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Nikiforos Lytras (Greek, 1832-1904)
signed in Greek (upper right)
oil on canvas
58 x 48 cm.
Painted circa 1902.
Xrysavghi Lytras collection (the artist's daughter);
Timoleon Razelos collection, Athens;
Private collection, Athens.
Athens, Zappeion, Exhibition of the Greek Artistic Company, 1907;
Athens, Exhibition of the Journalists Association, 1909;
Cairo, Exhibition of the Greek Artistic Association, 1910;
Athens, School of Fine Arts and Eteria Filotechnon, Retrospective, 1933, no 10.
Pinakothiki Magazine, 7th year, Dafnis, 'The artistic exhibition at Zappeion', May 1907, p. 62.
Panathinea magazine, 7th year, 'First Exbihibition of the Greek Artistic Company at Zappeion', 15 May 1907, p. 82.
Pinakothiki magazine, 9th year, February 1910 (illustrated on the inside cover).
Pinakothiki magazine, 9th year, January 1910, 'The Artistic Exhibition of the Journalists' Association', p. 219.
Pinakothiki magazine, 9th year, March 1910, no 109, p. 18 (referred).
Pyrsos Encyclopaedia, Athens 1926, vol. 16, p. 374 (referred).
Panhellenic Album of the National Centenary 1821-1921, The Golden Bible of Hellenism, Volume D', 1927, p. 108 (illustrated).
Xenophon Sohos, The Album of the Greek Artists, Nikiforos Lytras, Athens 1929, p. 11 (illustrated), p. 25 (referred).
F. Yiofyllis, History of Modern Greek Art, Vol. 1, To Elliniko Vivlio publ., Athens 1962, p. 179 (referred).
A.Prokopiou, History of Art 1750-1950, vol. 2, Pechlibanidis publ., Athens 1967, p. 359 (referred).
N.M. Athanasoglou, 'The Artist Nikiforos Lytras', dissertation thesis, Athens 1976, pp. 93-94, 267 (referred), image 105 (illustrated).
Greek Painters, Vol 1, Melissa Publications, (Nikiforos Lytras, text by N.M. Athanasoglou), Athens 1975, p. 111 (referred).
Papanikolaou Miltiadis, Greek Genre Painting of the 19th Century, P. Pournara Publishing, Thessaloniki 1978, doctorate dissertation (p. 163 referred).
S. Lagouros, Tinos, Art and Artists, Tinos publ., Athens p. 25 (referred).
Y. Kerofylas, Nikiforos Lytras, Patriarch of Modern Greek Painting, Filippotis publ., Athens 1997, p. 25 (referred).
N. Athanasoglou, Nikiphoros Lytras, Ta Nea publ., Athens 2006, p. 109 (referred).
F. Yiofyllis, Four Tinian Artists, Erinni publ., Athens 2003, p. 91 (referred).
Nelli Missirli, Nikiforos Lytras, Athens 2009, National Bank of Greece Editions, no 73, p. 148 (illustrated), pp. 150, 226 (referred).
Love for beauty is the bridge
between god and man.
The only painting illustrated in the exhibition catalogue of the 1933 major Lytras retrospective at the Athens School of Fine Arts featuring 186 works, Matins emanates a deep-felt sense of meditation and genuine spiritual experience. As maintained by Nina-Maria Athanassoglou, author of the first monograph on the painter, "his works from the 1900-1904 period are the most sincere and soul-stirring examples of Lytras' art." 1 "In these years, although he created fewer paintings, his work acquired a depth and intensity that endowed it with unmatched appeal." 2 His paintings from this fruitful period maintained their unmistakable genre feel but the narrative, anecdotal element was downplayed in order to place greater emphasis on their emotional and psychological content. Except for Matins, all the other known works from this period are in public collections: Flowers for the Epitaphios (1901), The incensing (1902), Nun warming herself (c. 1903-1904) and Monk knitting (c.1903) are at the National Gallery in Athens, while For the mother (c. 1903) is in the collection of the Liberals Club and Consecrating the waters in Tinos (1902) belongs to the Foundation of the island's Holy Church of the Evangelistria. Matins is the only one in private hands.
"During this period the influence of his old classmate and friend Gabriel von Max in terms of subjects (mostly nuns) and general atmosphere (dominated by strong feeling and dramatic intensity) seems particularly pronounced. Max's works, such as Nun Katharina Emmerich (1885, Bayerische Staatsgemaldesammlungen, Munich), though highlighted by immoderate emotions alien to the Greek painter's more genteel temperament, often recall Flowers for the Epitaphios, Matins, Incensing and For the mother. Moreover, by virtue of Max's influence, Lytras draws from his earlier sources, namely Jozef Israels, Max Liebermann, Wilhelm Leibl and the artists of his "circle." Throughout these years, his stylistic development contributes decisively to the shaping of this unique atmosphere. Both animate and inanimate subjects are rendered with a seeming indifference for their material substance. Forms are simplified, drawing loosens up and surfaces are handled with broad, sweeping brushstrokes achieving unity of effect. His colour schemes subjugate to a limited palette of austere, subdued and unvaried hues dominated by sepias, dark greys, blacks and ochres.... Matins, which in terms of both conception and style is akin to Flowers for the Epitaphios and Nun warming herself, can be dated to circa 1902."3
In the recently published monograph on Lytras by Dr. N. Misirli, Matins is discussed as follows: "A nun, wearing a severe black head covering, is singing matins in church, reading from a thick prayer book, totally concentrated and serious minded. The colours are in a range of graduated shades of brown, while there are some highlighted areas on the book cover, the overhanging lamp and the embroidered silk fabric on the lectern." 4 While Dr. Misirli holds that the painting is imbued with an atmosphere of sorrow and loneliness, Professor M. Papanikolaou, in his treatise on 19th century Greek genre painting, offers a completely different perspective: "Matins is completely devoid of pensive overtones. Its overall handling, though subject to the general stylistic traits of this period, highlights the nun's facial characteristics, while his palette retains a certain brilliance in the intermediate hues." 5
This intimate scene is captured in a moment of communion with the divine and is conveyed without the kind of frivolous piety that characterises many western motifs of Christian worship. Note the loving care and attention Lytras devoted to the rendering of the woman's right hand, which gracefully holds her coat closed as if trying to protectively enfold the sacred words she is uttering within her bosom. Note how her middle finger subconsciously points towards her heart, expressing a mood of heart-felt religiosity and evoking a noble sentiment of pious respect and romantic mysticism. Humility, veneration and emotion, which no distraction seems able to dispel, endow the figure with a solemn grandeur that harmonises with the austerity of the Byzantine temple. Two haloed sacred figures, the Virgin Mary holding the infant Jesus, faintly portrayed on the worn background wall, loom as transcendental presences, enhancing the poetry of the scene.
Immersed in such a spiritual ambiance, the young Greek transcends her individual specificity to take on a symbolic quality, echoing the words of Max Friedländer: "The 'prayer scene' painter eliminates the specific as something low, incongruous, incidental and faulty to honour the divine and holy with 'beauty'." 6 Venturing towards the archetypal and collective, this prayer scene becomes a wonderful vignette of 'church genre' that manages to capture the figure's visual attractiveness, while conveying a genuine sense of inner passion, tranquillity and pensive tenderness. (Compare Theodoros Ralli''s Praying in a Greek church, Mount Parnassus, Bonhams, Greek Sale, 13.12.2007 and Praying before the communion, Megara, Bonhams, Greek Sale, 20.5.2008.)
Promoting a world of inner peace and everlasting spiritual values vis-à-vis modernity's transient, fragmentary and largely superficial experience, this evocation of noble sentiment and archaic simplicity conveys to the secularised contemporary viewer a sense of nostalgic desire or even envy for more stable times, for an age-old, uncorrupted world of firm religious belief and pure spiritual feeling. Here, Lytras seems to concentrate upon both the virtues of the contemplative, moral life and the veneration of the Greek Orthodox tradition, which he believed was indispensable for the nation's survival and well being. "Lytras seeks to sustain the Greek people's adherence to their religious traditions, customs and ceremonial practices, and enhance their religious sentiment, well aware of its consoling powers in the face of life's adversities and sudden changes." 7 As Lytras himself used to say "the broad boulevard of morality leads the nation to true happiness. The customs of the Greek people brought Independence and must be protected like the apple of one's eye. Artists should devote themselves to genre painting and to works that are related to what stirs delights and educates the people." 8
In these admonitions we recognize the ideological origins of the Greek genre painting, whose undisputed founder was no other than Lytras himself. Often referred to as the 'Patriarch of Modern Greek Painting', Lytras was beyond any question the artist who placed his indelible seal on the whole of Greek art in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Both in his paintings and long years - 37 in all - of teaching at the Athens School of Fine Arts he contributed some of the most lasting and influential accomplishments of Modern Greek art. Lytras was able to shift the centre of gravity in Greek art from the descriptive to the purely pictorial, from the external approach to an inner life, thus becoming a pioneer with a creative impact not only on his own generation but on those who were to follow him.
Born in the village of Pyrgos on the island of Tinos of a father who was a self-taught marble carver, Lytras studied at the School of Arts under Philippos and Georgios Margarititis, Raffaello Ceccoli, Agathangelos Triantafyllou and Ludwig Thiersch who took him on as his assistant during the wall-painting decoration of the Russian church in Athens. Lytras pursued his studies at the famous Munich Academy of Fine Arts, principally under Kart von Piloty, at first on a Greek government scholarship and later with financial support from Baron Simon Sinas. In Munich he associated with important artists, such as H. Makart, G. Max, F. Defregger and F. Lenbach, and became familiar with the work of old masters, especially 16th century Venetian and 17th century Dutch painters. In 1865 he returned to Greece and a year later he was appointed Professor at the Chair of Advanced Painting at the School of Arts, a position he retained until the end of his life. Lytras travelled with his close friend Nikolaos Gysis to Asia Minor in 1873 and also visited Egypt in 1879. Working with all types of painting, he excelled mostly in genre scenes, which he introduced to Greece and fervently advocated, as well as in portraiture, providing us with brilliant examples of leading members of the Athenian society. Lytras died of poisoning caused by paint vapours on June 14 1904, leaving behind a great legacy both as a painter and a teacher. 9
Throughout his career, Nikiforos Lytras was highly esteemed, while his works attracted a dedicated and ever-growing clientele. Especially following his appointment at the School of Arts his reputation was further consolidated. He showed at the most prestigious domestic and international exhibitions, including the World Fairs in Vienna and Paris. His studio was frequented by friends and pupils, as well as many wealthy art lovers and patrons of the arts who were distinguished for their refined taste and cultural sophistication. Period records indicate that the paintings included in the artist's 1933 posthumous retrospective were owned by such prominent figures of Athenian society as A. Benakis, D. Loverdos, Mrs. Serpieri, M. Melas, G. Embirikos, P. Kalligas G. Stringos and Mrs. Choremis. The artist also received commissions from state institutions, including the National Gallery, the Technical University and the National Bank of Greece.
At the time of the 1933 exhibition, Matins was in the possession of the artist's daughter Chrysavgi Lytra, 10 while later the painting was acquired by retired Cavalry Major Timoleon Razelos, 11 founder of the Greek Equestrian Club. 12
Of the approximately 200 works estimated to have been painted by Lytras during his mature years, 75 have never been found and are known only through old photographs or period references. 13 As noted by art historian E. Gemtou as early as 1999, "though demand for Lytras' work is constantly rising, the supply is extremely limited." 14
1. N.M. Athanassoglou, The Painter Nikiforos Lytras (1832-1904) [in Greek], doctorate dissertation, Athens 1976, p. 93.
2. Athanassoglou, 'Nikiforos Lytras (1832-1904)' [in Greek] in Greek Painters, vol. 1, Melissa publ., Athens 1975, p. 103.
3. Athanassoglou, The Painter Nikiforos Lytras, p. 93.
4. N. Misirli, Lytras, National Bank of Greece, Athens 2009, p. 150.
5. M. Papanikolaou, Greek Genre Painting of the Nineteenth Century [in Greek], Pournaras publ., Athens 1978, p. 163.
6. M. Friedländer, Uber die Malerei, Munich 1963, p. 161. See also Papanikolaou, p. 114.
7. X. Sochos, Greek Artists [in Greek], Leonis publ., Athens 1930, p. 25.
8. Y. Kerofylas, Nikiforos Lytras, Patriarch of Modern Greek Painting [in Greek], Filippotis publ., Athens 1997, p. 57.
9. For English language biographical notes on Lytras, see C. Christou, Greek Painting 1832-1922, National Bank of Greece, Athens 1981, pp. 25-26, The Emergence of Modern Greek Painting 1830-1930 from the Bank of Greece Collection, exhibition catalogue, Washington DC, 2002, p. 111 and N. Gysis, N. Lytras, K. Volanakis, G. Iacovidis and their Age, exhibition catalogue, National Gallery-A. Soutzos Museum, Athens 1973, pp. 28-29.
10. See exhibition catalogue, no. 10, p. 10.
11. See Athanassoglou, 'Nikiforos Lytras', p. 111.
12. See V. Leetower, Training of Young Horse [in Greek], Paradise Hunt Library, Athens 1962 and H. Chamberlain, Horse Riding and Training [in Greek], Paradise Hunt Library, Athens 1963.
13. Athanassoglou, The Painter Nikiforos Lytras, p. 29.
14. E. Gemtou, 'Lytras in the Art Market' [in Greek], Kathimerini daily, Epta Imeres, 14.3.1999, p. 29.