Why Study a Greek Vase-Painter? - A Response to Whitley's 'Beazley as Theorist.' (J. Whitley, Antiquity, Vol 72, Mar 1997, P 40)

By Oakley, John H. | Antiquity, March 1998 | Go to article overview

Why Study a Greek Vase-Painter? - A Response to Whitley's 'Beazley as Theorist.' (J. Whitley, Antiquity, Vol 72, Mar 1997, P 40)


Oakley, John H., Antiquity


John Oakley defends the legacy of Beazley in response to James Whitley's recent analysis of Beazley and his followers (ANTIQUITY 72: 40-47). The debate demonstrates how influential some past figures of archaeological methodology still are, and how diverse are the approaches of modern scholars in interpreting and using their legacy.

An essay which proclaims itself as 'impertinent' deserves a pertinent reply. I refer to James Whitley's article, 'Beazley as theorist', from the March 1997 issue of this journal (Whitley 1997), in which he identifies the work of the Italian art historian Giovanni Morelli as the direct theoretical basis for the methodology of Sir John Beazley. Dyfri Williams (Williams 1996: 241-2) has recently shown that Beazley's method was derived from the German scholar Paul Hartwig, not from Giovanni Morelli, thereby negating the major thrust of Whitley's argument and many of the eclectic comments derived from it, so I will not pursue these aspects of Whitley's conclusions here. Instead, I want to take issue with the negative remarks he makes in regard to Beazley's legacy and the study of individual vase-painters (Whitley 1997: 44-5).

Like Whitley, I never met Beazley, nor did I write my dissertation on the Phiale Painter at Princeton, New York or Oxford, the locations singled out in Whitley's article as the breeding grounds for dissertations on individual vase-painters, which is in itself odd, since there has just been one dissertation at Princeton University on a vase-painter (Langridge 1993) and only two at New York University (Cardon 1977 and Buitron-Oliver 1995). However, like many other scholars from a wide range of universities and countries, including Australia, Belgium, Canada, France, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, the United States and the United Kingdom, I saw the value in Beazley's work and methodology and chose to study one of the painters he defined. Beazley's legacy, it is apparently necessary to stress, is far from the Anglo-centred, parochial one Whitley's article would lead the reader to believe.(1)

In my case, it was a student seminar paper of mine which inspired me with the hope of getting to know one individual from antiquity through his work. The simple idea that we could reach back in time and experience another's world through his works was very appealing to me, as it is for many people interested in archaeology, whether scholar or layman. And this seemed particularly feasible because in the case of vase-painters there are often several hundred works that can be connected with a specific artist, many more than in any other medium. As a comparison, one need only recall how few original works we have by any one Greek sculptor, including such great names as Myron or Polyclitus, much less the mural and panel painters of whose work virtually nothing survives. I felt, and still do feel, that the study of a single vase-painter provides the best opportunity to understand an ancient Greek craftsman or artist.

Astonishingly, however, Whitley sees little or no value in the study of a single individual in himself for his own sake, and states that 'the microscopic focus of many studies of individual vase-painters leads to a certain narrowness of vision' (Whitley 1997: 45). Does the study of one ancient author, much less one ancient literary work by an author, lead to a similar narrowness of vision? Does the study of one class of artefacts by a prehistoric archaeologist? Or the study of one archaeological site by an excavator? Why does the study of one vase-painter, especially those from whom we have hundreds of vases, differ from them in this respect? They don't, and Whitley's remark in this case is just one of a long series of cavalier generalizations with no factual or intellectual backing. We cannot effectively evaluate the macrocosm without the careful study of details, such as individual vase-painters.

As his prime example of what is wrong with studies of individual vase-painters, Whitley chooses my monograph on the Phiale Painter (Oakley 1990), claiming that 'it is utterly devoid of any intellectual interest; that is, of any sign that the author might have once imagined that ideas (new or old) might be important, or worth discussing. …

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