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Work White-ground lekythos

Department of Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Antiquities: Classical Greek Art (5th-4th centuries BC)

Lécythe funéraire à fond blanc

© Musée du Louvre, dist. RMN / Hervé Lewandowski

Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Antiquities
Classical Greek Art (5th-4th centuries BC)

Alexandra Kardianou-Michel

This type of perfume vase is decorated using a particular technique: line drawing in matt on a white ground for the composition, whereby a few strokes provide facial detail or render bodily volume. A delicate polychromy enhanced the drapery; barely fired, it has now partially disappeared. The iconography of these offerings is linked to their funerary destination: Charon, the ferryman of souls, draws his barge up to the tomb of the deceased, marked by a stele.

White-ground vases

Spanning barely a century, the “white-ground” style developed in Athens alongside the red figure technique. These vases, of limited production and use, are conspicuous in the finesse of their design and also in their extreme fragility. Bowls, alabastra, and lekythoi in particular feature among the vessels produced.

The light slip ground on which the artist sketched out his subject in matt paint differentiates this series from all other Attic productions and relates it to mural art. During the latter half of the 5th century BC, a varied palette of colors was used and traces of this barely-fired delicate polychromy (red, pink, brown, purple, yellow, blue, or green) are still discernible.

The lekythos, a perfume vase, was dedicated exclusively to funerary use. The oil or perfume it contained was used to anoint the corpse. The vase was then placed near the deathbed and buried or burned along with the body. After interment, it was also customary to bear lekythoi as offerings, to smear the stele with their perfumed oils, and to leave the vases on the tiers of the funerary monument or to break them there. These vases belonged to the deceased and as such could not be reused.

The Group R

The conventional name of the group led by the Reed Painter comes from the reeds, often depicted on vases, which mark the banks of the Acherusian Lake. The swift but deft and delicate design is enhanced by a rich polychromy. The subjects featured on the belly depict funerary scenes: a tomb visit, Thanatos (Death), or Charon the ferryman as in this piece. The Group R also incorporated battle or cavalryman scenes into its repertoire.

Funerary representations

Artists have decorated vases and votive tablets with funerary scenes ever since the Geometric period: scenes of lamentation, funeral processions, and entombments. The designs found on white-ground lekythoi offer a quite different death-related iconography: rather than depicting a ceremony, the artists drew their inspiration from beliefs linked to the afterlife. Alongside scenes of the prothesis (wake) of the departed are representations featuring the winged spirits Hypnos and Thanatos (Sleep and Death) transporting the deceased, Hermes Psychopompos (guide of souls) or, as in this piece, Charon the ferryman who escorted the dead across the Styx. On the lekythos in the Louvre, Charon moves his barge toward a stele. On the other side stands a woman bearing offerings, a basket, an alabastra, and a bowl. On the base of the stele is another offering, a lekythos. The scene before us is partly inspired by imagination (Charon), and partly by reality (the tomb visit). The artist has combined the visible and invisible worlds. Charon is depicted on lekythoi as an old seafarer, complete with pilos (a fur hat) and clad in an exomis (the short tunic worn by slaves). Originally merely the ferryman of the dead, he was later to become the demon of Death par excellence.


- DENOYELLE M., Chefs-d'œuvre de la céramique grecque dans les collections du Louvre, Editions de la Réunion des musées nationaux, 1994, p. 18, n° 74.

- MARMOIS S., Les rites funéraires grecs à travers la céramique. N° 3/18 (Feuillet, musée du Louvre).

- WEHRGARTNER I., Attisch Weissgrundige Keramik, 1983.

- KOCH-BRINKMANN U., Polychrome Bilder auf Weissgrundigen Lekythen, 1999.

- TZAHOU-ALEXANDRI O., Lécythes à fond blanc du Peintre d'Achille au musée national d'Athènes, 1998.

- NOBLE J. V.,  The Techniques of Painted Attic Pottery, 1988.

Technical description

  • Attribué au Groupe des Roseaux

    Lécythe funéraire à fond blanc

    Vers 425 avant J.-C.

    Athènes (Érétrie, Grèce)

  • Argile

    H. : 38,80 cm.

  • Achat, 1893 , 1893

    N° d’entrée CA 537

  • Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Antiquities

    Sully wing
    Ground floor
    Venus de Milo gallery
    Room 343
    Vitrine 1

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Additional information about the work

A simulated inscription is painted on the pediment.