Sunset over the island of Salamis signed in Greek (lower left) oil on canvas 57 x 100 cm. (24 1/2 x 39 1/4 in.)
Provenance: Acquired in 1910 by Stefanos Zagoreos in Piraeus and thence by descent to the present owner.
A serenely luminous painting of exceptional compositional structure and colour sensitivity, Sunset over the island of Salamis combines all three of Volanakis favourite themes (the sea, the vessel and the sky) and showcases the defining elements of his art: virtuoso brushwork, immediacy of execution, precision of detail and harmony of proportion. In this moving work of austere beauty, his cultivation of a near monochrome, which definitely stems from the School of Munich, the suggestion of the atmosphere, the setting sun and the low horizon that gives full value to the spaciousness of the sky, are reminiscent of the great 17th century Dutch masters. In this vein, Volanakis depicts the seascape with descriptive accuracy and finesse, adding nonetheless a Mediterranean feel that differentiates him from the western manner, endowing his work with a highly personal and unique style.
In 1883 the artist gave up a solidly established career in Bavaria to return with his family to Greece, partly on account of the frail health of his wife. His choice of taking permanent residency in the seaside town of Piraeus, where his fathers family ran a profitable business, facilitated his observations and served as a constant inspiration in rendering atmospheric changes, delicate nuances of the seascape and soft gradations of light and shade with great accuracy, capturing the mellow warmth and poetry of the scene. By contrasting the detailed description of sails and masts with a lyrical handling of the sky and sea, he delivers a well-balanced composition, distinguished by emotional intensity and suggestive force. Light and colour animate the scene which emanates a highly charged ambiance (note the interplay of reds on the fishermans jacket and the tent over the moored vessel). Moreover, the depiction of the sun, a motif often found in folk Greek art but rarely encountered in Modern Greek and European painting, endows the atmosphere with transient gleams of light and golden luminosities, accentuating the romantic feeling (compare Claude Lorraine, Marine, Soleil Couchant, 1630-35, in the Louvre and C. Volanakis, Sunset over the island of Salamis, National Gallery, Athens).1 According to M. Vlachos, a leading authority on the artist, one of Volanakis major achievements was the fact that he successfully used drawing - the greatest merit and one of the most prominent tools of the Munich Academy - to pursue lyricism.2
The undisputed father of Greek seascape painting, Volanakis studies his themes in detail, brings out their character and, ultimately, incorporates them into a homogeneous whole.3 His depiction of the absolute stillness of the sea, intersected by the vertical masts, is a combination of realistic and romantic elements in a harmonious composition and lyrical interpretation of the seascape. His wealth of detail, rather than being the result of a decorative intent, is an integral part of the whole, while the hard working fishermen in the boats and the moored caique blend in with the surroundings and the natural environment. 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, he is in constant communion with nature, in a composite relationship from which poetry emerges.4 In a similar vein, Prof. 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.5
The scholars who have studied Volanakis work agree that he is at his best when rendering peace and calm6, as in Sunset over the island of Salamis. 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 Prof. 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.7 In Sunset over the island of Salamis, 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. Volanakis 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.8 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.9
1. S. Lydakis, The Sun in Modern Greek Painting, Techni & Logos magazine, no. 12-13, December 1986-January 1987, pp. 40-41 2. M. Vlachos, The Emergence of Modern Greek Painting 1830-1930 From the Bank of Greece Collection, Athens 2002, p. 54 3. Vlachos, Emergence of Modern Greek Painting, p. 50 4. Vlachos, The Painter Constantinos Volanakis (doctorate thesis) [in Greek], Athens 1974, p. 105 5. D. E. Evangelidis, Greek Art [in Greek], Athens 1969, p. 128 6. S. Lydakis, Constantinos Volanakis [in Greek], Adam, Athens 1997, p. 174 and E. K. Frantziskakis, 19th C. Greek Painters [in Greek], Commercial Bank of Greece, Athens 1957, p. 20 7. Lydakis, Volanakis, p. 64 8. Lydakis, Volanakis, a Pioneer, Kathimerini newspaper (Epta Imeres), 22/02/1998, p. 14 9. Lydakis, Volanakis, p. 175