects to create a sense of perspective.
He is also said to be the first artist to paint figures that looked around as opposed to just straight ahead, a style known as Catagrapha.
Agatharchus (c. 5th century BCE)
Agatharcus was born on the island of Samos in the 5th century BCE. He is noted as the first artist to use perspective on a large scale, and also pioneered the idea of bringing out the shadows of objects by placing them against the sun. He is credited with bringing the concepts of illusion and perspective to scenic painting. His most famous artwork was the backdrop he painted for the play Seven Against Thebes by Aeschylus.
Apollodorus (c. 5th century BCE)
Apollodorus is considered to be one of the most influential painters from the 5th century in Greece. He was known for his masterful use of shadows in his compositions, known as Skiagraphia. This technique would influence the artists of later periods, such as the painters of the Italian Renaissance who further developed the technique of having dark and well-lit elements of a composition, known as chiaroscuro.
Zeuxis (c. 5th century BCE)
Zeuxis was born in Heraclea in Southern Italy sometime during the 5th century and was an ancient Greek painter that was revered for his ability to paint still-lifes with great realism. Although Apollodorus had created the shadow technique, it was perfected by Zeuxis, and his use of light and shadow helped create volumetric illusion instead of the flat appearance of the ancient Greek paintings of other artists.
Zeuxis Selecting Models for His Painting of Helen of Troy (c. 1778) by Angelica Kauffmann; Angelica Kauffmann, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Famous Ancient Greek Paintings
There are unfortunately very few examples left of original ancient Greek paintings. We are lucky to have a few original murals and copies created during the Roman era. Let us take a look at the best examples we have of classical Greek artwork.
Akrotiri Frescoes (c. 1700 BCE)
|c. 1700 BCE
|National Archeological Museum Athens
Many of the most well-known images of ancient Greek life that still exist today are provided to us by the frescoes from the Bronze Age that were found in Akrotiri on the island of Thera. The town was destroyed by an earthquake sometime between 1650 and 1550 BCE, followed by a volcanic eruption that covered the entire village in layers of ash and pumice that were meters thick.
One positive aspect of this disaster is that the frescoes have remained largely well preserved due to being covered from the elements until excavations started in 1967. In this one area alone, several famous fresco paintings were found that all deserve to be noted.
The Ladies Fresco
This fresco was originally situated in Room 2 of the House of the Ladies and is actually two separate pieces, each one depicting a woman. The women are wearing robes and jackets, which display a Minoan influence. Each of the women has long hair, is adorned with jewelry, and is also wearing make-up. The women seem to hold high positions of social status and seem to be involved in some sort of festival or religious activity. Fragments of a third figure can also be made out. Above them, a starry sky is depicted.
Wall paintings from the House of the Ladies found in the Archaeological site of Akrotiri; LEFT: Norbert Nagel, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons | RIGHT: Norbert Nagel, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
The Spring Fresco
This fresco depicts lilies or papyrus growing between volcanic rocks while birds can be seen flying around flowers. These flowers are all in various stages of growth and seem to be swaying in the breeze. This fresco originally came from Building Delta, situated in Room 2 on the ground floor. Due to the content and context of the plants and birds, it is generally believed to be a depiction of spring, although it is also known as the Lilies or Papyrus fresco.
The Boxers Fresco
The Boxers fresco portrays two young men boxing, which at the time was more of a ritualistic endeavor than a competitive sport. It is situated in Building Beta of the archeological complex, in Room B1, and besides The Boxers fresco, the other walls are covered in larger frescoes that depict antelopes.
It is known that males are depicted due to the Greek tradition of depicting them in the color red.
Their hair is long, but there are parts that are shaved, which denotes youth. One figure is adorned with many pieces of jewelry while the other has none. It has been suggested that the playful manner in which the two figures are engaged in combat is reflected by the stance of the antelopes on the other walls.
The Fisherman Fresco
The Fisherman Fresco is regarded as one of the best-preserved frescoes found in Akrotiri and was originally in the West House, situated in the corner of Room 5. The fresco depicts a man carrying fish in his hands, which have been bundled together with yellow string.
A very similar painting can be found on an adjoining wall, with both male figures being depicted as naked and with partially shaven heads.
Due to these details, it has been suggested that they are portrayed performing some kind of religious ritual. Another detail that points at the ritualistic intent of the paintings lies in the fact that both figures face the northwest corner of the room, the exact place where archeologists had found a table meant for offerings.
The Fisherman Fresco from Akrotiri on the island of Thera (Santorini). The male may actually be a youth offering fish as part of a religious ceremony rather than a fisherman. From Room 5 of the West House, 17th century BCE; Zde, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Blue Monkeys Fresco
This fresco was originally situated in Room B6 and although fragmented, the depiction can still be made out. Portrayed are several blue monkeys climbing rocks to avoid the two dogs that are chasing them. Monkeys were often mythologically represented as attendants to priestesses, but the depictions could also have been of real monkeys, as fossilized skulls had been found on the island.
Pitsa Panels (c. 540 – 530 BCE)
|c. 540 – 530 BCE
|Pitsa, Corinthia, Greece
|National Archeological Museum, Athens
These ancient Greek paintings are the oldest panel paintings from Greece to still be in existence. These wooden painted tablets were found at a site near Pitsa, Corinthia, discovered in a nearby cave in the 1930s. They were all in various states of decay with two of them being extremely fragmented when found.
Stylistically, they have been dated to the late Greek Archaic period of art, around 540 to 530 BCE. The panels are made from thin boards made of wood and have been covered with plaster before being painted on with pigments made from various minerals. The colors of the panels remain bright and well preserved, with only eight colors used in total with no gradation or shading.
Painted wooden plaques found near ancient Sikyon, in a cave above the village Pitsa in Corinthia. LEFT: Fragment of a large plaque, lower part, 540-530 BC. National Archaeological Museum of Athens; Zde, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons | RIGHT: Fragment of a large plaque with richly draped himation. Dedicated to the nymph in the Corinthian alphabet, 525-500 BC. National Archaeological Museum of Athens; Zde, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
It has been suggested that the dark outlines were drawn first before filling them in with colors such as red, blue, green, brown, and purple, as well as black and white.
The panels portray scenes of religious context that are connected with the lesser nature deities known as nymphs. One of the panels that are not fragmented depicts the scene of a sacrifice to the nymphs. Three feminine figures dressed in traditional Greek robes can be seen walking towards the altar on the right. Musicians accompany them playing instruments such as the Aulos and the Lyra.
A ritual pouring is being performed by the figure closest to the altar. A sacrificial lamb is being led by a slave figure behind her. The tablet inscription states that the panels were created in honor of the nymphs and two women are named as dedicators, Eucholis and Euthydikos.
These panels were connected to a cult that was widespread throughout ancient Greece, which involved making offerings and sacrifices to the divine nature beings.
Achilles and Ajax Playing (540 – 530 BCE)
|Exekias (mid-6th century BC)
|540 – 530 BCE
|Gregorian Etruscan Museum
|Vatican Museum, Rome
Exekias was an ancient Greek painter and potter who worked in Athens sometime between 545 BCE and 530 BCE. He is regarded as the greatest Attic painter due to his highly detailed artwork created using clay slips that had been fired until black and then worked on by a complex incision technique. This black-figure technique was the most common method used by Exekias to create his compositions, which have been termed “psychologically sensitive”.
Two other Attic vase painters that were thought to be students of Exekias are the Lysippides Painter and the Andokides Painter, both of whom’s true identities remain unknown to historians.
Attic black-figured amphora signed by Exekias as both painter and potter, depicting Achilles and Ajax playing a game during the Trojan War, 540-530 BC; Daderot, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
The vase depicting Achilles and Ajax is regarded as Exekias’s greatest work and shows the two figures of Greek legend involved in playing a game that this thought to be similar to checkers or backgammon. Although they are busy playing a game, they are depicted wearing armor and carrying spears, a sign that they are most likely taking a break from military duty and may perhaps be called back into battle at any time. There are no historical records of the two ever having sat down to play a game, so this painting is seen as more of a symbolic representation of the Trojan War.
Despite this being a scene made up by the artist, it is one that has been reproduced over 150 times in the 50 years that followed its creation.
Euphronios Krater (c. 515 BCE)
|Euphronios (late 6th century BC)
|c. 515 BCE
|Archaeological Museum of Cerveteri
The Euphronios Krater is a terracotta vase used for mixing water with wine in ancient Greece. Considered one of the finest painted vases in existence, it was created by the renowned Greek painter and potter Euphronius, and it is the last example still in existence of the 27 vases that he created and painted. From 1972 until 2008, it was held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art but was moved to the Archeological Museum of Cerveteri following agreements to have stolen artworks repatriated to their countries of origin. The vase has a diameter of 55 cm and a height of 45 cm and can hold around 45 liters of liquid.
Stylistically, the vase belongs to the group of vases known as red-figure pottery, where the figures are left the natural color of the terracotta clay, but the details and backgrounds are rendered with black slips.
Sarpedon’s body carried by Hypnos and Thanatos (Sleep and Death), while Hermes watches. Side A of the so-called “Euphronios krater”, Attic red-figured calyx-krater signed by Euxitheos (potter) and Euphronios (painter), ca. 515 BC; Jaime Ardiles-Arce (photographer). Krater by Euphronios (painter) and Euxitheos (potter)., Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
On one side of the Euphronios Krater is the depiction of an episode from the Trojan War in which the son of Zeus, Sarpedon, is portrayed dying. Hermes is depicted directing Hypnos and Thanatos to take the fallen hero back to his homeland so that he may be buried.
On the other side of the Euphronios Krater is a scene depicting several young men of Athens preparing themselves for battle by putting on various pieces of armor. The use of naturalistic poses and the dramatic use of two scenes on one artwork are considered characteristics of the late Archaic painters known as the Pioneer Group, of which Euphronios was considered to be the most renowned and accomplished.
The opposing themes of ancient and contemporary, as well as mythological and historical, were blurred in the painted vases from the Pioneer Group.
Athenian youths arming themselves. Side B of the so-called “Euphronios krater”, Attic red-figured calyx-krater signed by Euxitheos (potter) and Euphronios (painter), ca. 515 BC; Sailko, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Tomb of the Diver at Paestum (c. 470 BCE)
|Paestum, Magna Graecia
|Museum of Paestum
The Tomb of the Diver is a Greek archeological monument found in 1968 by Mario Napoli, an Italian archeologist, during an excavation of a cemetery situated close to the city of Paestum. The tomb was made from five locally-sourced slabs of limestone, which formed the ceiling and walls, while the floor was natural bedrock. The walls were then bonded in plaster and painted in the fresco technique.
The walls depict a symposium scene, where traditionally after eating, Greeks would entertain themselves with dancing, drinking, and other leisurely activities. The cover slab depicts a man diving into a stream of water, hence where the name of the tomb came from.
These frescoes are considered extremely rare and important as they are the only remaining examples of Greek paintings portraying figured scenes that could be dated as far back as the Archaic and Classical periods. Furthermore, these frescoes have survived in their original state without being fragmented.
During the period from 700 to 400 BCE, there were thousands of tombs that were created and decorated, but this is the only one that featured human figures in the frescoes.
Paestum was well situated to be influenced by the paintings of the Etruscan tombs, as it was only a few miles from the Greek border with the Etruscan zones. Although tomb wall painting was a common practice, very few examples still remain today. Only a few objects were found in the tomb’s interior besides the occupant’s skeleton, including a small spherical flask used for perfumes, an Attic vase, and a turtle shell. Due to the presence of the Attic vase, they were able to date the tomb to around 470 BCE.
The Siren Vase (480 – 470 BCE)
|The Siren Painter (c. 5th century BC)
|c. 480 – 470 BCE
This ancient Greek artwork is assumed by scholars to be the work of the Siren Painter. This title was given to an ancient Greek painter who created and painted Attican vases but never signed his work. The artist’s birth date and death date, as well as their identity, remain a mystery. The artist was named after the red-figured vases he created, such as The Siren Vase, which depicts a scene from Homer’s Odyssey.
It is thought that the Siren Painter was active around 480 to 470 BCE, and a few of their works are on public display at various museums.
In this red-figured vase, Odysseus’s ship is passing by the sirens. The waves have been depicted with a wavy outline in the foreground that has been shaded with a thinned black. Five bearded figures can be seen manning the oars as the ship heads towards the left of the composition. Another figure can be seen on the ship’s stern encouraging the oarsmen.
Odysseus can be seen fastened to the bottom of the mast, with his arms lashed behind his back, facing the stern. His head is positioned looking upwards at the siren. On either side of the ship are rocky cliffs with a Siren perched on the edge of each one.
The Sirens are depicted as having bird’s bodies and the heads of human females. Their lips have been illustrated as being slightly parted, indicating that they are singing.
Philip II Tomb (c. 4th century BCE)
|c. 4th century BCE
|Museum of the Royal Tombs, Vergina
Today, Vergina is a small and rather unremarkable village that is situated around 50 miles west of Thessaloniki. However, it was once a prominent city in the Macedonian kingdom known as Aigai. It is here that we find the tomb of Philip II, which is home to two famous Greek paintings.
Philip II and Alexander the Great Facade Painting
The front part of the tomb was sealed with a stone door flanked by a column on either side. The most remarkable aspect of the tomb’s facade is the painting that runs across the surface. Despite being in very poor condition, it is one of the only examples of ancient Greek paintings to still exist. It portrays a hunting scene with two people on horseback, most likely father and son, Philip II and Alexander the Great.
Wall painting of Phillip II and Alexander the Great on the facade of the royal tomb at Verghina (Vergina), Macedonia, 4th century BC; Unknown author Unknown author, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Hades Abducting Persephone
Another famous fresco that can be found in the tomb is that of Hades abducting Persephone. Although the paint has deteriorated greatly since this fresco was originally created, the mythological scene can still be made out. In the scene, Hades can be seen in a red chariot in the act of abducting the goddess Persephone. Special attention has been put into creating the details of the material that covers her abdomen. In the bottom right-hand corner of the canvas, a nymph that was attending to the goddess can be seen cowering away in fright of the storming chariot.
And that concludes our list of famous ancient Greek paintings! Despite there being almost no existing examples of the work created by ancient Greek painters, they still managed to have an influence on the movements that followed them for an extremely long time. The techniques that the very early pioneers of the Greek arts first created set the standard for many generations to come. Although most of the paintings have been lost to time, there are still a few examples that exist in places like tombs and the walls of buildings, frozen in time due to events such as earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. After having been covered in ash and depris for centuries, these Greek paintings have since been rediscovered and appreciated for the insight they provided into ancient Greek life. Also read our article about Famous Greek Paintings of Gods.
Take a look at our famous Greek paintings webstory here!
Frequently Asked Questions
What Was Significant About Greek Paintings?
Classical Greek artwork represented the pinnacle of human accomplishment at its time. Despite there being virtually no ancient greek paintings left in the modern era, the influence that early artists such as Cimon of Cleone, Agatharcus, Apollodorus, and Zeuxis set the standards for the artists that followed. These ancient Greek painters made use of breakthrough techniques such as foreshortened perspective, visual illusions, accurate displays of human anatomy, and the use of shading and shadows to create more three-dimensional paintings.
Where Can Ancient Greek Paintings Still Be Seen?
Certain mediums used to create ancient Greek artworks have managed to withstand the hardships of time due to being made from stone, marble, bronze, and other resilient materials. Therefore, Greek sculptures can be found in many museums. Painting, however, is a medium that deteriorates very quickly and the only remaining examples are those that were painted onto walls instead of canvases, as well as the few Attic-style vases that have managed to survive. There are also many remaining fragments of paint that have been found on ancient statues, which means that many sculptures that we assumed were left naturally colored were actually once ornately painted, but have over the centuries faded away. Due to pigment traces, modern art scholars are able to reproduce the colors that ancient Greek painters used in order to reproduce some of the Classical Greek artworks that still remain today. Today, the last few examples can be found in various museums in Greece and around the world.
Isabella studied at the University of Cape Town in South Africa and graduated with a Bachelor of Arts majoring in English Literature & Language and Psychology. Throughout her undergraduate years, she took Art History as an additional subject and absolutely loved it. Building on from her art history knowledge that began in high school, art has always been a particular area of fascination for her. From learning about artworks previously unknown to her, or sharpening her existing understanding of specific works, the ability to continue learning within this interesting sphere excites her greatly.
Her focal points of interest in art history encompass profiling specific artists and art movements, as it is these areas where she is able to really dig deep into the rich narrative of the art world. Additionally, she particularly enjoys exploring the different artistic styles of the 20th century, as well as the important impact that female artists have had on the development of art history.
Cite this Article
Isabella, Meyer, “Greek Paintings – An Exploration of the Best Ancient Greek Paintings.” Art in Context. September 7, 2021. URL: https://artincontext.org/greek-paintings/
Meyer, I. (2021, 7 September). Greek Paintings – An Exploration of the Best Ancient Greek Paintings. Art in Context. https://artincontext.org/greek-paintings/