A Greek fisherman narrating his adventures in front of Cape Sounion signed and dated 'P.Bonirote 1862' (lower left) oil on canvas 98 x 130 cm
Provenance: A descendant of the P. Bonirote family. Private collection, Athens.
Exhibited: Lyon, 1862. Paris and Grenoble, 1870.
"Place me on Suniums marbled steep, Where nothing, save the waves and I, May hear our mutual murmurs sweep, There, swan-like, let me sing and die." Lord Byron
In my new studio I took up our Greek fishermen again, whose leading figure narrates his adventures that are anything but amusing and scare the audience. Cape Sounion can be seen in the background. In this picture, suffused with an afternoon atmosphere [effet du soir], I tried to instil some life and expression into the physiognomies of my figures, as well as some measure of truth in their attitudes. Did I succeed, I wonder? This is how Pierre Bonirote describes Lot 10 in his diary, published in Revue du Louvre, noting that he had showed it in Lyon in 1862 before reworking and re-exhibiting it in Paris and Grenoble in 1870.
The French philhellene Pierre Bonirote holds a special place in the history of Modern Greek art as the first artist/professor who officially taught oil painting in Greece. A student of P.H. Revoli and C. Bonnefond at the École des Beaux-Arts in his native Lyon and a disciple of the great neo-classicist Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, Bonirote was appointed in 1840 by decree of King Otto first Director of the Art Department at the newly founded Polythechic School or Royal School of Arts, an early precursor of both the National Technical University of Athens and the Athens School of Fine Arts. Bonirotes invitation was handled and financed by the French art loving philhellene Duchess of Placentia (Sophie de Marbois-Lebrun), who had played a key role in the Schools establishment and had undertaken to find the right person to take the helm in the nascent stage of its development.1 For that reason she travelled to Rome and consulted no other than Ingres himself, who at the time was Director of the French Academy in Rome. The great master recommended Bonirote.2
In the three years that the French artist stayed in Athens, he recorded the citys ancient ruins and monuments in numerous sketches and drawings, amassing a priceless collection of topographical subjects, landscape views and genre themes, immensely valuable to students. Following a decree issued in 1843, which precluded foreigners from teaching at the School of the Arts, Bonirote returned to Lyon, where he was appointed professor at the École des Beaux-Arts and remained on the faculty until 1875. In a lengthy diary, under the title Gréce Souvenir, Bonirote provides a comprehensive account of his years in Greece, meticulously describing his activities and acquaintances with both the Greeks and the Bavarians. His close relationship with Greece yielded many works with Greek subjects. Many of his philhellenic pictures -nine oils and sketches, are housed at the Archbishop Makarios III Foundation in Nicosia, Cyprus, following an exchange of works of art with the Musée des Beaux Arts de Lyon in 1938.
The fact that Bonirote continued to be interested in Greek subjects after his departure from Greece is confirmed by this large-scale genre composition set against the evocative classic beauty of Cape Sounions Doric temple of Poseidon. Reviewing the picture for Le Coup de Coeur en Regions, Caroline Legrand noted: Bonirotes painting is decisively removed from the romantic style of Delacroix, whose famous Massacre de Scio at the Louvre portrays one of the most dramatic moments in the Greek War of Independence. The Lyonnaise painter chose a more classical and realistic orientalist approach, depicting here an occasion of men and women sharing a moment of everyday life.
Admired for both aesthetic and moral reasons, fisherfolk provided a rich source of subject matter for European artists throughout the 19th century. Besides offering a wealth of colourful and intricate detail in their costumes and tools of the trade, they also presented a model of self-sufficiency and freedom. Compared to farm labourers and their families who might evoke sympathy, fishermen inspired respect. Their occupation involved not just skill and hard work but also danger, heroism and adventure.3
One of these maritime adventures is peacefully relayed by an elderly fisherman who prominently sits at the base of a wisely designed compositional pyramid, betraying Bonirotes solid academic background. The narrators extended left leg establishes a strong diagonal that intersects with the oblique sail in the middleground, forming an imaginary X mark that draws the eye to the pictures protagonist. From this safe anchorage, the picture, captured in the evocative, muted tones of the hour, unfolds outwards breaking into secondary pyramidal structures animated by fragmented areas of focus, displaying excellent draughtsmanship, especially when handling ethnographic detail (note the remarkable velvety texture of the sitting womans purple vest). The viewers eye moves rhythmically from vignette to vignette, as if through a collection of genre paintings. The startled expression on the sitting womans face and her worried leaning towards the male next to her punctuate the scene with a moment of tension and suggest a climactic moment not only in the fishermans story but also in the pictures narrative sequence, promoting movement across the picture surface.
The dispersed glances and clusters of figures claim equal attention, forcing the viewers eye to follow a circular motion, from the central figure to the couple on the right, to the boy and dog, to the standing figures and back again. (The imposing figure on the left is captured in the orientalist tradition of guard or sentry depictions, investing a humble fisherman holding just an ore with a sense of warrior gallantry and pride.) At the same time the eye also moves from front to rear, from detail to generality and from fineness of paint to sketchiness, relying on a fine interplay of lines and forms that create unity of effect and clarity of reference, valued elements of a long pictorial tradition of which Bonirote was a distinguished advocate.
The painter articulates his narrative through a span of figures varying in age, gender, size, type and race, in a way that transcends genre and approaches the expressive richness and variety expected of history painting. Figures are paired in a way reminiscent of Delacroixs Massacre de Scio,4 stressing the importance of private and communal bonds, especially the idea of family as the basic cell of society, a conception that became the perfect metaphor for the awakening national consciousness of the 19th century and played a key role in shaping notions of modern nationhood during the Greek War of Independence. Moreover, while Bonirote recreates classical elements that confer upon his figures a solemn presence, at the same time he delves in the genre aspect of his picture, incorporating notions of motherhood, male pride and arrogance, childhood mischievousness and female vulnerability.
While the foreground figures occupy the stage of narrative action, the middle - and background figures -dancing or carrying fish baskets to add a sense of spontaneity and everyday activity - indicate in scale the opening of the coast into perspectival space towards the distant opalescent shapes of lavender coastal rocks and the sparkling columns of the half-ruined ancient temple on Cape Sounion, emerging from a slight haze out to sea and defined against a violet, iridescent sky. Superbly situated on the summit of a promontory that plunges sharply into the sea, the temple of Poseidon, built in 444-440 BC, was a favourite subject for 19th century artists and poets alike,5 featuring the added attraction of Byrons signature on one of its columns, inscribed during the poets pilgrimage in 1810.
This is how Christopher Wordsworth described the site, then known as the Temple of Minerva, in 1839: Elevated on high above the Aegean Sea, at the extremity of this promontory, the temple stood like the Portico or Vestibule of Attica. Constructed on white marble, placed on this noble site, and visible at a great distance from the sea, it reminded the stranger, by the fair proportions of its architecture and by the decorations of sculpture and of painting with which it was adorned, that he was coming to a land illustrious for its skill in the most graceful Arts.6 Dramatic and remote, Cape Sounion, which Homer in the Odyssey calls the sacred promontory of Athens, inspired generations of Greek and foreign travellers. If Marathon was an enduring symbol of public duty, heroic action and self-sacrifice, Sounion has always been an evocative place of eternal escape and romantic indulgence.7
Finally, as an ingenious, witty postscript on a brilliant piece of visual narrative, Bonirote included an athanaton8 plant, this everlasting bush of the Greek landscape, on the extreme right of his canvas, engaging in a cross-temporal discourse with the ancient monument on the distant left and alluding to the timeless splendour of Greece.
1. See Athens School of Fine Arts, One Hundred and Fifty Years, Athens 1990, pp. 11-12. 2. C. Biris, History of the National Technical University of Athens 1836-1916, Athens 1951, p. 488. 3. See C. Payne, Where the Sea Meets the Land, Sansom & Company, Bristol 2007, p. 171. 4. See E. Fraser, Delacroix, Art and Patrimony in Post-Revolutionary France, Cambridge University Press, 2002. 5. See F.M. Tsigakou, 'Through Romantic Eyes, European Images of Nineteenth-Century Greece from the Benaki Museum, Athens', (exh. cat.), Art Services International, Alexandria, Virginia 1991, p. 88. 6. C. Wordsworth, Greece: Pictorial, Descriptive and Historical, 1839. See also Tsigakou, The Rediscovery of Greece, Travellers and Painters of the Romantic Era, Caratzas Brothers publ. New Rochelle, New York 1981, pp. 152-153. 7. See S. Minta, On a Voiceless Shore, Byron in Greece, Henry Holt and Company, New York, 1998, pp. 137-140. 8. See Tsigakou, Through Romantic Eyes, p. 52.