November 2014 Articles

The Bryn Mawr Painter

By Nancy Brokaw

Final Smotherman

Archaeology doctoral student Danielle Smotherman examines a fifth-century name vase.

Early in the fifth century BCE, a Greek vase painter took brush to hand and created a scene from a drinking party. A male figure reclines on a couch, one arm resting on a cushion, the other holding a kylix, a drinking cup. Playing the game of kottabos, he’s flinging the wine dregs from his kylix to hit a target.

More than two thousand years later, Joseph Clark Hoppin found himself in Rome, where he came upon the piece. Hoppin, a Bryn Mawr professor and an expert on classical Greek vases—his Ph.D. dissertation was on the vase painter Euthymides—bought the plate and, in 1901, donated it to the College. The College, in turn, loaned its name to the artist. Known as “the Bryn Mawr painter,” he is credited with creating five other pieces in collections around the world.

A century on, the piece remains in Bryn Mawr’s Special Collections, and this summer, Ridgway Curatorial Fellow Danielle Smotherman took a good, hard look at it.

“It’s a very nice piece—and very special,” says Smotherman, an archeology graduate student whose research focuses on communication in ancient Greek vase paintings. “It’s very rare to find a name vase in a small college collection.” (A name vase is a specific vase whose maker’s name is unknown although his workshop is.)

Two thousand years of wear and tear have rendered many of the inscriptions difficult to decipher so Smotherman, working with Special Collections Intern Katy Holladay ’16, turned to a computational imaging technology called Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI). In RTI, a series of images is captured with a stationary camera but with the light source in varying positions. Once the results are combined into one single image, the viewer can “re-light” it interactively for a close examination of the object’s surface.

Examining the high-tech image of the plate, Smotherman saw details nearly undetectable in conventional photographs: the full inscription, details of the wreath worn by the youth, the sketching of the drinking cup, and, most startling of all, fingerprints left behind when someone—perhaps the Bryn Mawr painter himself—handled the plate millennia ago.