The collection of terracota statuettes from Tanagra is one of the most valuable treasures of the State Hermitage. This collection was purchased from P. A. Saburov in 1884. P. A. Saburov was a connoisseur and lover of antique art who had collected his statuettes in Greece, having served as the Ambassador of Russia there at the time of the sensational tomb-find in a little town of the Greek province of Boeotia called Tanagra. In the 70-ies of the last century the first initially plunderous excavations of the Tanagra necropolis were started. The site was a huge graveyard in the suburbs of the town. This time the diggers were not looking for golden jewelry or buried hoards of coins but for little figurines of baked clay. Sophisticated antique dealers, art-lovers and archeologists, of course, were all enchanted in equal measure by the modest beauty of the little statues. They spoke of the daily life of ancient Greece as expressed by the skill of genuine masters of plastic art. These finds helped to reconstruct the past, at least the life of woman at that time, her simple pleasures, the embelishing of her appearance and costumes. Simple subjects were represented in clay through an endless variety of poses and actions full of grace and harmony. This ability to accentuate the beauty of the human figure, to model it in clay resorting to all the artistic methods which had been perfected by that time, is what makes the anonymous Tanagra sculptors genuine masters of plastic art and the terracota statuettes they made works of great artistic significance. This explains the eager readiness with which the Tanagra terracotas were amalgamated into the expositions of museums in London, Paris and Berlin. An end was soon put to the lawless looting by adventurers of the Tanagra necropolis. By 1873 the Athenian Archeological Society had organized systematic excavations.
The Tanagra terracotta statuettes were first of all outstanding for their novelty of genre and their perfection in execution; as to the art of "coroplasty", it was by then sufficiently well known. During the archaic and classic periods, i. e. Vlth - Vth centuries В. С. terracottas for religious offerings were produced in great quantities. They represented deities and were used in the home as objects of the religious cult or else were brought as offerings to the shrines and temples or deposited in tombs during burials.
It was only during the Hellenistic period that the statuettes began to represent ordinary human figures. Graceful, energetic images of maidens, youths and children decorated interiors, served as gifts and toys. The tradition of depositing terracotta figurines in tombs survived as a sign of affection for the deceased. Thanks to this custom a large quantity of terracotta statuettes has come down to us. Figurines of the peak of perfection in the development of the art of "coroplasty" is what the Tanagra necropolis finds may be termed.
The process of the manufacture of terracotta figurines has not changed down through the centuries, it has but been perfected with time. The clay was meticulously washed clean of all granular substances, then the casting could begin. The outer and inner sides of the figure and head were hollow-cast separately in special moulds. The craftsman would then join the ready separate parts, would add the hand modelled details and would place the statuette to dry. When dry the final touches would be made by hand.
Softening the surface with the help of a damp cloth the craftsman would use a special instrument, a graving tool, to remove seams which had formed at the joining of the parts, making the final product a complete whole. A firing at low temperature lends the statuette the necessary hardness. To avoid cracks appearing during the firing process the statuette's walls were made very thin and holes were made to allow steam to escape. The surface of the baked clay statuette was given a thick white coating of engobe which served as the ground for the further colouring of the statuette.
The colours were of a lasting mineral kind of clean bright shades. Terracotta imitations of jewelry such as ear-rings, necklaces and diadems were gilded. With very few exceptions the Tanagra statuettes are only some 20-30 cms. high. For greater stability it was customary to place them on a spreading base which represented a thin plate. In the Hermitage collection of Tanagra pieces the majority are statuettes of female figures in draperies. But what versatility of execution proved possible in the development of this single topic. Their every gesture, turn of the head, curve of the figure was dictated by keen observation. Here is a woman at home; she is sitting before a mirror in a simple comfortable pose. In the street she pulls a mantle round her shoulders which covers her head as well, her motions both dignified and modest. On the other hand what gaiety and youthful energy radiates from the maidens at play with their friends. Holding up their loose garments they are playing at knucklebones or playing ball. Sometimes they indulge in occupations much more serious: music or writing something makes them concentrate or sets them meditating. Almost all the figures are of somewhat elongated proportions which makes the head on the long prettiby urned neck seem quite small. The grace and ease of posture is emphasized by the costumeslong tunics, belted high on the figure just below the breast falling in vertical folds down to the toes of the closed shoes or is accentuated by the mantles draped round the figure outlining the beauty of its lines.
These statuettes are another proof of the fact that the women of ancient Tanagra were of renowned beauty. The Greek philosopher and writer of the end of the IV th century В. С. Dicaearchus wrote: "They were the most graceful women in Greece in bearing, gait and in rhythm of movement. Their manner of talking was not at all like that of other natives of Boeotia, their voices had a captivating charm".
Another author of ancient times is more outspoken. He writes, "One can always spot a bad-mannered woman in the street by the clumsiness of her gait. What is it that prevents her from being graceful? We have no tax levied on the possession of grace neither can grace be bought for gold; it is a credit to those who possess it and they in their turn are a source of pleasure to the on-lookers, for anyone who is not a fool must try to derive pleasure in life". The quotations cited above bear testimony to the fact that it was not so much beauty that was prized then, but good bearing, femininity and grace. This outlook found ideal expression in the terracotta statuettes of Tanagra. The faces are actually of one and the same elongated shape with a regular nose and a small mouth, the features having no individuality. Only a generalized image is achieved. The most important thing about the statuettes is their plastic interpretation of harmonious movement. This is where credit is due to the sculptors of Tanagra.
A maiden's draped figure was the principal theme of the masters of Tanagra, but there are cases, though extremely rare, when youths and mythological personages were depicted.
The palm has rightly been given to the statuette of Artemis, the Goddess of the Hunt, which is one of the exhibits at the Hermitage. She is wearing a short belted tunic (a chiton) and there is a quiver with arrows slung over her shoulder. The erect vigorous figure personifies the urge and readiness for action. Another delightful statuette which is feminity itself depicts Aphrodite in rapt play with her son Eros. In spite of the fact that they represent deities these statuettes still speak of the everyday life of people of the Hellenistic period. The mythological theme lends them a peculiar charm, but cannot turn them into religious images.
What can be said of Tanagra, the town itself, at the time when the art of "coroplasty" achieved such perfection and gained such great popularity among its inhabitants? Tanagra was situated on the bank of the river Asop but a few kilometres away from the border-line of Attica. At present all that remains of it are the ruins of a wall which had once surrounded the city and the foundations of numerous towers and three gates which connected Tanagra with Chalcis, Athess and Thebes. Nothing has remained of the four temples which were described in the 2nd century A. D. by Pausanius. Time has dealt severely with this city but even in olden times it was never considered to be on a par with the most beautiful cities of Greece nor could it ever have competed with the largest city of Boeotia, Thebes. Tanagra played an insignificant part in the history of Greece. Only once in 457 В. С. it became the field of battle of the Spartans and Boeotians when they fought against Athens. However a few months were sufficient to restore the great influence Athens exercised on Bceotia. Another historical event of major significance for Tanagra was the destruction in 336 В. С. of the city of Thebes by Alexander of Macedonia. Tanagra was after that the largest surviving city in Bceotia and it prospered till the year 146 A. D. when all of Central Greece was conquered by the Romans and annexed into the Roman province of Achaea. Thus Tanagra flourished for two centuries. This is the very period to which the terracotta statuettes of the necropolis refer.
Monumental sculpture and that of Attica in particular had a certain amount of influence on the masters who modelled the statuettes. Actually the relationship between the two provinces Bceotia and Attica was of a rather peculiar nature. Agricultural Boeotia often served as an object of jokes and mockery to its neighbours. The inhabitants of Boeotia were ridiculed for their primitive way of life and lack of good taste. But the statuettes of Tanagra could have served as the best answer to the Athenians if it had not already become such a fixed custom to laughat the Boeotians. And yet the towns could not live in complete isolation from each other and the art of Attica became an example to be followed in Tanagra. This does not mean-that the little clay figures are miniature replicas of the famous statues because the craftsmen of Tanagra were great artists but not copyists. They understood the specific quality of the plastic art they indulged in, the sculpture of small forms, and borrowing only certain methods, they enhanced the perfection of their artistic technique.
Among the works of art which had exerted the greatest influence on "coroplasty" it is only fair to mention the base of the lost sculptural group which represented the goddesses Latona and Artemis and the God Apollo and which had been executed in the workshop of Praxiteles for the city of Mantineia. On the base there are the figures of the Muses draped in mantles executed in flat relief. The sculptors of Tanagra borrowed this motif of the decoratively draped figure with certain alterations for their statuettes. In their interpretation there is no monumental quality about the figures, the modelling has no large planes but is done in greater detail, the freedom of movements is greater too. The proportions have also become very different from those of Praxiteles. This change in proportions, the figures having become more elongated, the size of the head much smaller, speak of the influence of the great sculptor of the IVth century В. С Leucippus. The influence of Praxiteles however can be traced in another type of Tanagra statuette which is also widely represented. It is the figure of a standing woman in loose, wide draperies. They are often compared to the statue of the "Lesser Herculanian" which has come down to us as the Roman copy from Herculaneum.
Surprising as it may seem, the prototype of the draped female figures was a statue of the playwright Sophocles which had been set up in 330 В. С. at the theatre of Dionysus in Athens. The famous playwright is depicted in a mantle thrown over his shoulder with only the wrist of his right hand showing. In the female statuettes though this gesture found new expression.
These instances are proof of the fact that the monumental sculpture of Attica did have an influence on the plastic art of Tanagra but in their development of themes and details the sculptors of this little city had an individual approach throughout. There is an opinion among historians of art that the masters of "coroplasty" of Tanagra used moulds which were made in Athens. But this opinion is by no means universal and Tanagra is still given the palm as regards the derivation and development of this field of art. In many towns the manufacture of terracotta figurines sprang up. The workshops in Alexandria, in the towns of Asia Minor, southern Italy and Sicily produced thousands of statuettes of varying theme and manner of execution. But although this type of art did become widespread it was only the terracotta statuettes of Tanagra that became the symbol of all that was beautiful and exquisite.