Sunset over the bay signed 'C. Bolanachi' (lower left) oil on canvas 84 x 64 cm. (33 x 25 1/8 in.)
Provenance: Private collection, Athens
Volanakis greatness can be fully appreciated in such a serenely luminous painting as Sunset over the bay. In this work he ventures beyond translucent greys to a fine rendering of the mellow warmth of atmosphere, made the more impressive by the foreground silhouettes of a beached boat and nearby figures. His cultivation of a near monochrome, which definitely stems from the School of Munich, the suggestion of the atmosphere, the low horizon that gives full value to the spaciousness of the sky, and the trenchant design are reminiscent of the great 17th century Dutch seascape painters, especially Simon de Vlieger, his pupil Jan van de Cappelle and the outstanding Jan van Goyen (compare Jan van Goyen, A River Scene with Fishermen Laying a Net, 1638, London, National Gallery).
In this vein, the loving delicacy with which Volanakis observed every nuance of the seascape and cloudscape extends to the scene as a whole, capturing the absolute stillness of the hour (compare C. Volanakis, Faleron Seashore, Athens, Bank of Greece Collection). His depiction of the still surface of the sea, intersected by the vertical masts, is a combination of realistic and romantic elements in a harmonious composition and a lyrical interpretation of the seascape. Light and colour animate the scene which emanates a highly charged ambiance, in the spirit of the pupil of Simon de Vlieger, Willem Van De Velde the Younger, whose Calm Sea (1639) Volanakis is certain to have seen at Munichs Alte Pinakothek.
Ever since his studies at the Munich Academy, Volanakis perceived the seascape as a complex entity with unlimited expressive potential, allowing him to penetrate into its inner world while providing enough outlet for the freer exercise of his technical abilities. According to M. Vlachos, a leading authority on the artist: he is in constant communion with nature, in a composite relationship from which poetry emerges. ¹ Volanakis is indeed a lyrical poet of the calm sea. In a similar vein, Professor D. Evangelidis notes: Often not even a ripple breaks the surface of the sea and only the sails and tall masts chant the harmonies of subdued colours and bring life to the scene. ² The scholars who have studied Volanakis work agree that he is at his best when rendering peace and calm ³, as in Sunset over the bay. Professor S. Lydakis notes: His finest moments are those of absolute calmness and reverie, captured in works of exceptional compositional structure and colour sensitivity. 4 M. Vlachos adds in Volanakis best pictures, the translucence and poetic atmosphere are reminiscent of Tiepolo5, while Prof. E. K. Frantziskakis comments: The fine tones and luminosity of his painting, its reassuring and idyllic style, are akin to the work of Corot.6 Sunset over the bay, a superb example of the artists German period - as indicated by his signature in Latin characters (Bolanachi) - painted sometime between 1866, when he took on seascape painting, and 1883, when he moved permanently to Greece, showcases the defining elements of Volanakiss art. Virtuoso brushwork, immediacy of execution, remarkable precision of detail, harmony of proportion and bold expression come together to create a moving composition of austere beauty (compare Fishing-boats, Athens, Perdios Collection.)
As in many of his most characteristic works, the beached fishing boat is portrayed along with fishermen and children resting next to it 7 (compare Boats and Children, Athens, E. Koutlidis Foundation and Boats and Children, Tinos, Evangelistria Foundation). Volanakis focused with great love on fishing boats and the lives of fishermen from which he drew magnificent images. A rare talent who on beach after beach captures everyday life on the seacoast.8 Note the diligence with which the fishing nets are rendered (compare Fishing Boats, Athens, E. Koutlidis Foundation and Fishing Boats, Athens, National Bank of Greece Collection). One would assume that the insistence on netting is a result of a decorative intent. However, the wealth of detail is an integral part of the whole. Likewise, the human figures highlighted by bold colouring (note the interplay of red spots in the boats prow and the fishermens garments), blend in with the surroundings and the natural environment. After all, for Volanakis the human form is but a detail of Creation.9
Though low-brow and working class, Volanakiss seaside is often visited by elegant gentlemen and well-dressed ladies, exuding the laid-back attitude of his time. Indeed, Sunset over the bay includes one of Volanakis favourite staffage themes: the strolling couple (compare Before Dusk auctioned at Bonhams, Greek Sale 01/04/2003, lot 26) and the man with a hat holding a basket (compare Promenade by the Harbour auctioned at Bonhams, Greek Sale 11/05/2004, lot 34) animate the picture, almost absorbed by their surroundings in a romantic notion of art echoing Claude Lorrain, the great 17th century master of imaginative landscapes. Attention should be given to the woman holding a bright red parasol who turns her gaze towards the sea, suggesting the manner in which the scene should be contemplated. Reveries by the sea, as perceptively noted by M. Vlachos, is a recurrent motif portrayed in a variety of ways by many artists, in particular Caspar David Friedrich and Courbet, whose work Volanakis was acquainted with. 10
The hard working fishermen and genteel strollers create a romantic feeling that permeates the entire composition. Though the influence of the Munich School is evident, Volanakis, raised on the islands of Crete and Syros, had experienced the open horizons and the constantly changing sea. As S. Lydakis notes, he could not limit himself to the cerebral conceptions and standardized recipes dictated by the academic teachings of the School of Munich. As a son of the Mediterranean he had an inborn sense of light and colour and was fascinated by their expressive potential. 11 In Sunset over the bay Volanakis takes more note of atmospheric effect, of colour nuances and of natural elements as possessing their own pictorial value. His masterly handling of the moored fishing boats in the middle ground, rendered in a more abstract manner, the transient gleams of light, the transparency of the water and the reflections that play on its surface are reminiscent of Boudin and indicate that he absorbed the new artistic currents without abandoning the tenets of his academic training (compare Eugène Boudin, Harbour Scene, Bristol, City Art Gallery).
The soft gradations of light and shade, the unity of effect, the sense of space and the poetry of the scene become means of expressing his view of the transience of life. Volanakiss romantic soul seeks inner peace in the beauty of a dream world full of light and colour, where reverie is a kind of prayer. He is simply interested in a vertical and a horizontal to create a metaphysical stillness. Thats why he prefers calm seas and spring or summer skies. Rarely do his clouds warn of a coming storm. 12 The feeling of peace conveyed by such seascape views inspires the viewer to adopt a dreamlike attitude towards life. The sea is revealed as a metaphor for the infinite and the ungraspable, the ship as a fleeting presence on the volatile, unfathomable sea, like man faced with eternity. 13 It is in such paintings as Sunset over the bay that Volanakiss genius is evident in its uniqueness.
¹ M. Vlachos, The Painter Constantinos Volanakis (doctorate thesis) [in Greek], Athens 1974, p. 105 ² D. E. Evangelidis, Greek Art [in Greek], Athens 1969, p. 128 ³ E. K. Frantziskakis, 19th C. Greek Painters [in Greek], Commercial Bank of Greece, Athens 1957, p. 20 4 S. Lydakis, Constantinos Volanakis [in Greek], Adam, Athens 1997, p. 174 5 Vlachos, Volanakis, p. 125, note 2 6 Frantziskakis, Greek Painters, p. 20 7 Vlachos, Volanakis, pp. 118-119 8 Frantziskakis, Greek Painters, p. 20 9 Lydakis, Volanakis, p. 64 10 M. Vlachos, The Emergence of Modern Greek Painting 1830-1930 From the Bank of Greece Collection, Athens 2002, p. 50 11 Lydakis, Volanakis, p. 64 12 S. Lydakis, Volanakis, a Pioneer [in Greek], Epta Imeres (Kathimerini), 22/02/1998, p. 14 13 Lydakis, Volanakis, p. 175