Moonlit harbour signed in Greek (lower left) oil on canvas 54 x 85 cm.
Provenance: Private collection, Athens.
Literature: Stelios Lydakis, Constantinos Volanakis, Adam publ., Athens 1997, p. 197, fig. 116 (illustrated).
A display of superior skills in draughtsmanship, composition and paint handling, this evocative marine nocturne is a poetic conception of a harbour scene bathed in a silvery moonlight that irradiates the sky and sea in both a naturalistic and magical way. Transient gleams and shiny luminosities lead the viewers eye towards the distant horizon, far beyond the peaceful port to the vast expanses of the sea, accentuating the romantic feeling.
When Volanakis decided to give up a solidly established career in Munich to return with his family to Greece in 1883, his choice of taking permanent residence in the port town of Piraeus facilitated his observations and served as a constant inspiration in rendering atmospheric changes, delicate seascape nuances and soft gradations of light and shade with great accuracy, capturing the mellow warmth and poetry of his scenes. Virtuoso brushwork, immediacy of execution, remarkable precision of detail, harmony of proportion and bold expression came together to create moving compositions of austere beauty.
A sensitive work, typical of Volanakis Greek period (1884-1907), Moonlit Harbour is discussed by Professor S. Lydakis in his treatise on the artist: The nocturnal seascape captures an enchanting view of the sea bathed in moonlight which, along with its reflections on the still waters, defines the silhouettes of masted ships, betraying the artists romantic disposition and introspective reverie. Volanakis is at his best when rendering peace and calm, captured in austere works of great colour sensitivity and excellent compositional structure. Only in certain works by Ivan Aivazovsky do we experience a similar feeling, while when compared to other Greek seascapists, such as Jean Altamoura or Emilios and Pavlos Prossalentis, his romantic temperament is even more pronounced. Volanakis takes advantage of the moons magical reflections on a watery expanse that offers a wide range of possibilities for filtering tone gradations and, by its nature, allows the artist to fully exploit the atmospheric effects of paint. The emotional symbolism is almost explicit: 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. And Volanakis intent may not be overtly symbolistic, as he mainly concentrates on purely pictorial means, yet, like Aivazovsky, he doesnt disregard the emotional charge generated by the image of the sea depending on the time of day or night, that is the epic or lyrical mood stimulated by time and space, light and darkness. 1
This serenely luminous painting, rich in rhythm, realistic description and supplementary themes, showcases Volanakis predilection for certain iconographical and compositional schemes regarding his handling of port views, as pointed out by M. Vlachos, a leading authority on the artist: The ship is the main subject, while all port-related references are pushed to the sides and the background. The focal point is enlivened by the action surrounding the ship-loading, unloading, embarkation, disembarkation. Only one pier is shown, usually sideways to the left, with one or more moored ships and some port-side activities, which are always diminished so as not to disrupt the tranquillity of the scene. Anecdotal details abound, while the interplay of verticals (masts, buildings) and curves (U-shape pier, curvilinear hulls) is often prominent. 2
The paintings wise organization, generating a circular movement that directs the eye from the stately steamship to the anchored sailing ship on the right, to the moored vessels in the distance and back to the foreground, the subtle dialogue of light and shadow, the cultivation of a near monochrome, which stems from the School of Munich, the low horizon that gives full value to the spaciousness of the sky, reminiscent of the great 17th century Dutch masters, the sense of departure and transience that echo the achievements of Canaletto and Guardi, and the skys radiance reflected in the mirror-like surface of calm waters, are all creatively combined in a harmonious composition and lyrical interpretation of nature. The loving delicacy with which Volanakis observed the seascape and cloudscape extends to the scene as a whole, capturing the absolute stillness of the hour. Not even a ripple breaks the surface of the sea, while the sails and tall masts chant the harmonies of subdued colours and bring life to the scene. 3
The wealth of anecdotal detail enlivens the scene and delights the viewer. These vignettes of everyday activity, almost absorbed by their surroundings in a romantic notion of art echoing Claude Lorrain, are some of Volanakis favourite scaffage themes: genteel strollers, a horse-drawn carriage and a sitting figure relaxing at the piers edge exude the laid-back attitude of horse and buggy days contrasted with the modern streetcar that speeds away in the distance. Attention should be given to the gentleman with yellow hat and cane in the centre, who turns his gaze towards the sea, suggesting the manner in which this beautiful night scene should be contemplated. 4 (compare The Port of Volos, Averoff Museum, Metsovo.) The ships portholes and the coffee-shops windows, lit from within, the dark ship volumes and the shadows cast on the pavement further animate the scene, accentuating the mysterious charm and romantic feeling suggested by the nocturnal portscape.
Volanakis return to Greece coincided with the growth of shipping, the gradual retirement of sailing vessels, the emergence of steamers, the development of port cities and the strengthening of the seafaring class. A combination of landscape and city view, the port has acquired the special features of both these realms, a place where the natural world meets the man-made environment. It is a realm in which man tries to tame nature and coexist with it, a connecting link, a point of departure and arrival, a peaceful and secure refuge, a place of nostalgia and contemplation. 5
A pioneer seascapist, Volanakis was one of the first Greek painters to take up harbour scenes, bringing out their character and incorporating their various themes into a homogeneous whole. This unity of effect, the sense of time and 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 dreamworld 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. 6 The feeling of peace conveyed by this evocative harbour scene inspires the viewer to adopt a dreamlike attitude towards life. After all, Volanakis is the sensitive, romantic artist who is identified by his love for the sea, which seems to liberate him from the mundane world, opening up new horizons to contemplate and dream. 7
1. S. Lydakis, Constantinos Volanakis [in Greek], Adam publ, Athens 1997, pp. 169-176 2. See Vlachos, The Painter Constantinos Volanakis (doctorate thesis) [in Greek], Athens 1974, pp. 127-129. 3. D.E. Evangelidis, Greek Art [in Greek], Athens 1969, p. 128. 4. Reverie by the sea 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. (M. Vlachos, The Emergence of Modern Greek Painting 1830-1930 From the Bank of Greece Collection, Athens 2002, p. 50). 5. See Vlachos, The Painter Constantinos Volanakis, p. 125, and T. Christou, Portscapes by Greek Artists from the Late 19th to the Mid-20th Century in The Ports of Hellenism, Aenaon publ., Athens 2004, p. 69. 6. Lydakis, Volanakis, a Pioneer, Kathimerini newspaper (Epta Imeres), 22/02/1998, p. 14. 7. Lydakis, Constantinos Volanakis, p. 196.