Tampa Museum of Art: White-Ground Lekythos

Tampa Museum of Art: White-Ground Lekythos


My love for art and the need to discover more about historical facts seem to be growing as I grow older. I recently visited the Tampa Museum as an initiation to understanding my love for art and how this will create a long-lasting affair. The Tampa Museum of Art is a museum committed to providing innovative public programs with a focus on ancient, modern and contemporary art. Specifically, the museum combines a growing collection from different entities including Greek and Roman antiquities to showcase exhibitions to art fanatics (Tampa Museum of Arts). The museum was founded in 1979 and since then, has offered educational art exhibitions to students and adults. Currently, its iconic landmark is the Leo Villareal’s Sky (Tampa) – a 14, 000 square foot LED installation in the south wing. Among the iconic collections in the museum are the classical antiquities under the Joseph Veach Noble Collection which was purchased in part in memory of Dorothy M Mosely (1986)(Tampa Museum of Arts). Of all the collections within the permanent collections, the White-ground Lekythos caught my eye. The purpose of the following museum essay is to delineate on the classical piece: the white-ground lekythos.


The decoration on the Attic lekythos is attributed to the Inscription Painter- who is one of the significant Lekythos painters to use white ground instead of the red color of clay. The white-ground is regarded as the best quality technique in lekythoi and any other subsequent vase shapes. The Inscription Painteris not well known but, historical facts indicate that the style suggested the unique artistic personality of the individual(Tampa Museum of Arts). Sabouroff Painter mostly painted cups and lekythoi which were decorated in different shapes. The painter mostly worked on white-ground as well as red-figure and white-ground lekythoi which are regarded as among his best works. More than 300 vases are attributed to the work of the painter due to the basic style. Among them are the white-ground lekythoi of the Tampa Museum of Arts.

The White-Ground Lekythos

The White-ground Lekythos is suggested to have been created in Attica in the 440 B.C. the Lekythos is an urn that was used for collection of oil and ointments. Butsometimes the lekythos was distinctive urn that is white and could be used for burial purposes. The role of the containers in funeral rituals was to clear both the excavation from cemeteries and their depiction such as standing or falling on the graveside. Burial urns or commonly referred to as burial lekythi were exclusively found in excavations of necropoleis in Attica. The discovery of the artifact is regarded as rare especially in the ancient cities of the world(Tampa Museum of Arts). The painting that hangs in the Tampa Museum of Art is of the white lekythos of the middle and second half of the 5th century BC and known as the Thanatos painter. As such, it is regarded as one of the best lekythi within the collection where different images are presented within the urn. For this particular vase, contains two humanoids engraved within the white-ground vase with one holding an object while the other another object trying to measure a pillar. The humanoid engravings may not be distinct since the ‘pillar’ engraved contains four-layered embellishments underneath. The vase’s dimensions are 33.5 x 12.6 cm(Tampa Museum of Arts).


The terracotta vessel, also known as the lekythos is an example of a vase that held oil. From the middle to the end of the fifth century, lekythos was usually decorated with a distinctive technique known as the white ground (Kurtz 140). The white ground was described as a light slip coating on the body as well as the shoulder of the vase. Most of the discovered lekythos appeared to have figures that were usually drawn in the outline and then painted in vibrant colors. But some have since faded.

Lekythos is a term in ancient Greece that was used to describe the type of urns made in the past. They were of four-types including squat, cylinder, shoulder and deianeira. Similar to an aryballos (is a small round or ovoid vase with a narrow neck); the lekythos has a narrow neck and a single handle. But the lekythos is a generally larger or taller vessel with a deep and smallmouth. In the late fifth century, large lekythos was made and was distinct from the equivalence of stone grave-makers (Walton et al. 940). They were broad-footed squat lekythos with a sharp shoulder cylindrical-type similar to that in the Tampa Museum of Art.

White-ground Technique

What is unique about Greek artifacts is the technique that was used in making the different tools. For the white-ground technique, ancient Greek pottery was prominent and was enhanced through the use of painted figures on the white background similar to the one in Tampa Museum of Art. The figures were either painted using black or red. In the Tampa Museum case, the figures are predominantly red.

According to the museum curator, the pottery technique is of white-ground pottery that is covered in light or white slip of kaolinite. Kaolinite is a clay mineral that mostly comprises of silicate mineral and a sheet of silica. The vases were produced in areas such as Ionia, Laconia and Cycladia Islands(Tampa Museum of Arts). But it is only in Athens that urns of these sizes that contained figures painted with black-figure or red-figure were used. Hence, the white-ground pottery is often referred to as the attic material only.

The white-ground vases are considered to be more valuable compared to other vessels of the same era and from Greece. The reason is due to the light slip that is suggested to illuminate ivory or marble- which during the time was regarded as very valuable. Moreover, according to the curator, the form of pottery emerged as a form of the prestigious connotation of wall painting. However, this is arguably among historical researchers.The unique feature about the urns discovered in Attica is all covered in white slip which may suggest that it was an imitation of the marble lekythos for funeral purposes.

Painting Technique

The types of paintings on the vases are categorized into four classes. For early use, the vessels used an influential band of colors that emphasized on the vessels. But, the downfall to such colors was that their warranty diminished over time. Subsequent painting techniques utilized a combination of the white-ground minerals with black paint where the black-figures were more profound on the white background (Type I). Type II was characterized with monochrome silhouette drawing where outline details were more profound while the internal details were painted using red-color. Other types are III and IV which contained the shiny slip and mineral paints on non-ceramic paints which paved the way for the more sophisticated 5th-century lekythos (Kurtz 55). The important painting technique that is known with the oil-vessel in Tampa Museum of Arts of Type V. the 5th century BC was a time characterized by the white-ground mineral that was identified using three main shapes: lekythos, krater, and cups. The previous use of shiny black slip and white paint disappeared, and vice-versa painting of white slip and black or red portraits were used (Walton et al. 940). For example, female bodies were reddened in white paint with clothing that was depicted in shiny black slip and mineral paints (Kurtz 100). What makes the type V the best overall is the durability of the colors. The preservation methods were not as critical as the previous methods.


The white-ground oil vessel is regarded as one of the most beautiful vases in the world when it comes to Greek history. Few of the receptacles of different epochs have been retrieved and lie in various museums around the world. The Tampa Museum of Arts contains the famous Inscription Painter of the Greek Attic 460 B.C.  The vase lies within the Joseph Veach Noble Collection in memory of Dorothy M Mosley- who was a private collector of the urn. The paper has provided a succinct description of the vase based on the white-ground technique and the painting variations of the 5th century.


Work Cited

Kurtz, Donna C. Athenian white lekythoi. Oxford University Press, 1993, 55-160.

Tampa Museum of Arts. Collections. 2018. Accessed from http://tampamuseum.org/

Walton, Marc S., et al. “Material evidence for the use of Attic white-ground lekythoi ceramics in cremation burials.” Journal of Archaeological Science 37.5 (2010): 936-940.

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