Theofilos Hadjimichail (1867-1934) Karaiskakis Camp in Pireaus, 1827

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Lot 72
Theofilos Hadjimichail (1867-1934)
Karaiskakis Camp in Pireaus, 1827

Sold for £ 216,000 (US$ 298,077) inc. premium
Theofilos Hadjimichail (1867-1934)
Karaiskakis Camp in Pireaus, 1827
signed in Greek and dated 1911 (lower left), extensively inscribed
oil on canvas
93 x 129cm


  • Provenance:
    I. Vasilakos, Volos.
    D. Sariyannis collection.
    Acquired through T. Zoumboulakis in the late 60s by the present owner and has remained in the same collection in Paris until now.

    K. Makris, The Painter Theofilos in Pelion [in Greek], Volos 1939, pp. 36-37 (referred) and p. 62 (illustrated).
    K. Makris, The Greek Painters [in Greek], vol. 1, Melissa publ., Athens 1974, pp. 453, 465 (referred).
    E. Papazachariou, The Other Theofilos [in Greek], Kaktos publ., Athens 1997, pp. 173-174 (referred).
    E. Diamantopoulou, Theofilos in Pelion [in Greek], Alexandria publ., Athens 2007, pp. 60, 231 (referred) and inset A (illustrated, fig. 5).
    Theofilos, Edition of the Commercial Bank of Greece, Athens 1967, no 69 (illustrated).

    When Theofilos paints Greek heroes,
    their fustanella kilts become flowers in the fields


    One of the finest moments in the history of Modern Greek art, Karaiskakis’ camp in Piraeus is also a quintessential image of the Greek War of Independence. On a hillock, barricaded behind a low wall and surrounded by prominent chieftains and philhellenes, Georgios Karaiskakis, an exemplary leader and a legend in his own time, points to the Acropolis in the distant background, issuing orders regarding the upcoming general assault on the forces of Reshid Pasha (known to the Greeks as Kiutahi) who had laid siege on the Sacred Rock for the last six months. Acropolis was of little strategic importance, if any, but it had a strong emotional and symbolic value - not only for the Greeks but for the philhellenes in Greece as well. Ten thousand men assembled at Piraeus, the largest single force the Greeks had ever fielded.

    In the centre of the painting a heavily armed warrior leans on a ruined wall, seemingly talking to an older fighter for whom a young klephte is holding out a long pipe. On his left, a reclining warrior with his flintlock under arm rests listening to a palikare playing a string instrument and singing right behind him. To the right, a priest who blesses four kneeling men, a group roasting a lamb, a warrior who reins in two magnificent horses and another group of men who seem to be boosting each other’s spirit, are placed one after the other like beads on a string, echoing the paratactical presentation of Archaic Greek vase painting and the linear narrative arrangement of that precursor of folk poetry, the Homeric epics.1 To the extreme left, the philhellene Karl Krazeisen, a member of the military delegation sent by Ludwig the First of Bavaria to Greece in 1826 to assist the rebels in recapturing Attica and portraitist of the Greek chieftains, is conversing with one of the fighters, while pointing towards the nearby mound. Young pallikares revel in the distant middleground, while Greek military unit formations, captured in a style reminiscent of the representational conventions used by Dimitrios/Panayotis Zografos and Ioannis Makriyannis, are deployed in the open heartland of Attica. Battle preparations on the field and the readiness of the artillery pieces on the upper right clearly indicate the gravity of the hour, with the Greek colours crowning the entire scene.

    In this complex landscape of figures and motifs, Theofilos identifies the Greek chieftains Karaiskakis, Makriyannis, Kitsos Tzavellas, Notaras, Grivas, Kallergis, Hadjimichalis, Veikos and Chrysovergis (whom he describes as Karaiskakis' adopted son), as well as a number of prominent philhellenes, namely Karl Wilhelm Freiherr von Heideck, the head of the Bavarian delegation, who is observing the Acropolis through a spyglass, his compatriots Schilcher, Schnitzlein, Hügler and Krazeisen (whom he calls Kranezis), as well as British army officer Thomas Gordon and British naval officer Frank Abney Hastings by means of a legend at the lower part of the painting and corresponding numbers inscribed above each figure’s head.

    These inscriptions, as well as the inclusion of the title at the top of the painting, reflect the painter’s desire to provide a full description of his subjects by leaving nothing obscure. On the contrary, everything is explained and clearly expressed and, therefore, all phenomena are thrust forward to the narrative surface where they receive even illumination in a flat, continuous present. The inclusion of written text, in addition to expressing a longing for knowledge following the Ottoman occupation, denotes a unification of iconographic and linguistic symbols in a uniform and living Greek myth.2

    In terms of both general compositional structure and specific representational themes, the painting adheres to Theodoros Vryzakis’s Karaiskakis’ camp, 1855 (National Gallery-A. Soutzos Museum, Athens)3, which in turn is based on a painting by Heideck himself (Philhellene encampment during the Greek War of Independence, Staatliche Kunsthalle, Karlsruhe), who besides an artillery officer was also an amateur painter. In Vryzakis’ work many isolated subjects have been meticulously copied from Heideck’s painting, while the likenesses of Karaiskakis and Makriyannis are directly drawn from lithographs of Krazeisen’s portraits.4 Despite these borrowings, both Vryzakis and later Theofilos, treated the subject in their own terms, transforming the same historic scene into a completely new aesthetic experience.

    Like many other great masters from the past, Theofilos was by no means reluctant to draw his iconography from earlier works by other artists, lithographs, postcards or book illustrations, source material he nonetheless ingenuously reworked or even altered to fit his own vision. As noted by the art critic A. Xydis, “the transformation of academic prints into true masterpieces is ample proof of Theofilos’s wisdom. In most of his works, and especially the earlier ones, he never succumbed to the conventionality of his original sources nor yielded to natural curiosity about the various styles used by his contemporaries; as a result, he never fell victim to rigid academism.”5

    As a matter of fact, Karaiskakis’ camp in Piraeus follows not the probably unknown to Theofilos original oil by Vryzakis but a folk engraving based on a lithographic print of the painting issued in 1860 in both colour and black and white by the Lemercier printers in Paris and including the names of the main characters on the margin.6 Theofilos adhered closely to his model but took the liberty of changing a detail that, although minuscule, eloquently illustrates his views on nation and history. He replaced the crescent on top of the blue tent on the upper right, which in the original painting and the subsequent prints suggested that it was a war trophy, with a Greek Orthodox cross. For Theofilos the idea of a crescent in a Greek camp was unthinkable - trophy or no trophy.

    His subject is treated more as a backdrop, allowing him to express his fascination with the idea of the 1821 uprising without having to succumb to historical accuracy. History is filtered through his rich imagination and transformed into the enthusiasm sparked in him by the wealth of gold and silver threaded costumes, shinning sabres, fiery red fezzes and a sea of fustanella kilts, the same highland garb the painter himself wore when he left Smyrna for Athens to voluntarily enlist in the 1897 campaign against Turkey and which eventually became his signature attribute. According to folk art scholar G. Petris, Theofilos was enchanted by the myth of the 1821 uprising and didn’t feel obliged to be historically accurate because he didn’t need to. All his characters are by definition heroic palikares.”7

    However, according to researcher E. Papazachariou, “in the 1908-1915 period, Theofilos, already in his forties, started getting seriously involved with current political and social issues, a fact ignored by all his biographers who considered him a simpleton who ‘lived in his own world.’ For example, his Karaiskakis’s camp in Piraeus takes on a political dimension if one considers that the Goudi Uprising had taken place just two years ago and Eleftherios Venizelos had been elected Prime Minister the year before. Karaiskakis’ camp in Piraeus is a direct reference to the encampment at Goudi. The 1821 chieftains overlooking the Turkish camp, with the key figures listed by Theofilos at the bottom of the painting, are preparing for war, exactly the same as the rebel officers at Goudi.”8

    In either case, Theofilos left his indelible mark as one of the forerunners of Modern Greek culture, much the same as General Makriyannis, who is lovingly depicted in Karaiskakis’ camp in Piraeus, and the novelist Alexandros Papadiamantis, who, coincidentally, died the year this picture was painted. The disarming sincerity of Theofilos’ art proved to be a key for defining and giving expression to the true face of Greece. “Theofilos gave us a new eye. He has this enormously rare thing, this thing that before him was impossible to achieve with a Greek landscape: a moment of colour and of air, held there in all its inner life and the radiation of its movement; this poetic rhythm (what other words can I use?) which makes the impossible connection, binding together what is scattered, restoring what is corruptible; this human breath that was there in the sturdy tree, in the hidden flower or in the dancing movement of dress -all this we have missed so much, because so much we have longed to see it. And this was the grace given to us by Theofilos.”9

    Mad in the head but wise in the hands, as a villager from Mt. Pelion once described him, this quaint man, dressed in the traditional fustanella kilt, was mocked by the narrow-minded society of his time but he responded, in Elytis’s own words, with a Karaiskakis twice as large as St. George.

    1. H. Kambouridis - G. Levounis, Modern Greek Art, The 20th Century, Ministry of the Aegean, Athens 1999, p. 43.
    2. Ibid.
    3. See S. Lydakis, ‘Theodoros Vryzakis, his Life and Work’ in The Greek Painters, vol. 1, Melissa publ., Athens 1974, pp. 75-76, N. Misirli, Greek Painting, 18th-19th c. [in Greek], Adam publ., 1993, p. 64 and A. Vakalopoulos, “Theodoros Vryzakis, the Painter of the Revolution” in The Greek Painters, vol. 1, Melissa publ., Athens 1974, p. 69.
    4. See 1821 Warriors, 20 Pencil Drawings by Karl Krazeisen [in Greek], Athens School of Fine Arts ed., Athens 1971 and The Iconography of 1821, Aspioti-Elka publ., Athens 1971.
    5. A. Xydis, Proposals for the History of Modern Greek Art [in Greek], vol. 1, Athens 1976, pp. 36-38.
    6. Compared to the name list included in Lemercier’s print, all numbers in Theofilos’s painting are either misplaced, faded or completely omitted, with the exception of numbers 1 (Karaiskakis) and 10 (Makriyannis). See The Iconography of 1821, p. 28.
    7. G. Petris, The Painter Theofilos [in Greek], Exantas publ., Athens 1978, p. 46.
    8. E. Papazachariou, The Other Theofilos [in Greek], Athens 1997, pp. 173-174.
    9. G. Seferis, excerpt from a speech made at the opening of the artist’s first exhibition, Athens 1947, included in G. Seferis, On the Greek Style, Bodley Head publ., London, Sydney, Toronto 1966, p. 6.
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