Praying in a Greek church, Mount Parnassus signed and dated 'Ralli 1876' (lower right) oil on canvas 81.3 x 65 cm.
Provenance: Irene Walton, Montreal, Canada. Pinneys, Montreal. Purchased from the above by the previous owner. Sotheby's Sale, 18 November 2003, Lot 5. Purchased from the above by the present owner.
Exhibited: Paris, Salon de 1877, No 1756 as 'La prière dans une église Grecque, au Mont Parnasse'.
Literature: H.W. Janson, Catalogues of the Paris Salon 1673 to 1881, Paris Salon de 1877, New York & London, 1977, p. 223, no 1756 (listed). Dictionary of Greek Artists, 4th volume, Melissa publications, Athens 1998, p. 85 (mentioned, text by M. Katsanaki).
The Orthodox religious atmosphere in the dark interior of a small Greek village church could have found no better interpreter than Ralli A. Ioannou
A tour de force of 'church genre' by a leading figure of 19th century Greek art, this magnificent scene of silent peasant piety expresses a mood of inner passion, tranquillity and deep-felt religiosity, evoking a noble sentiment of holy respect and romantic mysticism. Humility, veneration and emotion, which no distraction seems able to dispel, endow the figures with a solemn grandeur that harmonises with the building itself. "Ralli's art is best represented in his 'prayer scenes' in which idealised figures immersed in a spiritual ambiance convey a feeling of piety and religiosity. The human forms harmoniously match the austerity of the Byzantine temples, which the artist had the chance to become familiar with during his travels to Mt. Athos, Meteora and other parts of mainland Greece." 1 (Compare In the church, Athens, National Gallery, Young woman lighting a candle in a church, Athens, Yannis Perdios collection, Supplication, Athens, National Gallery.)
According to Athens National Gallery curator M. Katsanaki, "Praying in a Greek church, Mt. Parnassus belongs to the artist's body of work produced following his 1876 trip to Greece and exhibited at the 1877 Paris Salon, capturing the attention of French critics with its original subject." 2 The slate-paved floor, flooded by a warm invading light, strongly contrasts with the dark interior, lit by the overhanging oil lamps and the flickering candles - votive offerings of the pious faithful such as the young man dressed in the traditional fustanella kilt in the background. In the dim light, the sacred figures, faintly portrayed on the icons, loom as transcendental presences, enhancing the poetry of the scene.
The beautiful countenance of the kneeling female figure in the centre, captured in sharp profile and modelled by strong contrasts of light and shadow, has a sculpture-like immobility, recalling the timeless, idealised beauty of ancient Greek statues. Surrendering her individual specificity, the young Greek takes on a symbolic quality, echoing the words of Max Friedländer: "The 'prayer scene' painter eliminates the specific as something low, incongruous, incidental and faulty to honour the divine and holy with 'beauty'." 3 In its balanced compositional structure, mastery of space, solidity of form, tight handling of paint, subtle chiaroscuro effects, strong sense of narrative and meticulous attention to ethnographic detail (note the diligence with which the embroidery on the kneeling woman's dress is rendered), this exceptionally refined and lyrical painting shows Ralli at his best, epitomising the defining qualities of his art.
A student of Jean-Leon Gérôme, the leader of the French 'Neo-grec' School, Ralli had a solid career in France, recognized as a prominent exponent of official academic painting. He participated in many prestigious exhibitions and in 1901 was awarded the Medal of the Legion of Honour by the French Government. He also showed regularly in Athens and his work was admired by critics4 and collectors alike. In one of the most comprehensive essays written on the painter, Professor C. Christou notes that "Ralli was one of those artists who consistently managed to sell their work even before they were completely dry, a fact that explains why the National Gallery in Athens has such a limited collection of his work." 5
1.. M. Papanikolaou, Greek Genre Painting of the Nineteenth Century [in Greek], Thessaloniki, 1978, pp. 8-9. See also T. Thomopoulos, 'Theodoros Rallis' [in Greek], Panathinea, vol.3, 1901-1902, p. 17, F. Yoffylis, History of Modern Greek Art [in Greek], vol.1, To Elliniko Vivlio publ., Athens 1962, p. 228 and A. Ioannou, Greek Painting, Melissa publ., Athens 1974, p. 243. 2. M. Ka(tsanaki), Dictionary of Greek Artists [in Greek], vol.4, Melissa publ., Athens 2000, p. 85. 3.. M. Friedländer, Uber die Malerei, Munchen 1963, p. 161. See also Papanikolaou, p. 114. 4. In its 9.3.1889 issue, the Nea Efimerida daily published a lengthy review of a work by Ralli depicting a female peasant from Mt. Parnassus bowing before the icon of the Virgin in the Hosios Loukas monastery, on the occasion of the picture's reproduction in Paris-illustré. 5. C. Christou, Greek Painting 1832-1922 [in Greek], National Bank of Greece, Athens 1993, p. 78.