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The Berlin Painter and His World: Athenian Vase Painting in the Early Fifth Century B.C.

The Berlin Painter and His World: Athenian Vase Painting in the Early Fifth Century B.C.



Edited by J. Michael Padgett. Pp. xviii + 430. Princeton University Art Museum, Princeton 2017. $75. ISBN 978-0-300-22593-8 (cloth).

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Not since Sir John Beazley’s Der Berliner Maler (Berlin 1930) has there been a monograph devoted to the works of the Berlin Painter, an Athenian vase painter decorating vessels between 505 and 460 B.C.E. The catalogue under review, a published account of the 2017 exhibition hosted by the Princeton University Art Museum and the Toledo Museum of Art, bears a familiar title for many readers. Indeed, it derives from the first exhibit concentrating on a single vase painter, “The Amasis Painter and His World” (1985), which produced an informative catalogue (D. von Bothmer, The Amasis Painter and His World [Malibu, Calif. 1985]) and separate conference proceeding (Papers on the Amasis Painter and His World [Malibu, Calif. 1987]). Lavishly illustrated, The Berlin Painter and His World contains nine essays and 84 catalogue entries that contextualize this painter, reveal some of his well-known colleagues, and showcase the current trends in Athenian vase scholarship.

The first essay in this volume, by Neils, “Athens in the Time of the Berlin Painter,” offers an excellent social, historical, and cultural overview of the Berlin Painter’s period (the late sixth to the early fifth century B.C.E.), from militaristic affairs to political upheavals, from landscapes and cityscapes to daily occupations and home life. To be sure, Athens changed substantially during these decades, and Neils both outlines the information and expertly weaves the Berlin Painter’s extant production into every section. Allowing the reader to feel closer to the artist than ever before, the author concludes with a reconstruction of the painter’s life.

While Neils provides factual guardrails and a hypothetical biography of the Berlin Painter, the most basic piece of information, his name, is unknown. Far from unusual, this is often the case among the hundreds of black- and red-figure vase painters. The task of identifying individual hands, known as connoisseurship, and organizing tens of thousands of Athenian vases was taken up by Beazley in the first half of the 20th century. Elucidating the legacy of Beazley along with the merits and flaws of attribution is Arrington, in “Connoisseurship, Vases, and Greek Art and Archaeology.” While connoisseurship is certainly not a perfect science, relying on a keen eye for detail and an extraordinary memory, the field of Greek archaeology is indebted to Beazley for providing a framework from which one can advance many lines of inquiry. For a contemporary example of connoisseurship in print, one need only look to the last article of this volume, “In the Shadow of the Berlin Painter: A Reconsideration of the Painter of Goluchow 37 and Related Pot-Painters” by Guy. Along with recognizing the particulars of a vessel’s ornamentation and scrutinizing manifold details of the painted figures (e.g., the folds in drapery, the shapes of anklebones), Guy furnishes sufficient and persuasive evidence for attributing new images to the Painter of Goluchow 37 and demonstrates the significant expertise required of a connoisseur.

The subject of painters, and the Berlin Painter himself, is taken up in several other contributions. Padgett in his “The Berlin Painter: As We Know Him” presents both an overview of this painter’s creations (organized by shape) and emphasizes two very important facts, namely that the “spotlighted” motif (i.e., a figure centered on the body of a vase and highlighted by a monochromatic background) does not originate with this craftsman, nor is it his only compositional approach. This may seem surprising for those with a cursory knowledge of vase painting, since spotlighted figures are often equated with the Berlin Painter's style. Padgett dispels this misconception by describing many other vases with crowded compositions and recounting the earlier painters in the Pioneer Group who had already employed the spotlighted scheme, such as Euthymides and Smikros. Covering the craftsmen working alongside or after the Berlin Painter is Oakley in “Associates and Followers of the Berlin Painter.” Though some of these painters are well known, with their own dedicated publications (e.g., Hermonax, Achilles Painter, Phiale Painter), Oakley never loses sight of the volume’s purpose and methodically relates each entry back to the Berlin Painter’s oeuvre.

Singling out a select group of vases by the Berlin Painter, Shapiro examines the scenes on our painter’s black- and red-figure Panathenaic amphoras. While some may question the rationale for this fairly specific topic, Shapiro indicates that there are approximately 40 extant Panathenaic vessels attributed to the painter (or in his manner), and he points out that Beazley believed this was the painter’s favorite shape. With Beazley’s assertion in mind, Shapiro reviews the evidence of the painter’s early red-figure Panathenaics (500–480 B.C.E., as opposed to his official black-figure state commissions produced between 475 and 465 B.C.E.) and considers how the red-figure scenes relate to the Panathenaic festival.

Broadening the discussion, other essays investigate the potters of the Berlin Painter and the distribution of his wares, revealing both the inner workings of ancient pottery workshops and the extensive reach of Athenian vessels in the Mediterranean. In “The Berlin Painter and His Potters,” Gaunt analyzes the profiles of and pattern work on vases, explaining the relationships between many well-known craftsmen and asserting that the Berlin Painter could have worked with none other than the poietes Euphronios. Despite the drawbacks of studying vessel shapes (e.g., the lack of profile drawings, problems stemming from their fabrication in antiquity), it is hoped that Gaunt’s conclusions will advance future studies on potters. Though Gaunt also touches on the conditions of ancient ceramic workshops, this topic is more fully addressed by Williams (“Beyond the Berlin Painter: Toward a Workshop View”). Using visual, stylistic, epigraphic, ethnographic, and archaeological evidence, the author expands our understanding of the Athenian Kerameikos and reconstructs more than a dozen workshops, outlining potters, vessel shapes, and painters. An interesting point made by Williams is that while distinguishing cups from larger pots can certainly point to individual workshops, special techniques (e.g., “second white,” plastic forms) are also quite informative and could indicate professional relationships between different shops.

For the most part, the Berlin Painter’s vessels were exported to Etruria, Campania, and Sicily, though quite a number remained on the Greek mainland. Saunders explores these distribution patterns and attempts to uncover if our painter selected particular shapes or images for different regions (“The Distribution of the Berlin Painter’s Vases”). Though it seems clear that larger shapes, like amphoras and kraters, were the preference of western consumers, Saunders describes the painter’s imagery as “a pictorial middle-ground composed of nonspecific mortal figures (komasts, warriors, athletes), an array of mythical scenes, and numerous depictions of divinities [that] would have been comprehensible and relevant to viewers in Athens, but also across the Mediterranean” (124). Sadly, more than half of the 330 vases attributed to the Berlin Painter lack a recorded findspot and, even when a provenance has been noted, there is no detailed context, those specifying a location fall short of supplying a context; stating “from Vulci” for a provenance is not very informative.

Following these nine chapters is a catalogue of 54 works (both fragmentary and complete) attributed to the Berlin Painter plus 22 other vessels, nearly all attributed to contemporary painters such as Phintias, the Pan Painter, and the Kleophrades Painter. Each vase entry supplies the technique, shape, approximate date, attribution, provenance (if known), a descriptive title of the painted scene(s), dimensions (if known), current location, state of preservation, a lengthy description, and a brief bibliography. As expected, the Berlin Painter’s renowned name vase appears (cat. no. 4, 221–23), along with several other notable examples displaying the spotlighting motif (e.g., cat. no. 5, 224–25; cat. no. 15, 242–43; cat. no. 44, 290–91). Of course, since the Berlin Painter enjoyed an exceptionally long career, the vases featured in the catalogue span several decades, illustrating the range of his work. Beyond these vases, there are many welcome additions: the appearance of a firing defect known as a “ghost” (cat. no. 3, 219–20); a practice sketch in the red-figure technique (cat. no. 1, 214–15); and bronze figurines that resemble specific painted forms (e.g., the discus thrower on a red-figure amphora of Panathenaic shape [cat. no. 10, 234–35] compares nicely with two bronze figurines in Boston [cat. nos. 11, 12 , 236–37]).

No matter one’s thoughts on the validity of connoisseurship and attributions, no one can deny the importance of looking closely—as Beazley always advised. In fact, vase-painting specialists are often instructed to purchase a magnifying glass when beginning their studies. In The Berlin Painter and His World, all the contributions brilliantly demonstrate this core tenet, inspecting a myriad of valuable details and offering many comparable examples to support their arguments. In addition, following the catalogue there is a list of all of the extant vases attributed to the painter by Beazley and other connoisseurs. (While all the entries have been vetted by the authors, they acknowledge that there may well be more attributions in the future.) Unfortunately, while Athenian vase-painting specialists will delight in the field-specific nature of the papers in this volume, readers unfamiliar with painters and technical terminology may struggle. Nonetheless, the volume offers a much needed update to the corpus of literature on the Berlin Painter and his cohort.

Renee M. Gondek
University of Mary Washington

Book Review of The Berlin Painter and His World: Athenian Vase-Painting in the Early Fifth Century B.C., edited by J. Michael Padgett

Reviewed by Renee M. Gondek

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 123, No. 1 (January 2019)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1231.gondek

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