For the history of Greek painting we have to rely upon the words of Aristotle, Plutarch, Pliny, Quintilian, Lucian,,Cicero, Pausanias. Their accounts appear to be partly substantiated by the vase paintings, and such few slabs and Roman frescos as remain to us. There is no consecutive narrative. The story of painting originating from a girl seeing the wall-silhouette of her lover and filling it in with color, and the conjecture of painting having developed from embroidery work, have neither of them a foundation in fact. The earliest settlers of Greece probably learned painting from the Phoenicians, and employed it, after the Egyptian, Assyrian, and Phoenician manner, on pottery, terra-cotta slabs, and rude sculpture. It developed slower than sculpture perhaps ; but were there anything of importance left to judge from, we should probably find that it developed in much the same manner as sculpture. Down to 500 B.C. there was little more than outline filled in with flat monochromatic paint and with a decorative effect similar, perhaps, to that of the vase paintings. After that date come the more important names of artists mentioned by the ancient writers. It is difficult to assign these artists to certain periods or schools, owing to the insufficient knowledge we have about them. The following classifications and assignments may, therefore, in some instances, be questioned.
OLDER ATTIC SCHOOL: The first painter of rank was Polygnotus (fl. 475-455 B•C•), sometimes called the founder of
Greek painting, because perhaps he was one of the first important painters in Greece proper. He seems to have been a good outline draughtsman, producing figures in profile, with little attempt at relief, perspective, or light-and-shade. His colors were local tones, but probably more like nature and more varied than anything in Egyptian painting. Landscapes, buildings, and the like, were given in a symbolic manner. Portraiture was a generalization, and in figure compositions the names of the principal characters were written near them for purposes of identification. The most important works of Polygnotus were the wall paintings for the Assembly Room of the Knidians at Delphi. The subjects related to the Trojan War and the adventures of Ulysses.
Opposed to this flat, unrelieved style was the work of a follower, Agatharchos of Samos (fl. end of fifth century B.C.). He was a scene-painter, and by the necessities of his craft was led toward nature. Stage effect required a study of perspective, variation of light, and a knowledge of the laws of optics. The slight outline drawing of his predecessor was probably superseded by effective masses to create illusion. This was a distinct advance toward nature. Apollodorus (fl. end of fifth century B.C.) applied the principles of Agatharchos to figures. According to Plutarch, he was the first to discover variation in the shade of colors, and, according to Pliny, the first master to paint objects as they appeared in nature. He had the title of skiagraphos (shadow- painter), and possibly gave a semi-natural background with perspective. This was an improvement, but not a perfection. It is not likely that the backgrounds were other than conventional settings for the figure. Even these were not at once accepted by the painters of the period, but were turned to profit in the hands of the followers.
After thePeloponnesian Wars the art of painting seems to have flourished elsewhere than in Athens, owing to the Athenian loss of supremacy. Other schools sprang up in various districts, and one to call for considerable mention by the ancient writers was the IONIAN SCHOOL, which in reality had existed from the sixth century. The painters of this school advanced upon the work of Apollodorus as regards realistic effect. Zeuxis, whose fame was at its height during the Peloponnesian Wars, seems to have regarded art as a matter of illusion, if one may judge by the stories told of his work.