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Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Konstantinos Volanakis

The Argo, after 1850, Konstantinos Volanakis
Anyone who follows my diverse meandering around and through the maze we inadequately term the "art world, knows that I have a weakness for ocean-going vessels of all sizes, shapes, and eras. Although I admire greatly those who take it upon themselves to pain sailing ships, my real interest in ships likes with ships powered with steam. I'm not particularly interested in naval battle scenes whether driven by steam or sail (being something of a "peacenik" from way back). In fact, being an artist, I'm much more interested in paintings of such ships than the ships themselves. That's why I enjoyed so much stumbling upon the exquisite drafting and delicate painting skills of the Greek painter, Konstantinos Volanakis. He painted little else. He has come to be known as the "father of Greek seascape painting."
Volanakis died a pauper in 1907.
Konstantinos Volanakis was born in 1837. He lived the first nine years of his life in a small village near Heraklion on the north shore of the Island of Crete. For business reasons, his family moved to westward along the Cretan coast to another small town called Rethymno. He completed his basic education on an Aegean island named Syros in 1856.
The Moonlit harbor of Volos, Konstantinos Volanakis
Upon graduation, his brothers urged him to Trieste (northeastern) Italy, there to become an accountant for a family of Greek merchants related to the family by marriage. Apparently it was not a job for which he was well-suited. The account books soon became littered with drawings of ships and harbor scenes. Ordinarily such dereliction of duties would have seen the young artist packing his bags to go home; but his employers were, instead, impressed with his drawing skills (if not the state of his ledgers). Rather than dismiss him, the family made arrangements for him to study at the Academy of Fine Arts, Munich, under Karl von Piloty. However, once there, His instructors discouraged any sort of landscape paint-ing, because it was "in decline," so Volanakis concen-trated mostly on portraits.
Ship, Konstantinos Volanakis
Naval battle at Lissa, 1869, Konstantinos Volanakis
Konstantinos' "big break" came in 1869, when Emperor Franz Joseph held a drawing competition to memorialize the Battle of Lissa some three years before. Volanakis won the contest, receiving 1000 gold Florins (about $558 U.S Dollars in 1900) and free travel cruises with the Austrian navy for three years. Volanakis took full advantage of this, by producing numerous canvases and sketches. He married in 1874. Nine years later, despite warnings that it would ruin his career, Volanakis returned to Greece and settled in Piraeus (the seaport for Athens), where his family had a pottery factory, citing pressure from his wife, whose health was suffering from the cold winters in Germany.
Exodus of the Ares, 1894, Konstantinos Volanakis
From then until 1903, he was a teacher at the Athens School of Fine Arts. On the side, Volanakis also operated his own private school. In 1889, he was awarded the Silver Cross of the Order of the Redeemer. Although Volanakis painted ships and boats of all kinds and sizes, his most popular works were those commissioned by the Greek government to commemorate naval victories such as that at Lissa.
The Burning of a Turkish Frigate, Konstantinos Volanakis. The paintings from top to bottom can be read as something akin to a movie recording the event.

Konstantinos Volanakis was very poor in his later years, due to the burden of his very large family and more important, a general decline of interest in his art. In a rather innovative effort to increase his income, Volanakis reversed the usual method of painting first, then framing the finished painting. By working with a group of framers who crafted luxuriously carved frames, he then creating paintings to fit them. My guess is the arrangement was none too successful or the practiced might still be around today.
I am especially fond of the effects of calm seas the artist
captures in his paintings depicting fishing boats.

Inauguration of the Corinth Canal,
Konstantinos Volanakis


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