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Friday, May 22, 2015

Nicomachus of Thebes

Sacrifice aux Charites (Sacrifice to the Graces), 540-530 BC.,                                   
one of the Pitsa Panels, the earliest surviving examples of Greek painting.                                       
As painters, we flatter ourselves in thinking our art will live on long after we've departed for that "great atelier in the sky." After all, we have art, some of it dating back (conservatively speaking) more than twenty-thousand years. That's true. However, there's a "yes, but" attached. How many of us paint on stone walls or ceramic urns? I thought not. Most of us paint on materials which, with extreme care and conservancy, might last a thousand years, and in rare cases, perhaps as long as fifteen-hundred years. Face it, the vast majority of all art created today will likely no longer exist in its original form only five-hundred years from now. Art historians today almost routinely deal with copies of great paintings, which no longer exist except in different media (drawings or photographs). Of course today, with digital photography, if the artist is conscientious about taking good photos of his or her work, they may be changing whole preservation dynamic. Let's hope so. It's sad when great art is lost.
Abduction of Persephone, 340-330 AD. detail of a wall painting in Macedonia.
Victory in a Quadriga, 19th-century copy.
In writing about great artists from the past, I don't recall ever writing about an artist for which I have absolutely no photographic image of their work from which to evaluate their expertise. However, that's the case with Nicomachus of Thebes (a city in Greece about 31 miles [50 km] northwest of Athens). Of course, all that's left of the city Nicomachus knew are the sprawling piles stone for which Greece is so famous. For the most part all we know about this artist we learn second-hand. The Roman philosopher Pliny the Elder gives us a list of his works: Rape of Persephone, Victory in a Quadriga, Apollo and Artemis, and Cybele seated on a Lion, all of which we know of only from the works of subsequent artists (above and above, right). Many of Nicomachus' works eventually ended up in Rome, which would suggest they were not painted on stone or plaster (probably wood).
Symposium, north wall Tomb of the Diver, 480 BC.
(The Greeks defined the word "symposium" as a drunken party.)
The Greek historian, Plutarch, mentions Nicomachus' paintings as "...possessing the Homeric merit of ease and absence of effort," whatever that means. I guess he made it look easy. However, the Roman architect and art critic, Vitruvius, claims Nicomachus was not as good as some of the other, (probably younger) artists of his time. Being as Vitruvius was said to have had fastidious tastes, I guess we'll have to take his word for it. Vitruvius also mentions that both Nicomachus' father and his son were also painters. Although museums around the world are overburdened with literally tons of Greek sculpture, that's not the case with archaic Greek painting. The Sacrifice aux Charites (Sacrifice to [or of] the Graces, top) dating from 540-530 BC. gives some example of painting at the time of Nicomachus, though the panel is likely too old to have been by his hand.
Athena and Hercules, 480-470 BC, Phoinix (potter) and Douris (painter),
probably lived about the time of Nicomachus. 
As compared to the long, fairly detailed, history of Greek sculpture and architecture (both of stone, remember), we know very little about Greek painting. Most of what little we do know comes to us from Greek ceramic painting similar to Athena and Hercules (above) from about the time of Nicomachus, though it's said he used four colors. The 19th-century Greek painter, Nikolaos Gyzis, probably knew as little as we do about archaic Greek painting (probably less), yet, because he's Greek, perhaps we should give him the benefit of the doubt in judging his 1892 Historia (below).

Historia, 1892, Nikolaos Gyzis


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