The burning of a Turkish battleship signed in Greek (lower left) oil on canvas 92 x 135 cm.
PROVENANCE: Private collection, Athens.
This conflagration was the naval beacon of Greek liberty. G. Finlay
The burning of a Turkish battleship along with the Breakthrough of the Aris and the Battle of Salamis comprise Volanakis's epic trilogy of historic naval engagements. Having been liberated from the strict tenets of the Munich Academy, the artist here draws from a great feat of the Greek War of Independence (1821-1829) to create a dramatic atmosphere in the vein of similar romantic works by Gericault and Delacroix.
Towards the end of May 1821, a Greek squadron under Admiral Tombazis contacted the Ottoman fleet off the island of Lesbos, awaiting an opportunity to attack. This came when a slow-moving line-of-battleship known as Ferman Dîynemez, the "Moving Mountain", which got separated, anchored in the northern bay of Eressos. A council of war called by Tombazis resolved to engage using fireships. At daybreak on May 27, Dimitrios Papanikolis, one of the bravest and ablest Greek commanders, aimed his fireship at the double-decker's bow and despite heavy canon fire and the crew's efforts to repel the attack, he was successful in firmly fixing the bowsprit of his brulot under the prow of the Turkish ship.1"The flames mounted into the sails of the fire-ship in an instant, for both the canvas and the rigging were saturated with turpentine, and they were driven by the wind over the bows of the line-of-battleship, whose hull they soon enveloped in a sheet of fire. The flames and the dense clouds of smoke which rushed along the deck and poured in at the ports rendered it impossible to make any effort to save the ship."2 Many of the sailors jumped overboard under heavy fire from the Greek fleet. The cable was cut, and launches full of men, mostly officers, left the ship. Even Captain Arnaut, abandoning his crew to their fate, attempted to board a lifeboat (possibly the wounded man in white shown in the foreground) but was stabbed in the neck by an infuriated junior officer.3 Within half an hour the battle was over. At about 11 a.m. the main magazine exploded and left the once majestic battleship a complete wreck.
This was a great feat with even greater consequences extending beyond the mere loss of a major battleship and the perishing of hundreds of men. The morale of the Greek forces was boosted, while the Turkish fleet, upon hearing of this terrible disaster, sailed back to the Dardanelles, ceding complete command of the Aegean to the Greeks. The contribution of Papanikolis, who was the first to use a fireship against the Ottoman naval forces, as well as that of Patatoukos, who built it, to the Greek cause was immense. This type of fireship, with few modifications, was extensively used throughout the Greek Revolution, yielding spectacular results in most cases.4
Beyond its historical and documentary value, the composition allowed Volanakis to capture the naval scene in all its splendour, producing an accurate and convincing picture which belongs to the great 19th c. European tradition of battle painting and ship portraiture. "In the two years he sailed with the Austrian fleet as a reward for capturing fist place in the competition for the depiction of the naval battle of Lissa, Volanakis had the opportunity to expand his knowledge on different types of warships. As a result, no detail escaped him. He knew everything and made detailed notes and studies like a true shipwright, which proved quite useful in his later compositions."5 (Compare, C. Volanakis, The Kaiser battleship at the naval battle of Lissa, 1868, Vienna, Österreichische Galerie).
In the Bonhams picture, the imposing wooden two-decker battleship is placed at an angle affording a full view of the starboard side and the stern where most of the action takes place. In contrast to other, mostly night-time, depictions of naval engagements involving fireships, where the action unfolds in the middleground and the dramatic tone rests almost exclusively on the visual effect of a blazing fire against a dark background, this work is distinguished by the daring way the ship's immense volume is placed much closer to the viewer, to the point that the tips of the masts are audaciously cropped. The composition relies on swift brushwork, fluid design and naturalistic colour, while the human figures, compared to the Battle of Lissa (1869, Budapest, Fine Arts Museum) and the Battle of Salamis (1882, Athens, Naval Headquarters), are rendered in a more impressionistic manner, accentuating the work's emotional content and dramatic appeal. As a result the picture transcends the specific historical event and lays claim to the elegiac and the symbolic.
As noted by Professor M. Vlachos, "although military conflicts hardly suited his calm and gentle nature, Volanakis proved to be highly adept in portraying the Turkish defeat, striking a balance between form and subject. This kind of approach, akin to various compositional schemes by the Dutch masters or even those of Turner and Garneray, represents Volanakis's highest achievement in the depiction of epic naval themes."6
The painting's great artistic merit lies in the fact that Volanakis, instead of focusing on the courageous rebels as, for example, Nikiphoros Lytras did in his Burning of the Turkish flagship by Kanaris (Averoff Museum, Metsovo), brilliantly captures the scene's tragic magnificence, paying an indirect tribute to the heroic act of the Greeks and elevating the military confrontation to the realm of pure emotion and subjective interpretation. As noted by M. Vlachos, "the magnitude of the victory is assessed by the material loss and the tragic lot of man."7 The torn Turkish flag on the wounded battleship's stern, charges the dramatic atmosphere even further, foreshadowing the victorious outcome of the Greek revolution.
1. See J. Braddock, The Greek Phoenix, Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, 1972, p. 92. 2. G. Finlay, History of the Greek Revolution, William Blackwood, 1861, vol. I, p. 220. 3. It is supposed that between three and four hundred men perished. According to Greek historian D. Kokkinos, only eight sailors survived out of a crew of 1,100. D. Kokkinos, The Greek Revolution [in Greek], vol. I, Melissa, Athens 1967, pp. 576-578. 4. See History of the Greek Nation, vol. XII, Ekdotike Athinon, Athens 1972, pp. 126-128. 5. P. Dimara-Tsimbouki, Constantinos Volanakis [in Greek], Eklogi magazine, no. 80, June 1952, pp. 42-43. 6. M. Vlachos, Constantinos Volanakis (1837-1907), doctoral dissertation, Athens 1974, pp. 141-142. 7. M. Vlachos, Greek Marine Painting and the European Image of the Sea, Olkos, Athens 1994, p. 212.