Greek family in front of the Gate of Persecution, Ephesus, 1822 signed and dated 'L.F. Cassas/1822' (lower left) watercolour and ink on paper 68 x 104 cm.
Provenance: The Fine Art Society, London, April 1994. Private collection, Athens.
On 15 September 1787 Goethe wrote in a letter: Cassas work is extremely beautiful. It made me think of a lot of things Id like to tell you. And two days later, writing in his journal, he described the drawings he had seen in great detail.1 Gérard-Georges Lemaire, who devotes a whole chapter on Cassas and Goethe in his treatise The Orient in Western Art, notes that Cassas drawings are remarkable for their freshness and their lightness of touch; they have the spontaneity of his original sketches. His paintings are also very distinctive. He handles the picturesque deftly. His skill lay in his ability to render the architecture and costumes with a meticulous attention to detail that vividly evokes, for western eyes, the exotic character of the people and events depicted.
In this exquisite, large-scale painting, one of the most important topographical pictures by the artist ever to appear on the auction market, Cassas takes up his theme with a tenderness of observation, capturing both the monumentality of the ruins and the romanticism of the location at a time when a particular conjunction of political events and artistic concerns brought a rapid expansion of the Wests contact with the near East. While the development of the picturesque aesthetic extended the interest in topography to the visiting and recording of unfamiliar lands, the growth of scientific and historical curiosity also called for accurate surveys and careful depictions of peoples and places.2
In Ephesus, one of the most important Greek archaeological sites in Asia Minor, Cassas picked out a very prominent feature, the famous Gate of Persecution, to show his fascination with the emotive and picturesque qualities of architecture overlaid with literary associations and fabled allusions. Leading to the citadel and the ruined basilica of St. John the Evangelist, who is believed to have written the fourth gospel in Ephesus, this magnificent portal, incorporating sculptural elements from Hellenistic and Roman times, inspires awe. Although much dilapidated and almost completely abandoned by the nineteenth century, it continued to attract artists and writers with its echoes of the grandeur of a bygone era.
Besides the sheer scale of the structure, Cassas was particularly impressed by the three remarkable bas-reliefs installed over the gateway, which were mistakenly thought by the Byzantines to depict the persecution of Christians. In John Hartleys Researches in Greece and the Levant (1933), a travellers account almost contemporary with Cassas painting, we read: A large archway leading to the castle is generally called the Gate of Persecution from the supposition that the sculpture attached to it represents the sufferings of the Primitive Christians. It is however believed, with more reason, that nothing else is signified than Achilles dragging the dead body of Hector behind his chariot. The chief part of these figures was removed some time ago, and is said to have been sold for an immense price.3
Taken from Roman sarcophagi, these elaborate reliefs, removed at a later date to Woburn Abbey, England, home of the Duke of Bedford,4 are now believed to represent the myth of Endymion, a youth of wondrous beauty who in all the stories about him sleeps forever, immortal, eternally young and beautiful but never conscious. Loukianos suggests that Selene had become enamoured of him while seeing him asleep, while according to Likymnios of Chios it was Hypnos who fell in love with him and lulled him to sleep with his eyes open so that he might have the pleasure of looking at them.5
Below this imposing and evocative monument of former splendour and against the soft, opalescent mists of the distant horizon the remains of the Byzantine aqueduct can still be seen. In the right foreground three armed men seem to be guarding the entrance, while on the left an extended Greek family group attending two Greek Orthodox priests is engaged in a religious ritual, possibly an unction of a small child. All figures are portrayed with such precise rendering and intimate feeling that, as Goethe himself once said about Cassas pictures, it is a pleasure to see. In his insistence on realistic detail, delightfully attractive effects and highly finished quality that never drifts to over-stylisation, Cassas conveys a visual sense of history, people and place, helping the viewer to fathom the vastness of years this awe-inspiring site travelled through time.
Louis-François Cassas trained as an artist in France, moving to Italy in the late 1770s where he remained for five years. In the early 1780s, he travelled throughout much of Turkey in the company of the French Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire le comte Marie August Florent Choiseul-Gouffier and produced numerous illustrations for the latters celebrated book on the region. Cassas then embarked on a two year journey to Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Cyprus and Egypt. In 1787, he travelled again to Asia Minor and Greece, returning to Rome where some of his drawings were later engraved for his Voyage Pittoresque de la Syrie, de la Phénicie, de la Palestine et de la Basse Egypte (1799). In Rome, he quickly built up a solid reputation, with people flocking to his studio to admire his drawings and watercolours which had escaped the Arabs. The German poet Goethe was one of his visitors.
1. G.G. Lemaire, The Orient in Western Art, Könemann, 2005, p. 82. 2. See M.A. Stevens, 'Western Art and its Encounter with the Islamic World 1798-1914' in The Orientalists: Delacroix to Matisse, The Allure of North Africa and the Near East , ed. M.A. Stevens, Thames and Hudson and The National Gallery of Art, 1984, pp. 15-23. See also The Middle East and the West, London 1964. 3. J. Hartley, Researches in Greece and the Levant, R.B. Seeley and W. Burnside publ., London 1833, p. 233. 4. Fine Arts Society catalogue, 1994. 5. See E. Hamilton, Mythology, Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes, Mentor Books, New York, Toronto and London, 1940, pp. 113-114 and T. Gantz, Early Greek Myth, vol. 1, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore and London, 1993, pp. 35-36.