Specialist, Head of Sale, Greek Sales
The Greek Sale / Constantinos Volanakis (Greek, 1837-1907) L'artiste regarde la mer (signed in Greek twice (lower left)oil on canvas)
Kallimassioti family, Piraeus.
Private collection, Athens.
S. Lydakis, Constantinos Volanakis, Adam editions, Athens 1997, p. 111 (illustrated).
The great spectacle of the open sea, the absolute stillness of the hour, the mellow warmth of the atmosphere and the overall poetry of the scene are contemplated by a genteel, solitary male figure with hat and walking cane, portrayed next to caiques hauled ashore and fishermen mending their nets. (Compare The Piraeus harbour from the royal pier, Municipal Gallery of Piraeus, and Coast of Phaleron, Collection of the Bank of Greece, Athens). Enchanted and transfixed, with his back to the viewer, the hatted gentleman has interrupted his coastal stroll to enjoy the view, indirectly inviting whoever stands in front of the work to imitate him by turning their gaze towards the sea. In this way, he acts as a "host", an intermediary between the painted scene and the viewer, suggesting the way the picture should be admired as an object of beauty and value.
As noted by Professor M. Vlachos, there are two conjectures regarding the identity of the solitary male figure portrayed in a number of Volanakis's costal and harbour views.1 According to the first one, he is possibly an affluent ship-owner or merchant, a resident of Piraeus and prominent member of the shipping community that contributed to the city's prosperity and from which Volanakis had received a number of commissions. The second interpretation is that the hatted man is the artist himself, a view that according to legendary collector Euripides Koutlides (1890-1974) has always been quite popular among collectors and connoisseurs. It should be noted that the Rückenfigur—figure seen from behind—harkens back to antiquity and it traverses European iconography, especially during the Renaissance, as an artist's self-portrait. It is also a recurrent theme featured in a variety of ways by many 19th c. artists, mainly Caspar David Friedrich and Gustave Courbet, whose work Volanakis was acquainted with.
Here, the soft gradations of light and shade, the unity of effect, the sense of space and the loving delicacy with which Volanakis observed every nuance of the seascape and cloudscape are the artist's means of conveying a feeling of peace and expressing his view of the transience of life. "His romantic soul seeks inner peace in the beauty of a dream world full of light and colour, where reverie is a kind of prayer,"2 inspiring the viewer to adopt a dreamlike attitude towards life.
1. See M. Vlachos, "The Viewer as Intermediary in Volanakis' Paintings" in Constantinos Volanakis 1837-1907, Poet of the Sea, exh. cat., Hellenic Maritime Museum / Aikaterini Laskaridi Foundation, Athens 2009, p. 52. See also M. Vlachos, Volanakis, Peak publishing, Athens 2017, p. 124.
2. S. Lydakis, Volanakis, a Pioneer [in Greek], Epta Imeres (Kathimerini), 22/02/1998, p. 14.