Who was Exekias? Ancient Greek black figure pottery
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Who was Exekias?

black figure vase
Exekias black-figure vase showing
Achilles and Ajax playing checkers

One of the most famous Greek black-figure vase painters was called Exekias (ex-EEK-ee-us). Exekias was from Athens. We know his name because he used to write it on his vases, "Exekias painted this vase." Unfortunately, we don't know anything else about him; whether he was a slave, whether he had kids, or anything. But even though he was a skilled artist, he probably was not a rich man.

Based on the style of the vases he painted, Exekias lived about 540 BC. He seems to have been very interested in balance and composition - making sure that the people and things in his pictures were attractively arranged. Exekias liked to show the climax of stories - the most exciting moment. On the left, Ajax is setting his sword in the ground. It looks peaceful, but he's about to throw himself on his sword and kill himself.

Penthesileia
Achilles and Penthesileia

In this picture, Achilles is killing the Queen of the Amazons. But just as he kills her, they fall in love, and Achilles spends the rest of his life regretting the loss of his love. This theme - this dramatic tension - runs through most of Exekias' work. It's an illustration of the Greek tendency to see everything in the world as an "agon" - a fight - between two sides.

Learn by doing: a vase-painting project
More about black figure pottery

Bibliography and further reading about Greek black-figure vase painting:

Ancient Greek Art, by Susie Hodge (1998)- easy reading.

Athenian Black Figure Vases: A Handbook, by John Boardman (1985)

Understanding Greek Vases: A Guide to Terms, Styles, and Techniques (Getty Museum Publications 2002) by Andrew J. Clark, Maya Elston, Mary Louise Hart

More about black figure pottery
More about red figure pottery
Ancient Greece
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Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter.
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