Departure from Piraeus to Tinos bearing signature in Greek (lower right) oil on canvas 64 x 52 cm.
Painted c. 1889.
Provenance: Private collection, Athens.
This exquisite dual portrait -of a stately steamship and a handsome neoclassical town- ingeniously underlines the very nature of the port as a connecting link between the physical world and the man-made environment, as a peaceful refuge and bustling centre, a point of departure and arrival.1 A permanent resident of the port town of Piraeus since 1883, Volanakis had the opportunity to closely observe the moored vessels and lovingly delineate their every detail with great aptitude, descriptive accuracy and finesse, confirming his position as one of the foremost European ship portraitists of the nineteenth century.
The artists return from Munich to Piraeus, where his fathers family ran a profitable business, coincided with the growth of shipping, the gradual retirement of sailing vessels, the emergence of steamers and the development of great port cities. Designed by Stamatis Kleanthis and Eduard Schaubert, Piraeus featured open spaces and tree-lined boulevards that gave it an elegant European air. Despite the downturn in the national economy in the 1870s, the city experienced rapid growth and, especially after the opening of the Corinth Canal in 1893, it was established as a key port in the trade routes to the West, marking the Greek merchant marines definite transition from the age of sail to the age of steam. By the late 1880s-early 1890s, a period during which Departure was probably painted, Piraeus was already a bustling urban centre and an attractive city with a distinct character and cosmopolitan flair.2
The painting shows a partial view of Akti Miaouli -a busy strip of commercial activity still housing today most of the leading Greek shipping companies- dominated by the imposing dome and bell towers of St. Spyridons cathedral. The construction of this massive building was concluded in 1887, providing us with a terminus post quem for dating the picture. Right in front of the church stands a grandiose mansion, once the residence of the heirs of the legendary admiral and 1821 war hero Andreas Miaoulis, which was bought at auction in 1843 by the prominent landowner Anestis Hatzopoulos. This large structure, which for more than a century was one of the citys most distinctive and enduring landmarks, was unjustly demolished in 1967.3 To the far left, just across Sotiros Dios St., can be seen a portion of the beautiful Tinanian Gardens, built in the 1850s by the French Vice-Admiral Charles Tinan, where local artists used to exhibit and sell their work.4 In front of the wrought-iron fence passes the elegant streetcar which ran across the entire port, providing easy access to waterfront piers and catering to the needs of embarking passengers5 like the ones depicted embarking for the island of Tinos.
It takes the eye a while to explore the pictures various iconographical elements, supplementary themes and painstaking details, from the rigging of the two masted, single funnel vessel to the beautiful vignettes of everyday activity on the wharf, almost absorbed by their surroundings in a romantic notion of art echoing Claude Lorrain. The brilliant patchwork of the passengers approaching the ship, captured in vivid colours and handled with impressionistic verve, animates the entire scene, while the colourful nautical banners and the prominent Greek flag provide additional spark to effectively convey a festive and exuberant atmosphere (compare The arrival of Princess Sophia, c. 1887, private collection, Athens.)
Furthermore, the pronounced diagonals which enhance the sense of movement, the extreme foreshortenings that take full advantage of the shallow space, the wonderful reflections that flicker on the still waters, the powerful verticals against a low horizon, the spacious sky reminiscent of the 17th c. Dutch masters and, above all, the sense of eminent departure that echoes the achievements of Canaletto, are all creatively combined in a harmonious composition of exceptional quality and great value.
1. See M. 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. 2. See L. Micheli, Piraeus - From Porto Leone to the Manchester of the East [in Greek], Athens 1988 and Piraeus -Shipping and Industry, Kathimerini daily - Epta Imeres, 30.4.1995. 3. See S. Malikouti, Piraeus 1834-1912 [in Greek], Piraeus Bank Group Cultural Foundation, Athens 2004, pp. 157-158, 244-245. 4. See S. Lydakis, Constantinos Volanakis [in Greek], Adam publ. Athens 1997, p. 136. 5. See T. Toyas, S. Fasoulas, C. Kalemkeris, The Streetcars of Athens-Piraeus, Patras and Kalamata, Kalamaria Municipality Photography Museum, Thessaloniki 2007, pp. 215-217.