Attributed to Panayotis Doxaras (Greek, 1662-1729)
Scene inspired by the Battles of Alexander the Great
oil on canvas 92 x 127 cm.
Private collection, Cefallonia.
“Painting without design is volume without movement
design without colour is body without soul
invention is a treasure kept in the storehouse of the mind”
According to Professor Y. Rigopoulos, “this painting is extremely interesting due to its subject and especially due to its style. The subject, the family of Darius before Alexander the Great, is not rare in western European art (A. Pigler, Barockthemen, Budapest 1974, 2nd ed., vol. 2, p. 357-359) but it is unique, as far as I know, in Greek art from the period of the Ottoman occupation or the post-Byzantine era. The work’s style allows us to characterize it as a Baroque painting, more specifically mature Western Baroque, and consider it a product of the so called Ionian Islands School and the artistic milieu of the leader of this School Panayotis Doxaras (1662-1729). For this reason the painting should be dated from the first half of the 18th century, and was probably executed on the Ionian island of Corfu or Zakynthos (Zante). In terms of both iconography and iconology the painting is rather obscure, since we lack any similar precursor or contemporary works from the Ionian School. If any such existed, the work could be dated with greater accuracy. However, comparable paintings are found in western art, including those by Francesco Trevisani (1656-1746) and Charles Lebrun (1619-1690).”
Amid history and legend, Alexander the Great, emerges through the centuries as a major source of artistic inspiration. 1 His image, mostly portrayed during the 1500-1800 period, was shaped based mainly on the writings of Plutarch, Arrianus and Quintus Curtius Rufus, emphasizing the great conqueror’s virtues, his valour, nobility and generosity of spirit. Alexander’s artistic renderings, however, often transcend biographical accuracy, combining, especially during the 18th century, various elements from different scenes and episodes of Alexander’s brief yet eventful life, making it often difficult to identify a given representation with a specific historical event.
In classicist Italian art, Alexander is usually portrayed as a warlord, clad in splendid armour and helmet adorned with lush feathers. Certain iconographical elements, such as the presence of a Macedonian general at his side - probably Hephaestion, his closest companion - and the woman kneeling at his feet, as well as the young king’s demeanour and reassuring hand gesture, appear in almost all Renaissance and Baroque renderings of the family of Darius before Alexander, following the Persian king’s defeat in the battle of Issus in 333 BC. The Macedonian treated the family of his adversary with great respect, commensurate with their royal position. In most of these depictions, Alexander’s body language reflects the conqueror’s regal grace, aiming to eloquently express the virtue of magnanimity, an exemplum virtutis. (Compare Paolo Veronese, The family of Darius before Alexander the Great, c.1570, National Gallery, London). In Italy, and especially in 17th and 18th centuries. Venice, the renewed interest in the subject reflected the rise in popularity of paintings depicting scenes from ancient history that illustrated exemplary virtues and promoted non-violence.
The 18th century marks a turning point in the development of post-Byzantine Greek art. At a time when mainland Greece was, for the most part, a backwater province of the vast Ottoman Empire, remaining largely unaffected by the invigorating climate of the Renaissance and the Reformation and faithfully carrying on the conservative religious Byzantine tradition, western European painting filtered in mainly through Crete and the Ionian islands. As key ports in the Venetian trade routes to the Near East, Zakynthos, Corfu and the other Ionian islands (which had come under Venetian rule before the fall of Constantinople) welcomed art innovations from the West and managed, long before uniting with Greece in 1864, to develop an important pictorial tradition on the footsteps of Italian art, known as the Ionian School of painting.
Most experts on the subject agree that this flourishing was indeed a renaissance marking the widespread adoption of secular painting. 2Portraiture, as well as mythological, allegorical or historical compositions gradually became part of everyday life, attesting to a new, more sophisticated perception of the world. Art was no longer the exclusive, privileged domain of the church and high-ranking state officials; merchants, tradesmen and other professionals also started commissioning works of art, reflecting, to a large extent, the cultural and ideological concerns of the emerging middle class. The cosmopolitan spirit spreading throughout the Ionian ports inspired a sense of freedom, questioning the authority of the age-long Byzantine pictorial tradition. Mythological compositions in particular contributed largely to the break with the entrenched hieratic-religious conservatism of the past.
The innovations adopted by the artists of this period were not limited to subject matter but extended to both technique and style. The need to create mobile (lighter, transportable and easily mountable) works of art led artists to seek new solutions and approaches, abandoning the traditional egg-tempera on wood technique in favour of oils on canvas, that also allowed more freedom in the handling of tonal gradations. In terms of style, this shift in direction involved naturalistic description, illusionistic perspective, and an emphasis on movement, abbreviated brushwork and sculptural handling of form. 3 In the forefront of this new course was Panayotis Doxaras, a highly innovative and restless spirit and an expert on Italian art, who pre-eminently expressed the mature stage of this gradual transition from Byzantine representational conventions to Italian-influenced stylistic principles. Both his artistic and scholarly output - his treatise On Painting (1726) set the foundation of a Modern Greek theoretical approach to art and art criticism4 - was inspired by a broad spectrum of western art, from Renaissance and Mannerism to Baroque and Late Baroque.
Doxaras’ seminal contribution centres on the rejection of the two-dimensional schematization of Byzantine and Post-Byzantine icon painting and the adoption of stylistic and pictorial principles championed by Renaissance studio artists, including the graceful rendering of the subject, delicate handling of form, blending of colour and light to produce naturalistic effects and bold use of illusionistic perspective, anatomical detail and convincing spatial relations to bring together the various compositional elements in a compelling picture. 5 Besides being a great reformer of religious iconography, Doxaras also took up portraiture as well as historical/mythological themes, offering his own version of exemplum virtutis. (Two paintings, inspired from the battles of the Macedonian king, Alexander at Gordium and Alexander and Diogenes, are also attributed to Doxaras. 6) Based on evidence provided by his contemporaries, as well as recent scholarly research and the few surviving examples of his work, Doxaras was a pioneer, the patriarch of the Ionian School, the first to introduce baroque elements to his native pictorial tradition7 and one of the true founders of Modern Greek art.
The painting offered at auction showcases some of the defining characteristics of Doxaras’ mature style. The figures softly moulded and with delicate features, clad in garments with beautiful foldings and highlighted with lively strokes of brilliant whites, are handled with grace, sensitivity and gentleness, epitomizing all that Doxaras admired in the great old-master paintings of European art.
1. See N. Chatzinikolaou, Alexander the Great in European Art [in Greek], Thessaloniki Cultural Capital of Europe, 1997. 2 . Western secular painting was introduced in the 16th century, mainly by M. Damaskinos (1530-1590) but started to flourish in the 18th Century. 3 . See M. Doulgeridis, “Innovations by Ionian Island Artists” in Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century Ionian Island Artists [in Greek], exh. cat. Athens National Gallery - Corfu Branch, Corfu, 1993, and N. Misirli, Greek Painting, 18th-19th Century. [in Greek], Adam publ., 1993, p. 9. 4. See D. Deliyannis, “On Painting: A Treatise by Panayotis Doxaras” [in Greek], Dipli Ikona magazine, no. 4-5, May 1985, p. 41. 5. See M. Papanikolaou, History of Art in Greece - 18th and 19th Century [in Greek], vol. 2, Adam publ., Athens 2002, pp. 28-43. 6. See S. De Viazis, “Painting in Greece” [in Greek], Pinakothiki journal, vol. 2, 1902-3, no. 1, pp. 3-6 (note 3), and A. Prokopiou, La Peinture Religieuse dans les Îles Ioniennes pendant le XVIIIe Siècle, Athens 1953, p. 102. 7. For a bibliographical account on the artist see A. Charalambidis, Contribution to the Study of 18th and 19th Century Painting in the Ionian Islands [in Greek], Ioannina 1978.