Thursday, June 2, 2011


Violaine Jeammet (ed.), Tanagras: Figurines for Life and Eternity. The Musée du Louvre's Collection of Greek Figurines. Valencia: Fundación Bancaja, 2010. Pp. 300. ISBN 9788484711711. $45.00 (pb).

Reviewed by Sheila Dillon, Duke University (

Version at BMCR home site

The charming terracotta statuettes known collectively as Tanagra figurines were first discovered in large numbers in the 1870s during illicit excavations of tombs in the area of the ancient city of Tanagra in Boeotia, a small town north of Athens and not too far from Thebes. It is estimated that between 1872 and 1873 about 10,000 graves were plundered. By the time the Greek authorities put a stop to these activities, thousands of figurines from Tanagra were sold on the Athenian antiquities market to both private collectors and major museums like the British Museum, the Berlin National Museum, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and in particular the Louvre. Indeed, the Tanagras made quite an impression on late 19th century Paris – the figurines were displayed at the International Exposition of 1878, at the peak of what has been called "Tanagra mania." This mania made the Tanagra figurines coveted commodities and led to a vigorous and profitable market in forgeries, the effects of which are still being sorted out today. Their widespread popular appeal also had a profound effect on contemporary French art, literature, and fashion. For example, in a painting of 1893, the French artist Jean-Léon Gérôme reimagined the ancient coroplast's workshop as a precursor to the modern French department store, where living Tanagra figurines both made and consumed these charming statuettes. The renowned French archaeologist Theodore Reinach called the Tanagras "the Parisiennes of antiquity," thereby equating the figurines with the chic women of modern Paris. A New York Times article of January 1912 had this headline: "Paris Now Decrees Grecian Fashions. Spring Styles will Adopt the Flowing Draperies of the Tanagra Statuettes." In the same year, Octave Uzanne observed that the fashionable French woman has "rediscovered the art of drapery, of arranging materials in harmonious folds, and sometimes delights to wrap herself in clinging gauzy stuffs like the delicious Tanagra statuettes".1 This collapsing of the present with the past also affected the interpretation of the Tanagra figurines themselves, which were widely believed to provide a precious glimpse of the everyday life of the bourgeoisie in ancient Greece.

The circumstances of their discovery in the 19th century, and the popular reception and enduring aesthetic appeal of the Tanagra-style figurines are set out in the first few chapters of this beautifully produced exhibition catalogue, which is the latest in a series of important publications on Tanagras organized and edited by Violaine Jeammet, senior curator in the Department of Greek, Etruscan and Roman Antiquities at the Musée du Louvre. The catalogue documents the exhibition entitled "Tanagras. Figurines for Life and Eternity" held at the Centro Cultural Bancaja in Valencia, Spain from March 29th to July 7th 2010. This exhibition is a revised version of the 2003-2004 traveling exhibition "Tanagra. Mythe et archéologie" organized by the Musée du Louvre and shown also at the Musée des beaux-arts in Montreal. While this earlier exhibition comprised terracottas from a variety of museums, including the British Museum, the Archaeological Museum of Thebes, the Acropolis Museum in Athens, and the Archaeological Museum of Taranto, the current catalogue consists only of objects from the Louvre, which has in any case one of the best collections of Tanagra figurines in the world. Many of them have been newly restored, and some have never before been on display. Many of the essays, on the other hand, have been previously published, either in the 2003 catalogue or in a collection of specialized studies published as a supplement to the earlier exhibition, 2 but all are published here for the first time in English. There are also a few newly commissioned essays, including Jeammet's "Boeotian Craft Production in the Early Periods (Ninth to Seventh Century B.C.)," "The Tanagra Figurines from the Tomb A at Myrina" by Néguine Mathieux, "Terracottas and Colour" by Sandrine Pagès Camagna, and "The Figurines as a Reflection on Beliefs and Rites" by Jeammet and Mathieux. This last essay supports the emerging view that Tanagra style figurines were religious votives deposited in sanctuaries and graves as part of maturation rituals such as marriage, and should no longer be considered as genre representations of fashionable ladies or as "simple reflections of everyday life". These new essays also take into account the results of recent rescue excavations carried out in Boeotia, and recent research on Tanagra style figurines outside of Greece. Indeed, there has been a marked resurgence in scholarly interest in Tanagra figurines over the past decade, with a number of important studies either recently published or forthcoming.3 Part of the credit for this renewed interest surely belongs to the curators at the Louvre.

The thirty-six essays are clearly written and to the point. They are organized around a series of broader topics that include the historical background of ancient Tanagra and the modern discovery of the figurines, figurine production in Boeotia from the Mycenaean to the Classical periods, the origin of the Tanagra style, the meaning of Tanagras, and the rapid spread of the figurines throughout the Hellenistic world. I will only comment on a few of them here. Violaine Jeammet's essay of the origin and development of Tanagra style figurines and their subsequent rapid diffusion throughout the Mediterranean is one of the clearest accounts I have read of this complex issue. Arthur Muller's essay on the technique of terracotta production is equally well structured and easy to follow; both would make very useful readings for an undergraduate course on Greek art. The studies of two interesting tomb groups from Eretria (by Isabelle Hasselin-Rous) and Myrina (by Néguine Mathieux) show us Tanagra figurines from a precise archaeological context, something that is lacking for the figurines from Tanagra itself. The table in the Appendix on the diffusion of Tanagra figurines (pp. 270-79) provides a comprehensive list of the archaeological contexts in which Tanagras have been found; this is a rich source of information and a good starting point for anyone interested in conducting an archaeologically based study of Tanagra figurines.

Two final sections of the catalogue – Tanagras from the 19th to the 21th (sic) Century, and Colourful Figurines – focus on scientific and technical aspects of figurine production. Since authenticity is a major concern for many museums that have Tanagras, this was one of the main objectives of the scientific analysis of the Louvre figurines; the composition of the clay was also analyzed. Only about 10% of the Louvre figurines were found to be modern forgeries; the clay composition suggests three potential centers of production: Tanagra, Thebes, and Athens. The publication of the results of these scientific and technical analyses should be of great use to other museums, as well as to scholars working on newly excavated terracotta figurines. Study of the polychromy revealed a surprisingly complex and delicate process of paint application in some figurines; for example, colors could be superimposed to obtain a special chromatic or shimmering effect, eyes might be shaded and highlighted with a variety of color washes, different colors could be used to model the folds of drapery by playing with light and shade. And just as painted wall plaster was redone sometimes numerous times over the life of a house (well-attested, for example, on Hellenistic Delos), the clothing of terracotta figurines might also be repainted with different perhaps more fashionably up-to-date colors. As Brigitte Bourgeois points out a the end of her essay on color, "the Tanagra figurines have now become the centre of a new field of research into the micro-archaeology of ancient crafts, practices, and gestures in the field of colour use." The essay by Jeammet, Knecht, and Pagès-Camagna on the technique of polychrome decoration of Tanagras indeed clearly shows the kinds of rich and interesting information one can gain from the close study of these figurines. I found their suggestion that specially trained painters worked with both coroplasts and marble sculptors very compelling; their work has the potential to shed light on a whole range of unresolved issues around workshop practices and organization.

The catalogue is beautifully illustrated, with most images reproduced in color, which is essential for appreciating the still vivid polychromy preserved on many of the figurines. The detailed color photographs of paint and gilding – pink shoes, red hair, blue, pink or violet garments with gold borders – are revelatory. Many of the images are also quite large, which allows one to see very clearly the intricate detailing in the drapery, hair, and attributes that was lavished on the figurines, and to appreciate the monumentality of these miniature works of art. There are additional photographs of comparative pieces from other museum collections, which help to put the Louvre figurines into a broader context, as well as back views of a significant number of the figurines, which are helpful in understanding the technical aspects of figurine production. The catalogue entries themselves are clearly organized and informative, and there are very few typographical errors. There is an extensive bibliography. While the catalogue may look slick and flashy, perhaps to appeal to the museum-going general public, it will be very useful to both students and scholars; in fact, at only $45, it should be in the library of anyone interested in terracotta figurines.

Table of Contents

1. The Historical Background
The Discovery of the Tanagras, Juliette Becq
Tanagras in Paris: a Bourgeios Dream, Néguine Mathieux
Mycenaean Boeotia, Vassilis L. Aravantinos
Tanagra During the Archaic and Classical Periods
Tanagra During the Hellenistic and Roman Periods: an International Artistic Centre?, John Fossey
Tanagra: a Survey of the City, John L. Bintliff, Boz˘idar Slaps˘ak
2. Terracotta Production in Boeotia: A Thousand-Year-Old Tradition
The Mycenaean Cemeteries of Tanagra, Vassilis L. Aravantinos
Boeotian Craft Production in the Early Periods (Ninth to Seventh Century B.C.), Violaine Jeammet
The Archaic Period, Violaine Jeammet
Boeotian Pottery, Marine Denoyelle
Boeotian ‹‹Genre›› Scenes, Violaine Jeammet
The Classical Period, Violaine Jeammet
3. Tanagras from Athens and Boeotia
The Origin and Diffusion of the Tanagra Figurines, Violaine Jeammet
New Themes, Juliette Becq
An Exceptional Production: the Figurines of the Acropolis of Athens (the Campana Collection), Violaine Jeammet
The Techniques of Tanagra Coroplasts. From Local Craft to "Global Industry", Arthur Muller
Tanagra Figurines from Boeotia (Fourth to Third Century B.C.)
The Hellenistic Period, Juliette Becq, Néguine Mathieux
Tanagra and Theban Workshops, Violaine, Jeammet
4. The Meaning of the Tanagras
The Clothes Worn by Tanagra Figurines: A Question of Fashion or Ritual?, Violaine Jeammet
Clothes for a Goddess, Yvette Morizot
Cults in Boeotia, Duane W. Roller
Divinities and Figurines in Boeotia, Juliette Becq, Violaine Jeammet, Néguine Mathieux
The Figurines as a Reflection of Beliefs and Rites, Violaine Jeammet, Néguine Mathieux
Children and Death: the Example of An Eretrian Tomb Now in the Musée du Louvre, Isabelle Hasselin-Rous
5. Following in the Footsteps of Alexander the Great
Greece and North Greece, Violaine Jeammet
Egypt and East Greece
The Production of Tanagra Figurines at Myrina and Alexandria, Dominique Kassab Tezgör
The Tanagra Figurines from the Tomb A at Myrina, Néguine Mathieux
Cyrenaica, Juliette Becq
Cyprus: Local Coroplastic Art and the Reception of Greek Models, Annie Caubet
Italy and Sicily
Votive Tanagra Figurines in South Italy, Enzo Lippolis
Tanagras as Funeral Offerings: the Example of Tarentum, Daniel Graepler
Canosa: A Blend of Greek and Local Traditions, Violaine Jeammet
6. Tanagras from the 19th to the 21st Century
The Louvre's Tanagras in the Light of Scientific Analysis. Authenticity, Materials, Provenances, Anne Bouquillon, Antoine Zink, Elisa Porto
7. Colourful Figurines
Arts and Crafts of Colour on the Louvre's Tanagra Figurines, Brigitte Bourgeois
The Polychrome Decoration on Hellenistic Terracottas: the Figurines from Tanagra and Myrina in the Collection of the Musée du Louvre, Céline Knecht, Violaine Jeammet, Sandrine Pagès-Camagna
Terracottas and Colour, Sandrine Pagès-Camagna


1.   The Modern Parisienne (London 1912).
2.   V. Jeammet ed., Tanagras. De l'objet de collection à l'objet archéologie (Paris 2007).
3.   E.g. D. Graepler, Tonfiguren im Grab. Fundkontexte hellenistischer Terrakotten aus der Nekropole von Tarent (Munich 1997); H. Duchêne, "Histoire vraie des fausses terres cuites, à propos des groupes dits d'Asie-Mineure," in Vrai ou faux de l'Antiquité classique, Dossiers d'Archéologie 312 (April 2006) 24-29; F. Rumscheid, Die figürlichen Terrakotten von Priene (Wiesbaden 2006);D. Kassab Tezgör, Tanagréenes d'Alexandrie: figurines en terre cuite hellénistiques des necropolis orientales (Alexandria 2007); M. Dewailly, "Une collection tanagréenne pour Artémis dans le sanctuaire de Claros," in V. Jeammet ed., Tanagras. De l'objet de collection à l'objet archéologie<> (Paris 2007) 133-54; Terracotta Figurines in the Greek and Roman Eastern Mediterranean, Proceedings of the international conference, Izmir (June 2007), forthcoming as a BCH supplement.

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