The following is a formal analysis done by James-Roland Markos, a student in Art History 201 led by Dr. Kris Belden-Adams.
Formal Analysis: Negroid Head Shaped Oinochoe
The Negroid Head Shaped Oinochoe, a 4th Century BCE Greek oinochoe vase that stands approximately eight inches tall, is now on display in the University Museum at the University of Mississippi. This terracotta vase comes from the Late Classical Period or Early Hellenistic Period of Greek art, and was most likely created on the Greek mainland to be the possession of a middle-class citizen. On the back is a handle that curves outward roughly four inches downward, and the top spout of the vase has been formed in the trefoil fashion, suggesting the pouring of liquid. The head and neck can be viewed in the round, encompassing the entire vase, and the portrait of a man of African or Negroid decent displays slight individualistic detail that gives a mostly vague personal identity. The man’s mouth holds a largely blank form, but the portrait has a sense of contentment and expression from the detail shown in the eye, forehead, and hair regions. It is a combination of vague form, theme, vertical symmetry, and concentrated details that bring the portrait on the vase to life, and depict the stylistic shift that occurred from the Classical Period to the Hellenistic Period as the portrait begins to show a more individualized face. In all, this oinochoe functions as a masterpiece frozen in between these two stylistic periods showing features of both times.
The oinochoe is in very good condition, having only a few chips around the rim, on the handle, and the base, which reveal the brownish-red colored terracotta clay composition of the vase from under the black glaze. No major fragments or parts of the vase have been lost, allowing it to be viewed in its entirety. The vase shows its Classical influences because of the symmetry used in constructing the facial structure of the portrait. The head and eye shape follow that of a rough geometric oval, and if folded along the vertical axis, the figure is symmetrical. Eyebrows are spaced equally above the eyes, slightly raised with light expression. Both the portrait’s nose and ears are in proportion with the head-size and symmetrical. Down the neck to the base, the outline of the Adam’s apple follows that of a distinct triangle. These features speak to intent of the “ideal” image, but hints of the Hellenistic Period are also present.
Upon closer inspection, one sees the attention paid to intricate detail in the man’s hair as well as to his lips, forehead, and eye region. Because the vase is monochromatic black, difference in colors cannot differentiate features, so exact detail must be sculpted into the portrait. This is exactly what the 4th Century Greek sculptor has accomplished. Looking first to the eyes, a close look changes what appears to be an unintended glare into a thoughtful, content gaze. This is done by way of the subtle lines and ridges that appear just under and around the eyes, showing the movement required to create the position of the eyes. A similar message is accomplished when one examines the position of the man’s eyebrows. In their slightly raised poise, a sense of interest is raised. The man must be thinking or peering inquisitively at something in the distance or his mind’s eye. This even musters a sense of hope, potentially the hope of freedom for this enslaved man. The definition of ridges and furrows on the portrait’s forehead complement the effect of its raised eyebrows. This testament to the naturalism accomplished by the face’s expression proves the Hellenistic influences on the oinochoe.
The artists rendering can be further analyzed for evidence of the new stylistic period. When one looks at the full head of hair on the oinochoe, the tightly wound curls, glazed in a directed black shine create a realistic appearance. The hair does not resemble that of an ethnic Greek, but displays the African heritage of the Negroid male. Also, the hairline follows the naturalistic path around the head and down the back of the neck, sparing no piece from the eye. One more area of detail is the man’s Adams apple. While the overall geometry of this feature follows that of an inverted triangle, the center bone is slightly raised and the area around it shows shallow ripples. These lines are indicative of movement in the throat, and it resembles speech or the preparedness to speak, giving life to the neck. These details soften the sculpture, giving what would otherwise be a stern, heartless, and idealized portrait a more humanized form.
Another aspect of the oinochoe that should be addressed is the very nature of the portrait’s subject. The man sculpted is a Negro and a slave of a middle to upper class Greek citizen. During the High Classical Period, the subject of all art would have been the idealized Gods, Goddesses, and royalty around whose lives average Greek citizens would have been centered. Showing this ordinary, everyday subject displays the move toward greater individualism, and a certain feature speaks to this idea. Upon first glance the portrait’s most prominent feature is his large, detailed lips. While they appear relaxed in position, his lips are much larger than those of a person of Greek heritage. This is a clear testament to the individualism that was beginning to be expressed at the end of the Classical Period.
As Greek art transitioned to the Hellenistic Period, the subjects of sculptures and portraits widened to become those of the middle and lower classes, allowing the specimen of this oinochoe portrait to be a Negroid slave. In summary, the 4th Century BCE Greek Negroid Head Shaped Oinochoe displays the shift toward humanism and individualism that occurred as Greek art transitioned from the Late Classical Period to the Hellenistic Period by use of its mix of geometric figures and vague idealism along with the presence of new intricate detail and expression of the liveliness and emotion in an ordinary, mundane human subject.