Greece’s National Gallery houses some of the most important works of Greek art.
After seven years of renovation, the beauty of the National Gallery has stunned the country, as the glass panels of the building’s façade glisten under the Greek sun, beckoning passers-by to come inside.
While the outside of the National Gallery is undoubtedly impressive, the many masterpieces held within its walls are much more remarkable.
Featuring mainly works from or related to Greece dating from the 14th to the 20th centuries, the halls of the National Gallery of Greece provide a complete image of the development of not only Greek art but also of Greek history.
The museum boasts a collection over twenty thousand priceless works of art, including paintings, drawings, and sculptures, and was founded in 1878.
The National Gallery of Greece started out with just 117 works of art
At its nascent stage, the National Gallery housed just 117 works of art until well-known jurist and art collector Alexandros Soutzos donated his massive collection of paintings and sculptures to the Greek government upon his death in 1896.
The acquisition of Soutzos’ many works helped Greece transform its National Gallery into an art museum worthy of the European capital.
By 1900, the National Gallery of Greece, also called the Alexandros Soutzos Museum after its benefactor, had established itself as a worthy repository for the great works of art produced in Greece throughout the country’s post-Byzantine history.
“Grateful Hellas” by Theodoros Vryzakis
Greek painter Theodoros Vryzakis’ triumphant work, “Grateful Hellas,” depicts Greece personified as a woman from classical antiquity with her shackles laying broken at her feet, thanking heroes of the Greek War of Independence from freeing her of Ottoman rule.
The work, apart from its rich symbolism and references to Greek antiquity, is also lauded for its depiction of recognizable fighters from the Greek Revolution of 1821 amongst the throng of warriors surrounding the figure of Hellas.
Among these many warriors are Laskarina Bouboulina, a famed woman warrior of the revolution, Theodoros Kolokotronis, Papaflessas, Andreas Miaoulis, and even Lord Byron, the Romantic poet and Philhellene who fought for Greek freedom.
National Gallery of Greece also home to foreign masterpieces
In his works, French Romantic painter Eugene Delacroix, widely considered one of the last “Great Masters” of European painting, imbued a sense of movement with his exquisite brush strokes of rich color.
This, along with his insistence on depicting scenes from history or contemporary events, was a sharp contrast to his Neoclassical counterparts, who mainly rendered religious and mythological scenes with extreme, almost sculptural, precision.
His 1856 work, “Episode from the Greek War of Independence,” thrusts the viewer into the action, as a Greek soldier astride a massive horse rides into the battle field, leaving the body of an Ottoman fighter in his wake.
The fluttering fabric, masterfully depicted in sumptuous jewel tones, along with the soldier’s gunpowder, clouds forming on the horizon, and even the mountainous background, all pull the viewer into the dizzying scene.
Delacroix, a Philhellene and admirer of Romantic poet and Greek Revolution fighter Lord Byron, often depicted scenes from the Greek War of Independence, including his 1826 “Greece on the Ruins of Messolonghi” and his heart-wrenching work “Massacre at Chios,” completed in 1824.
These works, which depict the horrors perpetrated against the Greeks during the war, were received with controversy in Delacroix’s native France.
The trend at the time, pushed by Neoclassical painters, was to depict moments of triumph and didactic scenes rather than disturbing images of the realities of war.
Despite the controversy, these direct, often distressing images did produce greater awareness of the Greek struggle against the Ottomans in Western Europe and inspired many Philhellenes to join the fight.
The tender image of “The Kiss,“ by Greek painter Nikiforos Lytras
In a tender domestic scene, Greek painter Nikiforos Lytras renders the sweet, innocent love between a young couple. Surprised in the middle of bringing in her basket of laundry, the girl stretches onto the tips of her toes to reach her lover.
Her posture, which almost seems as though she were suspended on a string, is mirrored by the flowering plant next to the girl.
In its pot, the long plant seems to defy gravity, as its stretching stem ends in a delicate white flower symbolic of innocence and purity.
Lytras is known for these domestic scenes that reveal the everyday life of Greeks, particularly those in rural areas, in the late 19th century.
Tetsis’ vibrant slice of daily life in Greece: “Laiki Agora”
The massive, multi-panel work “Laiki Agora” (1979-82), by Panagiotis Tesis embodies the flurry of sounds, sights, colors, and smells that are par for the course during the weekly trip to the farmer’s market, or laiki agora, for which the work is named.
Within the image, which depicts seemingly mundane occurrences during a trip to a farmer’s market, a weekly tradition for many Athenians, are hidden many surprising figures.
Included among the bright colors and graphic shapes of fruit and vegetable vendors in the first panel are the forms of nude women, almost as if taken straight out of Greek antiquity.
These figures seem to have no place there, amongst the contemporary Greeks doing their shopping, and yet they fit in so naturally.
This attests to the lingering presence of ancient Greece in the lives of the country’s contemporary residents. This presence within modern Greek society exists in many forms, such as in the countless ancient sites dispersed throughout the strikingly modern Athens, or in the names of many individuals living within the country who are named “Sokratis” and “Athena.”
Dramatic scenes from Greece’s revolution included in the National Gallery
The National Gallery’s collection is rich with striking scenes from Greece’s War of Independence against the Ottomans in 1821.
Among these is Russian painter Ivan Aivasowsky’s depiction of an iconic moment in the war when Greek hero Kanaris burned a Turkish flagship off the coast of Chios in retribution for the massacre the Ottomans perpetrated against the island’s residents.
The burning of the ship killed an estimated two thousand of the Ottoman forces, including the Turkish admiral, Nasuhzade Ali Pasha, himself.
The moment is widely considered to be one of the turning points for Greeks in the brutal war.
“The Exodus from Messolonghi,” By Theodoros Vryzakis
The emotional impact of Vryzakis’ (1853) work, “The Exodus from Messolonghi,” is immense. The painter has rendered the scene as if he were standing right in front of the massacre, bringing the reality of the event into focus.
Vryzakis’ ability to make the viewer feel as though they were present at the horrific event may stem from his own experience of losing his father in the Greek War of Independence.
The work portrays one of the most brutal moments in the entire War of Independence, namely the Exodus of Messolonghi. The city of Messolonghi was under siege by Ottoman forces for an entire year, as Greeks in the well-fortified city put up a strong defense.
As the Ottoman forces failed to root out the Greeks from their city, they resorted to simply allowing them to starve.
The Greek forces would not let the brutality stand, as the Greek captains decided to lead the starving civilians to a heroic exodus out of the city while those who were not able to follow would remain and defend Messolonghi to their death.
When the Greeks charged out of the city gates, they were fired upon by Ottoman soldiers.
Many panicked and fled back inside the walls while the Ottomans had already entered the city, killing, looting and raping people.
Of the 7,000 people who attempted to escape, only 1,000 made it to safety. The rest were slaughtered or sold into slavery with the majority of the surviving Greek Christian women becoming sex slaves to soldiers.
In an especially grisly act, the Ottomans displayed 3,000 severed heads on the walls of the city.
Yet the Messolonghi massacre proved a victory for the Greek cause in the end, and the Ottomans paid dearly for their harsh treatment of Messolonghi. After this atrocity, many Western Europeans felt increased sympathy for the Greek cause.
The work is separated into two planes, namely the earthly world, where the Greeks bravely fight and die for their freedom, and the heavens, where Jesus Himself, surrounded by angels, looks upon the warfare.
The holy aspect of the piece reflects the religious themes that coursed through the revolutionary effort throughout the Greek War of Independence.
In fact, the war itself began at a monastery in Kalavryta, where Bishop Palaion Patron Germanos called on Greeks to revolt and raised the flag of the revolution, a banner depicting the Assumption of Virgin Mary.
On March 21, 1821, the Greek rebels started the siege of Kalavryta, making it the first Greek town that was liberated from the Ottomans and thus declaring the start of the Greek War of Independence.
In the camp of the Greek army
In another, albeit more peaceful, scene from the Greek War of Independence, Vryzakis depicts the Greek army along with some fighters from Bavaria and Scotland at camp.
At the top of the hill, Greek hero Georgios Karaiskakis is depicted in full traditional garb as he points toward the Acropolis, which is visible in the background.
This work illustrates a scene that occurred shortly after the Exodus of Messolonghi and as the Greek forces planned the next attack against the Ottoman forces.
Heroes of the Greek War of Independence highlighted in the National Gallery of Greece
Theodoros Kolokotronis is perhaps the most iconic figure of the Greek War of Independence. More than any other individual, he is the man who completely embodied the battle cry “Liberty or Death.”
Born into a family of rebels who constantly fought against Ottoman oppression, Kolokotronis rushed to join the Greek forces when the fighting broke out.
At the time of the war, Kolokotronis was already 51 years of age, an old man by nineteenth-century standards and by any standard among fighting men.
Among his comrades, he was known by the nickname “The Elder of Morea.”
Despite his age, the Greek commander claimed victory after victory in the war, and his forces were unstoppable.
In the lithograph portrait of the hero, displayed in the National Gallery, Kolokotronis is shown as an older man full of strength and vigor and well equipped for any battle.
Greek artists reflect on the War of Independence
The destruction of Psara on July 5, 1824 was one of the most moving tragedies of the entire Greek Revolution, as the the Ottomans decimated the civilian population of the island.
At the time, the entire population of Psara had been about 7,000 souls. After the massacre, the population of the island never rose over 1,000.
Gyzis’ work, which dates to the late 19th century, depicts the frenzied attempts of the island’s residents to escape the massacre by the Ottoman forces.
Bodies are shown piled-up onboard the ship, as residents struggled to find a place on the small boat among the few possessions that they could manage to take with them.
Less fortunate people, nearly drowning in the dark, choppy waters, reach out in vain to those on the boat, hoping to be saved.
Despite the horrifying scene, Gyzis injects hope into his piece, as there is light visible on the horizon, and the cross and Greek flag are bathed in light, guiding the Greeks toward victory.
An endearing domestic scene in rural Greece
The charming “Children’s Concert” by Greek painter Georgios Iakovidis shows an endearing domestic scene in the Greek countryside at the turn of the century.
A group of children perform an impromptu concert for a young child wearing a striking red dress in a bright, sunny room.
The most important player in the work is the light itself, which Iakovidis masterfully captures. The warm, golden sunlight provides a warmth to the entire scene, as it reflects off the children’s skin and glistens off their instruments.