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Ancient Greek painter who painted an Asclepius. Birth and death dates unknown; born to the painter Nearchus and an unknown mother; taught to paint by her father.

Painting on walls or panels was highly favored in Classical antiquity; a number of testimonials in ancient sources praise painters and record some of their names. Unfortunately, it is also probably the least well-preserved of all the art forms of Greece. Nevertheless, the survival of a fairly large number of Roman frescoes at Pompeii, Herculanum, and elsewhere in the Roman world, many of which reproduce Greek themes and probably had Greek models, allows some insight into the techniques and scope of the genre as a whole.

Pliny the Elder (23/24–79 ce), the Roman scholar and encyclopedist, has left in books 33–37 of his Naturalis Historiae (Natural History) a history of art to his day. This portion of his large work contains the most complete extant compendium of the facts and names of ancient painting, for the most part drawn on Greek and Latin sources that are now lost. After listing and briefly discussing the works and careers of several famous male artists, Pliny breaks off at 35.147–8 for a very brief digression on women painters. This passage (some 16 lines) contains little more than the names of five (or possibly six) women artists along with their most notable works, sometimes mentioning their place of birth and their father's or teacher's name.

The note on Aristarete reads in full: "Aristarete, the daughter and pupil of Nearchus, painted an Asclepius." Since this is the sum of our knowledge about this woman, and none of her work has survived, it is clear that there is not a great deal to be said about her character and personal style. Nevertheless, it is interesting to note that she shares the distinction with Irene (c. 200 bce?), another woman on the list, of being both daughter and pupil of a painter-father. Of this Nearchus, Pliny tells us a few chapters earlier that he painted an "Aphrodite among the Graces and Cupids" and a "Heracles in Sorrow Repenting his Madness." Since Aristarete's "Asclepius" depicted the Greek god of healing, we might be tempted to say that these titles suggest a family interest in mythological or divine subjects. In truth, however, almost all Classical art was connected with such themes.

Pliny the Elder">

There have also been women artists.

—Pliny the Elder

Pliny tells us nothing of the dates or local origins of either Aristarete or her father, though we can infer from their names that they were Greek and lived at some point before the time of his writing. Other than the fact that women did paint, Pliny says little about what might have distinguished a woman's approach to this art; thus, women's painting in antiquity is a dusty corner of an already obscure field. Two preserved wall paintings from Pompeii, however, offer some confirmation of women's participation in the visual arts: one shows a woman painting a statue, another depicts a woman sitting at her easel.

sources and suggested reading:

Boardman, John. Greek Art. Rev. ed. London: Thames and Hudson, 1985, pp. 158–59; 218–19.

Jex-Blake, K., trans. The Elder Pliny's Chapters on the History of Art. Commentary and Historical Introduction by E. Sellers. 1st ed., 1896; reprint ed., with a Preface and Select Bibliography by Raymond V. Schoder, Chicago: Argonaut, 1968.

Paulys Real-Encyclopädie der Classischen Alterumswissenschaft. Edited by Georg Wissowa. S.v. "Aristarete" by O. Rossbach; "Nearchos" by G. Lippold. Stuttgart: J.B. Metzlersche Buchhandlung, 1897.

Pliny. Natural History. Trans. by H. Rackham. Vol. 9. London: William Heinemann, 1952.

related media:

Black-and-white reproduction of a Pompeian painting, "paintress at work" in Ling, Roger. Roman Painting. 211. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

for remains of greek painting see:

Pfuhl, Ernst. Masterpieces of Greek Drawing and Painting. Trans. with Foreword by J.D. Beazley. Reprint ed. NY: Hacker Books, 1979.

Robertson, C.M. Greek Painting. 2nd ed. NY: Rizzoli International Publications, 1979.

Peter H. O'Brien , Boston University

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