Hydria (Water Jar) with Domestic Scene, 470–460 BC
Terracotta with slip
o/a: 13 3/4 × 13 1/4 × 12 inches (34.9 × 33.7 × 30.5 cm)
Museum purchase funded by General and Mrs. Maurice Hirsch
Habits of Mind
- COMMUNICATE Verbalize ideas, thoughts, feelings / ask provocative questions / ask for support
Writing Shaped Poetry
Discussion through works of art encourage how to approach ambiguous and complex ideas, thoughts, and feelings. The MFAH offers a democratic space where students and teachers can develop, practice and articulate these habits of mind. Remember that the quality of the conversation is what is important, not finding the artist’s “answer.” Slow down and take the time to make careful observations. Talk about what you notice, and try to avoid jumping to conclusions and interpretations. Be sure to give enough time for silent looking and thinking.
• Describe works of art, generating descriptive detail by using adjectives and adverbs.
• Write “shape poetry” based on a work of art.
Connecting to the Work of Art
This ancient Greek water jar, called a hydria, is decorated with a scene of three women engaged in their daily activities. On the left, a woman holds an alabastron, a small bottle, in her left hand and passes a similar bottle to the woman at the far right. In the center a third woman bends over a wicker wool basket and either places in it or removes from it a bundle of wool. A charming element is the long-legged heron. Because the heron was often kept as a pet in ancient Athens, its presence indicates that this scene is set in a home.
Able to hold almost one gallon of water, this medium-sized vase is decorated with patterned bands on the lip and below the figures. The domestic scene occupies the center of the vase’s body and extends onto the shoulder. The artist uses line to describe faces, hair, and drapery, paying special attention to small details of hair styles – wispy curls and bangs – and of the fabric and folds of the dresses.
Greek vases like this one were thrown on the potter’s wheel. Handles were formed by hand and attached to the body of the vase. The clay contains significant amounts of iron, and so turned pink when it was fired. This style of painting is called “red-figure,” because the figures retain the color of the clay. A mixture that turns black during firing was painted on the remaining areas of the vase and for the details of clothing and facial expression.¹
Often Greek vases were a collaboration between a potter and a painter. Although some vases are signed, the names of most Greek vase painters are unknown. Over the decades, scholars grouped together vases with similar styles, and named the artist of each group. This vase is one of twenty-eight attributed to “the Painter of the Yale Oinochoe” after a wine pitcher in the collection of Yale University.
Attica, a region of Greece that includes Athens, was the leading ceramics center for the entire Mediterranean. The Greeks had many overseas colonies and extensive foreign trade. Thus Attic pottery has been found throughout southern Europe, North Africa, and Asia Minor.
This vase provides a glimpse into the daily lives of women in ancient Greece. Although in the fifth century B.C. Athens was a major political, artistic, and intellectual center, “the treatment of women was more repressive and unenlightened than at almost any other time in the history of the West.”² Scenes of women became popular on vases during this period, perhaps because the vessels were used by women and the decoration thus reflected their lives.
Curators are always researching the museum’s collection. In the process, titles of works of art can change. This work used to be called Hydria: Women Sorting Wool and is now titled Hydria: Women Engaged in Domestic Activities.
1. Susan Matheson Burke and Jerome J. Pollitt, Greek Vases at Yale (New Haven: Yale University Art Gallery, 1975), pp. xv-xvii.
2. Peter J. Holliday, “Red-figure Hydria: A Theme in Greek Vase Painting,” Bulletin (Houston: The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Winter 1984), p. 3.
- Refer to the dimensions of the artwork. How would you describe its size? Compare its size to an object around you.
- Study the shape of the vessel and the composition of the decorations. How does the painted design conform to and enhance the parts of this vessel?
- Look carefully at the scene on the center of the jar. Describe details of clothing, hair, and objects. How does the artist suggest different textures and materials?
- How does the artist draw attention to the different parts of this object?
- Is there a foreground and background in this object? Do the figures in the central scene appear three-dimensional, or not, to you? What techniques does the artist use to suggest depth and movement?
- Look at the figures and objects in the scene depicted. What clues does the artist provide to understanding the scene?
- How would you describe the figures and animal depicted here? Consider their dimensions, poses, clothing, and expressions.
- What effect does the inclusion of the bird have on your initial reaction to the scene? Does knowing that herons were once kept as pets in Athens change your interpretation?
- How does the artist create a sense of movement and harmony in the scene? Look at the way they have deployed repetition and pattern.
- What might this image reveal about the role of women in ancient Greece? Use visual details and the information you have learned about this work to inform your response.
- How might we determine if this object was purely decorative, or if it had an intended function? What might the function have been? Can you think of an analog in present-day life?
- Ancient Greek jars like this one were thrown on a potter’s wheel; the handles were formed by hand and attached. How would the rotating pottery wheel be advantageous in forming the parts of this vessel?
Look closely at the shape of the vessel, and discuss how the decorations enhance and conform to the shape of the jar. Then, use the jar as an inspiration for original poems.
Introduce the concept of “shaped poetry,” a poem constructed so that its lines form a shape that relates to its subject. Share examples of shape poetry with the class.
Have students study the work of art, using adverbs and adjectives to write descriptive phrases of different lengths about the colors, textures, patterns, etc.
On a piece of paper, lightly trace the cut-paper shapes of the pots. Experiment with different arrangements of lines to fit the shape and create an effective poem. Complete the poem and erase the outline of the pot. The lines of the poem will suggest the shape of the clay piece.
Subject Matter Connection
In reading and writing, attention to detail is important. By observing this Hydria (Water Jar) with Domestic Scene and its familiar subjects, students can put into practice the art of observation. These observation skills can be repeated and re-emphasized throughout the school year when students observe works of art, read, or prepare to write. Because the subjects are familiar, students should be more comfortable about communicating their thoughts and verbalizing their ideas about this work, skills that carry over into both group and independent language arts practice activities and assessments.
Resources Available to Order
The Learning Through Art program is endowed by Melvyn and Cyvia Wolff.
The Learning Through Art curriculum website is made possible in part by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.
All Learning and Interpretation programs at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, receive endowment income from funds provided by the Louise Jarrett Moran Bequest; Caroline Wiess Law; the William Randolph Hearst Foundation; The National Endowment for the Humanities; the Fondren Foundation; BMC Software, Inc.; the Wallace Foundation; the Neal Myers and Ken Black Children’s Art Fund; the Favrot Fund; and Gifts in honor of Beth Schneider.