PROVENANCE: Iphigenia Gysis (possibly). Peabody Collection, Baltimore. William Fisher, USA. Private collection, USA. Private collection, Athens.
EXHIBITED: Athens, National Gallery and Alexander Soutzos Museum, Nicholaos Gysis - The Great Creator, 2001, no 7 (p. 21 illustrated in the catalogue).
"This painting of mine, Examining the dogs, depicts a certain custom, which takes place here [in Munich] twice a year. Don't let my choice of subject perplex you. Even the Germans here wonder why I, a stranger, show interest in their customs. My teacher [Karl von Piloty] is extremely pleased with me and says to everybody: 'Gysis must stay with us here.' Let them say on. I know which country is my homeland." Letter to N. Nazos, September 21, 1870.1
This genre painting is one of the first in a series of works by Gysis that deal with subjects drawn from daily life and records his stylistic evolution at the outset of his illustrious career, while providing valuable information regarding his thorough study of the old masters at Munich's Alte Pinakothek.2 Gysis drew on Dutch genre paintings of the 17th century, depicting everyday scenes with warmth and tenderness that, like their Dutch predecessors, were rich in narrative detail, renouncing, however, the bawdiness often associated with such pictures. His palette is suffused in grey-green hues in the vein of G. Terborch and G. Metscher whose work he self-admittedly emulated. The artist applied this colour scheme to all the works he completed prior to his first trip back to Greece and the Orient in 1872-74 (compare The Painter in the Orient)
Examining the dogs is a multi-figured scene set in the courtyard of a Bavarian house that develops in a semi-circular manner, partially under a wooden arbour. Slightly off centre in this masterly composition, in which the figural groups are positioned as a series of overlapping triangles, Gysis highlights an elderly woman in a vividly coloured red shawl holding her pet on a wooden crate and showing its teeth to the veterinarian, who leans in for a closer and prolonged inspection. From there, the composition spills forward towards the edges of the canvas in the shape of an inverted V, including various types - women in peasant garb, children, adults and elderly dog-owners, while a genteel lady in black along with her well-dressed child and their good-looking pet dog stand out on the extreme right. The same broad variety of types is also manifest among the canine protagonists, with many different breeds, sizes and colours shown.
This amphitheatrical arrangement of attractive vignettes recalls the signature compositional format of Gysis's teacher Karl von Piloty. As noted by the late Dr. N. Missirli who prepared the artist's monograph, "in terms of the overall compositional design, Gysis followed on the footsteps of the German master, whose seemingly spontaneous layout but in fact well-thought out choreographic staging he used in his multi-figured scenes. Here, however, the many figures are not drawn to a single focal point, but form different groupings and include individuals who patiently await their dogs' examination."3 These various areas of interest are both bisected and unified by the empty pictorial space which fills much of the centre fore- and middle ground, creating a compelling sense of depth. By effectively combining this unadorned space with a variety of carefully studied themes and postures and by utilising swift and energetic brushstrokes, Gysis created a pictorially harmonious reality and conveyed a sense of presence and tactile immediacy that instantly engages the viewer in the narrative.
1. Letters by Nicholaos Gysis [in Greek], Eklogi editions, Athens 1953, p. 20. 2. See Treasures of Modern Greek Art - The Yannis Perdios Collection [in Greek], exhibition catalogue, National Gallery - A. Soutzos Museum and Mt. Sinai Foundation, Athens 1998, p. 120. 3. N. Misirli, Gysis [in Greek], Adam editions, Athens 1995, p. 46.