View of the Acropolis from the Observatory, Athens signed and dated 'P. Monsted, Athenes, 1893' (lower right) oil on canvas 72 x 131 cm.
Thanks to its monuments, Athens will live on in the minds of posterity. Thucydides
A breathtaking view of the timeless Athenian landscape bathed in the translucent Greek light and captured in painstaking miniature detail, View of the Acropolis from the Observatory by the Danish painter Peder Mørk Mønsted unites the magnificence of the sacred rock with the charming simplicity of small town life in an evocative representation of late 19th century Athens.
The beauty of the temples I well knew from endless drawings noted Edward Lear back in 1848 but the immense sweep of plain with exquisitely formed mountains down to the sea and the manner that huge mass of rock, the Acropolis, stands above the modern town with its glittering white marble ruins against the deep blue sky is quite beyond my expectations. Poor old scrubby Rome sinks into nothing by the side of such beautiful magnificence.1
Envied by gods and men alike ever since Poseidon and Athena disputed its patronage, Athens has exerted an influence on world history out of all proportion to its size. Its legendary symbol, the 5th c. BC Acropolis, always had the power to inspire wonder and stir the heart, showing how true and alive balanced thought can be. Nowhere and at no time has art achieved such perfect harmony with nature as in this imposing and sublime work. The Acropolis of Athens is the noblest altar that human genius ever erected to Beauty.2 Remaining a timeless icon of artistic excellence, Athens declined with the triumph of Christianity and sank into oblivion until the mid 19th century, when it was rediscovered by western European travellers, including prominent Danish scholars, architects and artists. Born at the end of the 'golden age' of Danish painting, Peder Mørk Mønsted was the leading Danish landscapist of his time and the favourite painter of King George of Greece -originally a Danish prince- who invited him to Athens in 1893. Mønsted stayed for a year, capturing on canvas the grandeur and monumentality of the Greek landscape with a remarkable eye for anecdotal detail and evocative colour.3 In this splendid view of Athens stretching as far afield as the gentle slopes of Mount Hymettus, delineated against a limpid sky, Mønsted chose a southwest vantage point, at the foot of the Hill of the Nymphs -where the Athens Observatory stands since 1847- because it offers one of the best views of the rock as a harmonious ensemble of illustrious monuments -particularly the majestic Propylaea which had been extensively restored throughout the second half of the 19th century. Mønsted was keen enough to include two more Athenian landmarks, the Philopappus Monument, crowning the Hill of the Muses (or Mouseion) at the southeastern side of the Acropolis, and the Theseion (Hephaisteion), a classical Doric temple of dazzling Pentelic marble, partly shown in the far left overlooking quaint Byzantine monuments, such as the church of Aghion Asomaton, and closely packed neoclassical buildings.
Laced with myriad other enchanting details and delightful scaffage themes and largely dominated by a humble tile-roofed adobe in the middleground, the picture perfectly illustrates one of Athens most distinctive features -one which many western travellers have remarked upon, namely the juxtaposition of different periods, which provides a setting for an attractive pageant of the citys long history.4 Finally, in a display of brilliance, Mønsted covered the foreground with athanata,5 these everlasting bushes so typical of the Greek landscape, underlining the timeless splendour of the ancient monument and alluding to the immortal values of classical Greece.
1. E. Lear, letter to his sister Ann, Athens, June 3 1948. See F.M. Tsigakou, The Rediscovery of Greece, Travellers and Painters of the Romantic Era, Caratzas brothers publ., New Rochelle, New York 1981, p. 127. 2. A. Philadelpheus, Monuments of Athens, History and Art Editions, Athens 1995, p. 45. 3. Mønsted exhibited at the Charlottenborg Palace in Copenhagen and today his paintings are included in major private and public collections, including the Dahesh Museum of Art in New York. See http://www.artfact.com. 4. See Tsigakou, Through Romantic Eyes, European Images of Nineteenth-Century Greece from the Benaki Museum, Athens, (exhibition catalogue), Art Services International, Alexandria, Virginia 1991, p. 26. 5. See Tsigakou, Through Romantic Eyes, p. 52