Encyclopedia of Romantic Nationalism in Europe

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Visual arts : Philhellenic

  • Visual artsPhilhellenic
  • Cultural Field:
    Sight and sound
  • Author:
    Maufroy, Sandrine
  • Text:

    In the wake of the Philhellenic movement that accompanied the Greek War of Independence, visual arts took inspiration from the events and contributed to mobilize the public opinion. Philhellenic committees organized art exhibitions to collect money for the “Greek cause”, objects with Philhellenic designs came into fashion, works of art depicting scenes of the Greek War delivered messages of solidarity.

    18th-century interest in Greece (strongly marked by Classicism and with an emphasis on Classical Antiquity) had been strengthened by improved access to various parts of the Ottoman Empire, the expansion of European trade and the development of antiquarianism. In the more Romantic 19th-century climate, Greece evoked not only an archeological treasure-trove, but also a haunt of exoticism, picturesque landscapes and political tension. Illustrations of travel accounts echoed the comparisons between ancient and modern Greece often drawn in the texts, and sometimes delivered a political message; the figure of an allegorical Greece languishing amidst Classical ruins, in the frontispiece to the first volume of M.G.F.A. de Choiseul-Gouffier’s Voyage pittoresque de la Grèce (Paris, 1782-1812) is an early example.

    In the context of the international support of the Greek uprising, intermedial transfers continued to play a great role in shaping representations of Greece and spreading Philhellenic sentiments in Europe. The news published in newspapers and the accounts made by travellers, historians and publicists were an important source of inspiration for painters and illustrators, whose works reached a broad public thanks to lithography. Several paintings and drawings were directly inspired by Casimir Delavigne’s poem Le jeune diacre ou la Grèce chrétienne (in Nouvelles Messéniennes, 1822), which was itself based on a story told by F.H.L. de Pouqueville in his Voyage dans la Grèce(1820-21). These works, and in particular Vincent Nicolas Raverat’s painting Le jeune diacre de Messénie expirant (1824) typically represent the conflict between Greeks and Turks as a war between Christianity (represented by suffering women) and Islam, interpolating motifs from the Christian iconography of martyrdom and the Crusades, the settings combining Classical Antiquity and Orientalism. Delacroix’s Scène des massacres de Scio and La Grèce sur les ruines de Missolonghi helped to make figures, events and places familiar. The numerous paintings commemorating Markos Botzaris’s death received their full political meaning from the comparison with Leonidas, a commonplace in Philhellenic poems, and from the iconographic references to Jacques Louis David’s painting Leonidas aux Thermopyles, which had become an emblem of liberal aspirations.

    Even though, for the larger public, the Greek War of Independence was a distant event seen in exoticist colours, its political connotations were obvious. In Metternich’s Europe, especially during the first years of the war, the Greek cause was mainly supported by the liberal opposition, and this had repercussions on the way how the public interpreted Philhellenic paintings. As, following the Battle of Navarino (1827), support for Greek independence became accepted policy, Philhellenism became official in several countries, and works with themes from the Greek War of Independence were commissioned by governments. In France, depictions of the Battle of Navarino and the Morea Expedition showed France as a strong, victorious power, the protector of the weak and the defender of civilization. In Germany and Greece, paintings commemorating King Otto’s enthronement, scenes of the war, portraits of the heroes of the Revolution and depictions of Greek landscapes, by artists such as Carl Rottmann, were officially commissioned.

    For the artists themselves, such works, though inspired by actual events, fashionable themes and political requirements, were often a pretext for studies of exotic subjects. Moreover, Philhellenic paintings contributed to a shift in aesthetic styles and sensibilities. In Paris, the Salon of 1827-28, at which 21 works with modern Greek subjects were shown, was perceived not only as the triumph of Liberalism, but also as the victory of Romanticism over Classicism. The choice of a modern (rather than a Classical) Greek subject reflected in itself the search for new themes. By introducing elements of genre painting in works normally falling in the category of history painting, the artists who represented scenes of the Greek uprising, and especially families in war, contributed to break the traditional hierarchy of genres and to introduce a new phase in the iconography of war. Against the epic heroism of history painting, these themes appealed to the sympathy with the victims of the conflict, addressed an active and politically committed public, and contributed to a new type of response to international crises.

    Word Count: 747

  • Article version:
  • DOI:
  • Athanassoglou-Kallmyer, Nina Maria (1989). French images from the Greek War of Independence 1821-1830: Arts and politics under the Restoration (n.pl.: Yale UP)

    Bajou, Valérie (1996). “Les expositions de la galerie Lebrun en 1826”, in Constans, Claire; Lambraki-Plaka, Marina; Ribemont, Francis (eds.) ; et al. (1996). La Grèce en révolte: Delacroix et les peintres français 1815-1848 (Paris: Réunion des Musées Nationaux), 51-58

    Constans, Claire; Lambraki-Plaka, Marina; Ribemont, Francis (eds.) ; et al. (1996). La Grèce en révolte: Delacroix et les peintres français 1815-1848 (Paris: Réunion des Musées Nationaux)

    Heß, Gilbert (2005). “Missolonghi: Genèse, transformations multimédiales et fonctions d’un lieu identitaire du philhellénisme”, Revue Germanique internationale, 1/2: 77-107

    Kastritī, Natasa (2006). Ī Ellada toy ’21 me ta matia tōn filellīnōn: Gallikī filellīnikī paragogī apo tis sylloges toy Ethnikoy Istorikoy Mouseioy (Athens: Istorikī kai Ethnologikī Etaireia tīs Ellados)

    Kepetzis, Ekaterini (2009). “Familien im Krieg – Zum griechischen Freiheitskampf in der französischen Malerei der 1820er Jahre”, in Heß, Gilbert; Agazzi, Elena; Décultot, Elisabeth (eds.) (2009). Graecomania: Der europäische Philhellenismus (Berlin: De Gruyter), 133-170

    Peltre, Christine (1997). Retour en Arcadie: Le voyage des artistes français en Grèce au XIXe siècle (Paris: Klincksieck)

    Peltre, Christine (2011). Le voyage de Grèce: Un atelier en Méditerranée (Paris: Citadelles et Mazenod)

    Rott, Herbert W.; Poggendorf, Renate; Stürmer, Elisabeth (eds.) (2007). Carl Rottmann. Die Landschaften Griechenlands (Ostfildem-Ruit: Hatje Cantz)

    Tsigakou, Fani-Maria (1981). The rediscovery of Greece: Travellers and painters of the Romantic era (London: Thames & Hudson)

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    © the author and SPIN. Cite as follows (or as adapted to your stylesheet of choice): Maufroy, Sandrine, 2020. "Visual arts : Philhellenic", Encyclopedia of Romantic Nationalism in Europe, ed. Joep Leerssen (electronic version; Amsterdam: Study Platform on Interlocking Nationalisms, https://ernie.uva.nl/), article version, last changed 16-07-2020, consulted 19-10-2021.