Cesare Felix Georges dell' Acqua (Italian, 1821-1904)
Greek mother signed and dated 'Cesare Dell'Acqua 1860' (lower left) oil on canvas 86 x 66 cm.
Provenance: Courementis Collection, Brussels until 1983. With Fine Art Society, London, 1984. Acquired from the above by a Middle Eastern collector. Christies London, June 17, 1994, Lot 217. Private collection, Athens.
Exhibited: London, Fine Art Society, May 1984, no 10744. Rome, Palazzo Venezia, Risorgimento Greco e Filellinismo Italiano, 1986 (illustrated in the exhibition catalogue, p. 147, and referred in p. 456.)
Literature: Fani-Maria Tsigakou, The Rediscovery of Greece, Thames & Hudson, 1981, illustrated p. 55. F. Firmiani, F. Tossi, Il Pittore Cesare Dell' Acqua, Fachini publ., Trieste 1992, no 62 (illustrated). E. Benezit, Dictionnaire Critique et Documentaire des Peintres, Sculpteurs, Dessinateurs et Graveurs, vol. 4, Grund 1999, p. 409 (referred).
This superb painting is an archetypal image of the Greek War of Independence and a classic document in the history of 19th century Philhellenism. As noted by F.M. Tsigakou in her seminal book The Rediscovery of Greece, Travellers and Painters of the Romantic Era, "Cesare dell' Acqua's Greek Mother is a scene full of drama and emotion. Frightened yet fierce, the young mother leaves the spectator in no doubt that no enemy will ever take her child from her arms." 1 Such a scene not only moves the heart but sanctifies the Greek cause, while alluding to a heroic, glorious past.
In the years that followed the outbreak of the War of Independence2 in 1821, the Greek peninsula and the islands became the setting for dramatic events - victories, defeats, sieges, defences, acts of cruelty and heroism - that captured the attention and imagination of the Western world. "As the news of the Greek uprising spread in Europe, a mass of volunteers appeared, eager to join the cause. The European supporters of an independent Greece included ex-soldiers, mercenaries, professional revolutionaries, political refugees, university graduates, run-away students, romantics and adventurers of all classes. A few months after the massacres of Scio in 1822, the Batallion of Philhellenes was organized. At the end of the same year the German Legion arrived in Greece. Throughout Europe Philhellenic Societies and Committees were formed in order to raise funds and recruit volunteers for the Greek cause: the London Greek Committee was founded in 1823; the Paris Greek Committee two years later. Byron's arrival on the scene transformed the philhellenic movement into a romantic crusade. His death in Greece in 1824 became a symbolic event and led to a further intensification of philhellenic feeling and activity. The destruction of Missolonghi, two years later, marked the climax of philhellenic sentiments all over Europe. 'It is not the governments of Europe who have saved Greece, but public opinion.' This statement is no exaggeration for philhellenism was not just an intellectual cult but a great popular movement." 3
The Greek struggle provided subjects for a substantial production of paintings, drawings and prints throughout Europe. 4 Reviewing pictures of Greek themes exhibited at the Paris Salon of 1827, a French art critic commented: "Happy are the people who hold a small place in history; happy are those who have never attracted the eyes of the poets and the artists. The monotonous existence of a peaceful nation provides none of the vivid and ardent sensations sought by genius. Those nations so often celebrated by the lyre or the pen have to pay for their fame by their happiness. And nowadays, with what price of blood and tears has Greece gained the right to inspire all the children of the Muses. The Hellenes, their heroism, their disasters, their victories, their defeats, have provided a wealth of subjects for our painters." 5
In direct opposition to academic doctrines, romantic iconography substituted Modern Greeks for their ancient ancestors, the favourites of the neoclassical school. A review of the 1824 Salon reads: "We had enough of Ancient Greeks. We are more interested in Modern Greeks. These are the ones that speak to our hearts." 6 Romantic artists were moved by the heroism and sacrifice of the Greek revolutionaries and portrayed their tragedies in pictures of great emotional content, such as the famous Massacres of Scio and Greece Expiring on the Ruins of Missolonghi by Eugene Delacroix, emphasising patriotism and moral virtue and strengthening the consciousness of spiritual unity in the Christian world.
Greek mother, however, is not just an image of Christianity threatened by Islam. It is also a sign of deep humanity that goes back to ancient Greece. 7 The nobility and dignity of the young mother are not shaken by fear or desperation. She retains her humanity even at this moment of grave peril, like an austere and restraint Lapith on the west pediment of the temple of Zeus in Olympia. She is the direct progeny of her illustrious ancestors from which she has inherited not only physical likeness but also intellectual and cultural potential. Based on an ancient Greek and ultimately European concept of war as a human event on a human scale8, this idealised heroine comes to symbolise the long cultural tradition of the West as opposed to a brutal and mystified Orient; the eternal struggle between civilization and barbarism, liberty and oppression. 9 For the romantic Philhellene, the Greek cause represented not only the struggle for freedom, human rights and nationality, but also the struggle of the 'mother' of Western civilization to restore her former glory and carry the torch of rationalism and excellence. The Greek cause was ultimately a European cause. As Shelley declared: "We are all Greeks." 10
"In reviewing works of Greek subjects, the fact that these images seem to have been largely tinted by an intellectual process is striking. This is quite understandable, because to most people Greece engenders a variety of often contradictory attributes that may be encompassed under the definition 'a Romantic country'. Such romantic qualities were even more noticeably emphatic in the 1800s, when the country's appearance was not yet marred by the excrescences of industrialisation. To Europeans, the powerful influences of tradition, literature and history were such that Greece was perceived as an ideal rather than a real country. The Greek War of Independence provided European artists with a wealth of themes. Pictorially, the heroic, religious, classical and oriental elements of the Revolution offered them particularly sensational subject matter. Furthermore, the theme was so familiar to the European public that artists utilised it to allude to the oppression in their own countries. While the Greek War inspired romantic minds and hearts all over Europe, it was mainly through Byron's poetry that contemporary Greece was revealed to most European artists. In his verses, the poet had succeeded in blending the classical elements and vibrant Eastern colours of Greece with its reality. By putting forward a new image of a passionate living world rich in associations, Byron shattered the European vision of a timeless Greece. His victorious giaour , brave palikars, and mysterious Greek maids chased the mythological heroes and ancient nymphs from the Greek pictorial repertoire." 11
"This is not to say that classical allusions disappeared from imagery of the Greek War altogether. They continued to be broadly used, but in a new context. The Greeks' classical heritage and references to it became a uniting force, and they defended that legacy with heroism worthy of their ancient forefathers. Greeks were often depicted fighting amongst classical ruins, expiring with the same dignity as their illustrious ancestors, or posing as stalwart figures with handsome faces and classical noses. At the same time, the religious overtones of the Greek cause were as powerful as the classical." 12
With the immediacy of her stance, her compelling expression and strong cultural references, dell' Acqua's Greek mother recalls the words of R. Canat: "The Iphigenias of Modern Greece are those Christian maids, who kill themselves rather than surrender." 13
A prominent Italian painter of historic and genre subjects and a distinguished portraitist, Cesare Felix Georges dell' Acqua was born in Pirano d'Istria near Trieste in 1821 (the year the Greek War of Independence broke out) and died in Brussels in 1904. He entered the Venice Academy in 1842 and studied painting under Ludovico Lipparini, Odorico Politi and Michelangelo Grigoletti. One of his early works, The Meeting of Cimabue and the Young Giotto (1847) was noticed and acquired by Archduke Johann of Austria. In this period he also received commissions from Prince von Lichtenstein. Soon after, the artist continued his studies in Paris and in 1847 he moved to Brussels where his brother Eugène lived. There he became a student of Gallait, who exerted a strong influence on his work. Following his studies, he travelled to Vienna, Munich and Paris, along with his patron, the Hungarian Baron Ludovico Luigi Reszan. In his first years in Brussels, he had a strong showing but most of the monumental works commissioned by prominent families in Brussels, such as Errera, van Wambecke and van der Elst, were either destroyed or lost. Soon after, he painted two large pictures for the Greek Orthodox Church of Trieste, one of which, The Sermon of John in the Dessert, was so acclaimed that he was awarded town citizenship in 1851. The other painting, Jesus Calling the Small Children to Him, was shown in the 1854 Brussels Exhibition, where he received the gold medal. He gained his greatest following through his historic genre pictures, which he showed between 1857 and 1868 in Antwerp, Brussels, Gent, Rotterdam and Paris. Dell' Acqua reached the height of his fame with his participation in the World Expo in Vienna (1873) and the International Exhibition in London (1874) followed by shows in the USA and Australia.
Dell' Acqua always knew how to pick attractive or interesting historical subjects whose analytical rendering recalls the work of Paul Delaroche and Horace Vernet. Captured in sharp detail, his figures convey an appealing impression through the painterly handling of costumes. He also painted watercolours, a large collection of which was in the hands of Countess Duval de Beaulieu in Brussels. Some of his works were acquired by the collection of the Belgian Royal Palace. Besides historical romantic motifs he also painted subjects drawn from daily life. Between 1858 and 1866 he produced a number of large works in the Miramare Palace of Kaiser Maximilian, recounting the long history of the area. Works by Dell' Acqua are included in major private and public collections, such as the museums of Brussels, Antwerp, Trieste and Bruges. Besides this rich output, Dell' Acqua painted many attractive female half-length portraits clad in traditional Greek and oriental garb. 14
1.F.M. Tsigakou, The Rediscovery of Greece, Travellers and Painters of the Romantic Era, Caratzas brothers publ., New Rochelle, New York 1981, p. 55. 2. For contemporary accounts of the Greek War of Independence and attitudes towards it, see E. Blaquiere, The Greek Revolution: Origin and Progress, London 1825. For the history of the War see C.M. Woodhouse, The Greek War of Independence, London 1952 and D. Dakin, The Greek Struggle for Independence 1821-1833, London 1973. 3.Tsigakou, The Rediscovery of Greece, pp. 46, 48. 4. For an account of the effect of the Greek War on Western Europe and governmental strategies, see W. St. Clair, That Greece Might Still Be Free, Oxford University Press, London 1972. 5.Revue Encyclopédique, XXXV (1827), p. 129. For a brief account of philhellenic pictures, see H. Honour, Romanticism, London 1979, pp. 229-231. 6. A. Jal, cited in N. Athanassoglou-Kallmyer, French Images from the Greek War of Independence 1821-1830, Yale University Press, New Haven and London 1989, p. 12. 7. See Athanassoglou-Kallmyer. 8. See D. Kuspit, 'Uncivil War' in The Critic as Artist: The Intentionality of Art, UMI Research Press, Ann Arbor 1984, pp. 359-373. 9. See N. Daniel, Islam and the West. The Making of an Image, Edinburgh, 1960 and E. Said, Orientalism, Vintage Books, New York 1979. 10. P.B. Shelley, preface to Hellas, 1821. 11. Tsigakou, Through Romantic Eyes. European Images of Nineteenth-Century Greece from the Benaki Museum, Athens, Art Services International, Alexandria, Virginia 1991, pp. 17-18 12. Tsigakou, Through Romantic Eyes, p. 18. 13. R. Canat, La Renaissance de la Grèce Antique 1820-1850, Paris 1911, p. 13. 14. See E. Benezit, Dictionnaire des Peintres, Sculpteurs, dessinateurs et Graveurs, Gründ, 1999, Allgemeines Lexicon der Bildenden Künstler, Leipzig 1907, and Saur Allgemeines Künstler-Lexicon, Munchen-Leipzig, 2000.