The evening sun casts a golden light over the famous ruins of the Parthenon. Located at the Acropolis — an ancient citadel above the city of Athens — the Parthenon was built in the middle of the 5th century BC when the Athenian Empire was at the peak of its power.
The image was painted by Frederic Edwin Church, an American artist and member of the Hudson River School of landscape painters. This artistic fraternity recorded the Hudson River Valley and the surrounding mountain ranges, chronicling the disappearing wilderness and the expanding presence of modern civilization. During his lifetime, Church became one of the most famous artists in the United States.
In 1867, Church travelled with his family on an extensive tour of Europe and the Middle East. From France they went to Alexandria in Egypt and then onto Beirut in Lebanon. They visited Jerusalem and Petra, and later Damascus. It was during this trip that Church made a two-week visit to Athens, where he produced sketches and on-site paintings of the Parthenon. It was from these initial studies that he built up the The Parthenon painting of 1871 on his return home.
The painting is large. At nearly two metres wide, the feeling it gives the viewer is of being engulfed by the scene. The composition uses a brilliant device of placing the foreground in shadow — a shadow that runs diagonally upwards from left to right. The effect is to elevate the temple both visually and symbolically, as it is uniquely bathed in this glowing light. The shadow also pulls the viewer inwards, leading the eye to the lighter and more distant details — a sort of invitation to clamber over the rocks and discover the Parthenon for ourselves.
The painting is a joy to look at. Its splendour comes from the feeling of reverence at the scene depicted. Church’s journey to Greece in search of the sites of the ancient world followed in the footsteps of the so-called “Grand Tour” tradition, a custom undertaken by young European aristocrats who visited the classical sites of Rome and Athens as a means of deepening their education of worldly affairs.
The Parthenon was an important stop-off in such a tour. Ancient culture had long been seen as an ideal model for generations of artists and scholars. In the 18th and 19th centuries, architects revived the “noble simplicity” of Greek buildings like the Parthenon in the style known as Neoclassicism, providing the template for so many of the worlds most notable constructions, from Buckingham Palace in London to the White House in Washington DC.
The aesthetic reputation of ancient Greek art was hugely influenced by the writings of the German historian Johann Joachim Winckelmann(1717–68). Winckelmann was decisive in bringing about the Neoclassical era in Western art and architecture. He is important because, not only was he widely read, he also gave the clearest expression of the virtues of Greek art: “The general and most distinctive characteristics of the Greek masterpieces are, finally, a noble simplicity and a quiet grandeur, both in posture and expression.”
In Greek art, Winckelmann saw nature at it’s most beautiful. He also saw a guide for eminence in the modern world. “The only way for us to become great,” Winckelmann wrote, “or if this be possible, inimitable, is to imitate the ancients.”
Many of these sentiments are present in The Parthenon painting. Church depicted the monument with both a sense of eminent glory and wistful longing. This idealised tone subtly hints at the virtues of archeology and by implication, and the elevated tastes of those who appreciated archeology’s finds.
Church’s commission to paint the work came from the financier and philanthropist Morris K. Jesup. Jesup was deeply interested in contemporary science and ethnography, and became president of (as well as a major donor to) the American Museum of Natural History. Among other projects, he also served as trustee for the Syrian Protestant College (American University of Beirut) where he built “Post Hall”, home to the university’s Archaeological Museum and Geology Department.
There is, I think, a palpable sense that The Parthenon painting expresses how individuals like Church and Jesup considered themselves custodians of the ancient tradition. A telling detail hints at such: in the bottom-left corner of the painting the artist has placed his signature on a fragment of stone — as if his name has been etched into the rock itself.
Their efforts were certainly important in establishing the cultural legacy of classical antiquity in modern day America, just as it was for the Europeans on the Grand Tour.
Christopher P Jones is the author of How to Read Paintings. (Click link for Kindle, Apple, Kobo, and other e-reader devices).
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