The sailing boat SEVASTON approaching the Corinth canal signed in Greek (lower left) oil on canvas 63 x 115 cm.
Provenance: Nikolaos Porfyrogenis (governor of ETBA bank 1964-1967). Acquired from the above by the present owner.
My Brigantine! Trust to the mystic power that points thy way, Trust to the eye that pierces from afar, Trust the red meteors that around thee play, And, fearless, trust the Sea-Green Ladys Star, Thou bark divine! James Fenimore Cooper
An elegant and seductive beauty and at the same time an imposing presence in complete command of the waters surrounding it, this captivating portrait of a two-masted vessel briskly sailing in a fresh breeze off the mouth of the Corinth Canal1, exudes an air of confidence, power and mastery of the forces of nature. She is presented in a broadside view, enabling the artist to include the maximum amount of visual information about her -the nature of rigging, the number of passengers and crew, the type and size of sails. A low horizon line allows the sailing boat to define the space around her, while the calm waters upon which she sails pose little apparent threat to her well-being. The ship portrayed gently gliding in the fresh breeze is a graceful brigantine, and specifically a brigantine-goleta or skouna, a light two-masted sailing vessel that is square-rigged on the foremast and fore-and-aft rigged on the mainmast, as opposed to a brig, which is square rigged on both masts. Originally a small ship carrying both oars and sails, it became a favourite of Mediterranean brigands, its name deriving from the Italian brigare meaning to contend for, to struggle, to strive for. In the late 17th century, the British Royal Navy used the term brigantine to refer to small two-masted vessels designed to be rowed as well as sailed, rigged with square sails on both masts. By the first half of the 18th century the word had evolved to refer not to a ship type, but rather to a particular type of rigging: square rigged on the foremast and fore-and-aft rigged on the mainmast. During the Greek War of Independence the word brigantine usually referred to brigs or parones. Knowledgeable about ships and well equipped to describe them in detail, Volanakis captured the smooth-flowing vessel in all its splendour, producing an accurate and convincing picture which belongs to the great nineteenth century European tradition of ship portraiture. The value of the ship portrait, which had its heyday in England and coincided with the boom in the shipping industry, lay for its owner-audience in its likeness to the original, its success largely depending on the visual accuracy of the observer-artist. The size, proximity, detailing of rigging and masts, broadside presentation and, above all, the banner on the foremast reading Sevaston -the name of the ship or the shipping company- confirm that this is indeed a ship portrait rather than a generalised marine view.
This glorification of the actual, of the visible world of things in their particularity, so ably carried out with clarity and precision, acknowledges the intrinsic value and beauty of the observable when seen with a sharp eye. Observe a ship at sea! the 19th c. American sculptor Horatio Greenough used to say. Mark the majestic form of her hull as she rushes through the water, observe the graceful bend of her body, the gentle transition from round to flat, the grasp of her keel, the leap of her bows, the symmetry and rich tracery of her spars and rigging, and those grand wind muscles, her sails!2
However, beyond this clear historical and documentary value and its corollary implications of financial prowess, we may note the artists emphasis on the human appeal of this work. While he presents his graceful sailing boat as fully inhabiting the pictorial space, he nonetheless skilfully places a smaller ship in the distant open sea to help the viewer, already drawn in the picture through the low horizon, map the deep space and be reminded of the expanse that stretches to the horizon and beyond. The whole is at once accurate in particular and yet clearly organised with a quiet power to give us the experience of an open space seemingly controlled by a man-made ship but ultimately dominated by nature. Man is a detail of Creation3, Volanakis seems to be suggesting, while nature is the eternal essence. Note how perfectly the minuscule passengers and seamen onboard blend in with their surroundings and the natural environment -harmonious with the ship, the sea and with one another. Moreover, the anchored masted steamers in the background and the quaint little village on the waterfront forge sea, sky and implied human activity into an atmospheric unity, lending the work a buoyancy and subtle poetry. As noted by Professor M. Vlachos, Volanakis studies his themes in detail, brings out their character and, ultimately, incorporates them into a homogeneous whole.4
Ever since his studies at the Munich Academy, Volanakis perceived the seascape as a complex entity, a homogenous whole with unlimited expressive potential, allowing him to seek the ideal balance between natures elemental forces and mans will to master. Upon his return from Germany in 1883, he took up permanent residency in the seaside town of Piraeus and had the opportunity to observe and render the atmospheric changes, the delicate nuances of the seascape and the soft gradations of light and shade with great accuracy and finesse. His descriptive details, suggestive atmospheric effects and low horizons that give full value to the spaciousness of his skies, are reminiscent of the great 17th century Dutch masters. Volanakis, however, adds a Mediterranean feel that differentiates him from the western manner, endowing his work with a highly personal and unique style. Raised on the islands of Crete and Syros, he had experienced the open horizons and the constantly changing sea and had developed a keen sense of light and colour, allowing him to capture in fine pictures such as The sailing boat Sevaston the warmth and poetry of his homeland.
1. The Corinth Canal, which connects the Gulf of Corinth with the Aegean Sea cutting through the narrow Isthmus of Corinth, revolutionised shipping in the Mediterranean and established Piraeus as a key port in the trade routes to the West. When French engineers completed the four-mile-long canal in 1893 after 11 years of work, they finished a job that only one tyrant, Periandros of Corinth in the 7th century BC, and one emperor, Nero in the first century AD, had previously attempted. Until the canal was built, ships sailing between Piraeus and Italy had to round the dreadful Cape Tainaron (Matapan) at the southern tip of the Peloponnese, adding some 200 miles to their journey. The Corinth Canal was the subject of two of VolanakiS best known works, The cutting of the Isthmus of Corinth (E. Koutlides Foundation, Athens) and The inauguration of the Corinth Canal (Bank of Greece, Athens). 2. See H. Tuckerman, A Memorial of Horatio Greenough, Benjamin Blom publ., New York 1968. 3. S. Lydakis, Constantinos Volanakis [in Greek], Adam, Athens 1997, p. 64. 4. M. Vlachos, Constantinos Volanakis in Greek Painters [in Greek], vol.1, Melissa, Athens 1974, p. 202.