The Master from Apulia
Living in southeastern Italy during the late fourth century B.C., the Darius Painter decorated vases with scenes from Greek Mythology—sometimes inspired by Alexander the Great’s campaigns in the East.
The Darius Painter not only recreated the shimmering world of Greek myth on the surfaces of his vases; he also acted as a kind of journalist-bard, painting scenes of historical events as news came in from far-flung places.
A Greek-speaker, the Darius Painter probably worked both in the Greek city of Taras (modern Taranto) and the native Italic city of Canosa, both in Apulia, the southeastern section of Italy. His works display vast knowledge of Greek literature, and he frequently named his figures with meticulous Greek inscriptions. But like virtually all his fellows, he did not sign his vases.
One of his masterpieces is a massive volute krater (see photo and detail of volute krater) discovered in a tomb at Canosa and now in the Archaeological Museum in Naples. This vase illustrates a historical event, narrated by Herodotus (5.105–107), from 498 B.C.: A group of Persians announces the news that the Ionian Greeks of the west coast of Turkey have revolted and captured Sardis, the regional capital of the Persian Empire, to their king, Darius (who, labeled, sits on his throne). The vase-painter’s interest in Greco-Persian relations was almost certainly inspired by Alexander the Great’s defeat of a later Persian emperor, also named Darius, in a 038series of battles fought between 334 B.C. and 330 B.C. Another of his vases, also in the Naples museum, appears to show Alexander in pursuit of Darius, who is riding a chariot—a scene that closely resembles the famous Alexander mosaic from Pompeii (see photo of Alexander mosaic from Pompeii) in which Alexander also pursues Darius’s chariot. Because of these depictions of Persian emperors, modern scholars call this otherwise anonymous artist the Darius Painter.
The Pompeii mosaic and the Naples vase, however, differ in one important respect: On the vase, the Darius Painter represents a bearded Alexander—revealing the krater’s earlier date. Alexander’s clean-shaven image became known in the West only later. Scholars thus believe that the Darius vase was painted around 330 B.C., almost contemporaneous with Alex-ander’s eastern battles; the Darius Painter’s prodigious career probably lasted from about 340 B.C. to 320 B.C.
Despite the grandiose scale, elaborate composition and up-to-date theme of the Naples krater, the Darius Painter was a man of his time. His work flows out of the Apulian school of red-figure vases—so-called because the reddish orange figures are the color of the body of the vase and are silhouetted with a rich, black glaze. As early as the beginning of the fourth century B.C., Apulian painters developed an idiom of energetic figures, often scattered over the surface of the vase, seeming to move through a rocky landscape. Curly-haired figures are shown from a great variety of viewpoints—frontally, in three-quarters view as well as in the profile view that dominated the frieze-like compositions of fifth-century B.C. Athenian works. Apulian painters also prized rich polychrome effects and elaborate ornamentation.
For much of the 20th century, Apulian vase painting has been disparaged as excessively baroque. Modern tastes have tended toward the more severe, restrained art forms of the Greek Archaic period (600–480 B.C.) and the early Classical period (480–450 B.C.)—the first exemplified by the Athenian kouroi (statues of male youths), and the second by the pedimental sculpture of the Temple of Zeus at Olympia. Recently, however, such scholars as Margot Schmidt and Arthur Dale Trendall have made compelling arguments for the artistic merits of Apulian works, which are increasingly gaining recognition. We can now recognize that the Apulian vases’ baroque effects are not an aberration from but a development of the tradition of Greek classical art.
The Darius Painter flourished during the late phase of Apulian vase painting. Starting around 350 B.C., a new canon of figure types emerged: Legs became longer, waists shorter, and heads smaller. These changes evoke the aesthetic doctrines of such contemporaneous Greek artists as Euphranor and Lysippos—known for the slender proportions of their figures—whose doctrines are recorded by the first-century A.D. historian Pliny in his Natural History. The Apulian artists also began to represent conflicting emotions in their characters by giving them wrinkled foreheads and contracted eyebrows. They often arranged figures in multiple tiers, one above the other, mingled with elaborate, polychromatic furniture. A rich ornamentation of flowering vines, partly naturalistic and partly fantastic, spreads out over the surface of vases, supplementing the traditional palmettes and spiraling bands. The Apulian painters often depicted unusual mythological scenes, apparently inspired by the works of Athenian dramatists—especially Euripides.
Several Apulian artists, commonly grouped as the precursors of the Darius Painter, made use of all these innovations for roughly a decade before the Darius Painter began his career. Only a hair’s breadth separates the Darius Painter from the painter of such a major work as the 039giant Thersites krater (more than 4 feet high) in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Indeed, the borderline between the Darius Painter and his talented precursors and contemporaries is frequently redrawn as works are reattributed.
What distinguishes the Darius Painter is the sureness of his touch and the beauty of his characters. He has a delicacy that makes most of his fellow artists seem emphatic and slightly heavy-handed by comparison. His wronged ladies, such as Alcmene (mother of Hercules) menaced by a fiery death depicted on a kalyx krater in the Boston MFA, are both expressive and glamorous; in other painters, this feminine softness easily turns into flabbiness. The Darius Painter renders drapery with an exacting sensitivity, capturing the fineness of the silk and revealing the body beneath. And he endlessly generates novel groupings—040like the embracing ladies on another krater in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (see photo of krater depicting embracing ladies).
Above all, the Darius Painter is a compelling storyteller. Two vases in the Boston MFA provide the only known representations of the gruesome story of the revenge of Thyestes. In this tale, Thyestes is deposed as king of Mycenae by his brother Atreus and sent into exile. Consulting an oracle, Thyestes learns that he can regain his kingdom by having a child by his daughter. At a festival at Sikyon, near the northeastern coast of the Peloponnesus, he makes love to his daughter, Pelopeia, who later gives birth to their son Aigisthos. The king of Sikyon, Adrastos, then commands Thyestes to hand over the son of this union to be killed by exposure to the elements.
The Darius Painter takes up the story at this dramatic moment, as Adrastos gives his order (see the lower register of the vase depicting embracing ladies): He depicts the Sikyon king’s sympathetic but authoritative gesture; the troubled, furrowed brows of both Thyestes and the king; the longing, backward glance of baby Aigisthos; and the stunned look of beautiful Pelopeia, who is comforted by Adrastos’s wife, Queen Amphithea—all lending a foreboding and grief appropriate to the tragic events.
The story’s denouement is told on an amphora, owned jointly by the Boston MFA and Leon Levy and Shelby White. After many improbable twists of fortune, Pelopeia becomes the wife of Atreus (her husband-father’s brother-usurper). Aigisthos, having survived his exposure, grows into manhood and is adopted by Atreus. In time, Thyestes falls into the clutches of Atreus, who then dispatches Aigisthos to execute his own father in a prison cell. But after Pelopeia reveals the family’s true relationships, Aigisthos releases Thyestes, and father and son then conspire to murder Atreus—unexpectedly giving Thyestes his 041revenge and his kingdom (as well as fulfilling the oracle).
The Darius Painter represents not the murder itself but its immediate aftermath, better calculated to present the emotions of the protagonists. Atreus sprawls lifelessly from his throne. Thyestes, still focusing intently on his victim, gloats in his revenge. The old schemer’s eyebrows are knotted in concentration, and his age is revealed by a delicate spray of wrinkles—reminiscent of an aging Mafia hitman in a Hollywood epic. His son Aigisthos, smeared with blood, casts a wary, menacing glance to the side. Pelopeia raises her hands and eyes in prayer, astutely conscious of the criminal murder. To reinforce the message that Thyestes’ revenge will spawn further retribution, the winged Fury Poine (Vengeance), to the right Atreus, rolls her eyes. Beyond her, the palace servants (inscribed Dmoiai) flutter in confusion.
The story of Thyestes was told in numerous ancient dramas, few of which have survived. These works by the Darius Painter not only preserve the story (or one version of it) but also suggest the powerful impression the plays made in Greek society. The vases also give eloquent testimony as to the strength of the Greek culture that indelibly left its imprint on so many lands around the Mediterranean.
The Darius Painter not only recreated the shimmering world of Greek myth on the surfaces of his vases; he also acted as a kind of journalist-bard, painting scenes of historical events as news came in from far-flung places. A Greek-speaker, the Darius Painter probably worked both in the Greek city of Taras (modern Taranto) and the native Italic city of Canosa, both in Apulia, the southeastern section of Italy. His works display vast knowledge of Greek literature, and he frequently named his figures with meticulous Greek inscriptions. But like virtually all his fellows, he did not sign his vases. […]