Moonlit harbour of Volos signed in Greek (lower left) oil on canvas 62.562.5 x 115 cm.
PROVENANCE: Private collection, Athens.
A serenely luminous painting, rich in rhythm, realistic description and supplementary themes, and a sensitive work typical of Volanakis' Greek period (1884-1907), this evocative marine nocturne is a poetic conception of a harbour scene bathed in silvery moonlight that illuminates the sky and sea in both a naturalistic and magical way. Transient gleams lead the viewer's eye from the stately steamer in the middleground towards the distant horizon, far beyond the peaceful port to the vast expanses of the unfathomable sea. By weaving night effects and reflections into a compelling representation and cohesive whole, the painter lends a lyrical resonance to the work, carrying on the Romantic tradition of the sublime and spiritual in nature. His fascination with the effets de soir and deep feeling for the still hours after sunset is part of an honourable 19th tradition, particularly among the painters of the Barbizon School. According to Sjraar van Heugten, Head of collections at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, finding the right colours to evoke the feeling of the night demands considerable ingenuity and the contrasts between light and dark have to be both convincing in themselves and in balance with the rest of the composition.1
Discussing the artist's moonlit harbour world, Professor S. Lydakis noted: "The nocturnal seascape captures an enchanting view of the sea bathed in moonlight which, along with its reflections on the still waters, defines the silhouettes of masted ships, betraying the artist's romantic disposition and introspective reverie. Volanakis takes advantage of the moon's magical reflections on a watery expanse that offers a wide range of possibilities for filtering tone gradations and, by its nature, allows the artist to fully exploit the atmospheric effects of paint. The emotional symbolism is almost explicit: the sea is revealed as a metaphor for the infinite and the ungraspable, the ship as a fleeting presence on the volatile sea, like man faced with eternity. And Volanakis' intent may not be overtly symbolistic, as he mainly concentrates on purely pictorial means, yet, like Aivazovsky, he doesn't disregard the emotional charge generated by the image of the sea depending on the time of day or night, that is the epic or lyrical mood stimulated by time and space, light and darkness."2
Moonlit Harbour showcases Volanakis' predilection for certain iconographical and compositional schemes regarding his handling of port views, as pointed out by M. Vlachos in his treatise on the artist: The ship is the main subject, while all port-related references are pushed to the sides and the background. Only one pier is shown, usually sideways to the left, with one or more moored ships and some port-side activities, which are always diminished so as not to disrupt the tranquillity of the scene. Anecdotal details abound, while the interplay of verticals (masts, buildings) and curves (U-shape pier, curvilinear hulls) is often prominent.3 Enlivening the scene and delighting the viewer, his vignettes of everyday activity, almost absorbed by their surroundings in a romantic notion of art echoing Claude Lorrain, are some of Volanakis' favourite scaffage themes: genteel strollers, a horse-drawn carriage and a crouching figure casually attending to his lamp-lit boat at the pier's edge exude the laid-back attitude of horse and buggy days contrasted with the modern streetcar that speeds away in the distance. The coffee-shop's windows, lit from within, and the shadows cast on the pavement further animate the scene, accentuating the mysterious charm and romantic feeling suggested by the nocturnal portscape.
A pioneer seascapist, Volanakis was one of the first Greek painters to take up harbour scenes. His return from Munich to Greece in 1883 coincided with the development of port cities,4 the growth of shipping, the gradual retirement of sailing vessels and the emergence of steamers, such as this lot's main protagonist, a two-masted, two-funnel paddle wheeled steamer that echoes the artist's eight year stay in the great port town of Trieste.5 His choice of taking permanent residence in the port town of Piraeus facilitated his observations and served as a constant inspiration in rendering atmospheric changes, delicate seascape nuances and soft gradations of light and shade with great accuracy, bringing out the mellow warmth of the harbour and conveying a feeling of peace and reverie that inspires the viewer to adopt a poetic, dreamlike attitude towards life.
1. See Van Gogh and the Colors of the Night, The Museum of Modern Art, New York 2008, p. 63. 2. S. Lydakis, Constantinos Volanakis [in Greek], Adam publ, Athens 1997, pp. 169-176 3. See M. Vlachos, The Painter Constantinos Volanakis (doctorate thesis) [in Greek], Athens 1974, pp. 127-129. 4. A combination of landscape and city view, the port has acquired the special features of both these realms, a place where the natural world meets the man-made environment. It is a realm in which man tries to tame nature and coexist with it, a connecting link, a point of departure and arrival, a peaceful and secure refuge, a place of nostalgia and contemplation. See The Ports of Hellenism, Aenaon publ., Athens 2004, p. 69. 5. See I. Paloubis, 'Volanakis' Vessels' in Constantinos Volanakis 1837-1907, Poet of the Sea, exhibition catalogue., Hellenic Maritime Museum - Aikaterini Laskaridi Foundation, Athens 2009, p. 73.