Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 1999.02.12

Richard Stoneman, A Luminous Land: Artists Discover Greece.   Los Angeles:  J. Paul Getty Museum, 1998.  Pp. 188.  ISBN 0-89236-467-X.  $39.95.  

Reviewed by Andrew Szegedy-Maszak, Wesleyan University / Princeton University (
Word count: 1388 words

John Murray's 1854 Handbook for Travelers in Greece advises its readers, "By those who are acquainted only with the hazy atmosphere of the north, the bright sun and cloudless skies which gild this favored land can scarcely be imagined." The sunlight of Greece, wondrous in its clarity and intensity, was one of the favorite topics of the numerous foreigners who visited the country in the nineteenth century and then recorded their experiences in an unprecedented proliferation of travel memoirs.1 The title of Richard Stoneman's new book, A Luminous Land, evokes that nineteenth-century appreciation of the Greek atmosphere. He has put together an anthology of images, chiefly prints and paintings, that illustrate the ways in which artists sought to convey their impressions of the country, its monuments, and its people.

After a general introduction on the evolving depiction of Greece, there are six chapters divided by region -- Athens; Attica and Aegina; the Peloponnese; the Ionian Islands; central, western and northern Greece; the Aegean Islands and Crete -- each of which consists of a brief historical sketch followed by a portfolio of plates with commentary. The book concludes with a very useful set of short biographies of the artists, a selective bibliography, and a comprehensive index.

In the introduction, Stoneman poses the question that animates the entire book: "how did [travelers] actually see?" (emphasis in the original) The answer is neither simple nor self-evident, for early representations were often highly schematic, routinized to the point of distortion or outright deception. Stoneman reproduces a fifteenth-century woodcut by one Michael Wolgemuth that purports to be a view of Athens. In fact, as Stoneman notes, it is pure fiction, and the very same print was used to "illustrate" several different cities. In other words, the actual site had nothing to do with the creation of this image.2

As time went on, however, the public acceptance of such conventional / fictional views came into conflict with the the practical demands of mariners, who needed reliable maps of the seacoast, and the requirements of military officials, who wanted precise topography. In travel narrative, the era of accurate description began in 1675, with the visit of the French doctor Jacob Spon and his companion, the English botanist George Wheler. Among their accomplishments was the first correct identification of the shrine at Delphi, as well as the first modern eyewitness account of the monuments of Athens.3 For visual depictions, Stoneman locates the major transition in the middle of the following century, with the work of the English architects James "Athenian" Stuart and Nicholas Revett. They stayed in Athens from 1751 through 1753. Their Antiquities of Athens Measured and Delineated, with measurements by Revett and pictures by Stuart, was published over the next several decades and eventually ran to four large volumes; it established a new benchmark for correct description and set in motion the Greek Revival in British architecture.4 As Stoneman puts it, "[Stuart's] paintings of Athens are the earliest in which the pleasure of seeing seems to converge with the duty of recording," and he goes on to describe them as "the first real modern paintings to be made in Greece." Stuart often includes some vignette of contemporary life, or himself in local costume, alongside the classical monument. In their blend of careful observation with a nicely developed sense of the picturesque, Stuart's pictures prefigure Stoneman's book, which is both erudite and accessible. In the nineteenth century, as today, the principal goal for travelers and artists was Athens, with its incomparable set of monuments culminating on the Acropolis. After the war of independence, with Greece freed from Turkish rule, Athens became the capital for the Bavarian Otto (or Otho), who was installed as king in 1833. One of Stoneman's most valuable contributions is to make available pictures by German artists, who came to Greece in the wake of Otto's accession and who have remained largely unknown. Their work ranges from charming, unpolished watercolor sketches by Ludwig Koellnberger to the elegant and meticulously drawn architectural fantasies of Karl Friedrich Schinkel, whose projects -- mercifully unbuilt in this instance -- included a palace complex for King Otto on the Acropolis, in which the Parthenon and its ancient companions were to be incorporated into the massive royal mansion.

Schinkel's drawing of the proposed palace does exemplify another of the interesting themes that runs through Stoneman's book, the interplay between precise observation and imaginary reconstruction. After the war of independence archaeologists began large-scale excavations at major sites, not only in Athens but also, for example, in Olympia and later in Mycenae. The artists responded to the new discoveries by producing numerous images that attempted to show how the buildings would have looked at the height of their glory. Previous efforts along these lines, as for example by Poussin, generally paid little attention to the realia of ancient building techniques. The new versions, by contrast, exploited the archaeological data along with the information to be gleaned from ancient texts. One of the most splendid plates in Stoneman's volume reproduces a mid-century painting of the Acropolis from the west by Leopold Frank Karl von Klenze, a Bavarian architect who had participated in the restoration of the ruins on the Acropolis. As Stoneman notes, "The scholarly underpinning of Klenze's sensitive restoration work is apparent in this masterly reconstruction painting." Such images, moreover, reflect a much broader intellectual and artistic trend in the nineteenth century, which took the form of a fundamental redefinition of realistic representation.5 Instead of freely imagined scenes, artists now strove for documentary accuracy in the depiction of costume, pose and architecture.

Like the contemporary travel writers, the artists delighted in the coordinated pleasures of the natural settings of Greece and the cultural attraction of her antiquities. The modern Greek inhabitants were not omitted, although they rarely took center stage. They often appear as visual grace notes, as in the work of Karl Rottman, who was commissioned by Ludwig I, father of King Otto, to produce a series of frescoes of Greek scenes for the Hofgarten. Rottman was, in Stoneman's words, "one of the finest and most prolific artists of them all."6 While in Greece Rottman completed over two hundred sketches, watercolors, and drawings, many of which he then worked into grander oil paintings after he returned home. He shows special sensitivity to the landscape, and the Greek inhabitants who do appear are usually herdsmen, evoking Theocritean pastoral poetry. To return to the theme of the "luminous land," Rottman is also particularly interested in, and skilled at depicting, the play of bright sunlight over land and water. When he does depict one of the famous monuments, like the temple of Poseidon at Sounion, he places it in a living environment.

Rottman is an exponent of the philhellenic tradition, whose best known champion was Lord Byron. Anyone who has read any of the nineteenth-century travel literature on Greece has seen that Byron's influence is omnipresent. In the pictures too, the memory of Byron, and of the victorious rebellion against the Turks, remains very strong. There are portraits of Byron and of Theresa Macri, immortalized by Byron as the "maid of Athens," as well as a large, dramatic rendition by the Greek artist Theodoros Vryzakis of Byron receiving a hero's welcome at Mesolongi (Missolonghi), where he would die of fever a few months later. A welcome feature of Stoneman's book is its inclusion of scenes from places, like Mesolongi, far outside the standard touristic itinerary.

To sum up, then, this book is clearly the product of a deep personal affection, both for Greece and for the artists the country inspired. While Stoneman makes no pretense to comprehensiveness or to rigorous interpretation, he has nonetheless made a genuine contribution to the study of the classical tradition and to Hellenic studies in general. He includes pictures by well known artists like Edward Lear, and, as I have noted, he has also revived the work of otherwise neglected artists, both foreigners and a number of native Greek painters. For all of them, he supplies sufficient information to locate the pictures in their aesthetic and historical context. Like the best of such books, A Luminous Land invites the reader to think about its topic at greater length. As might be expected from a book published by the Getty Museum, the production values and design are first-rate.


1.   The travel narratives themselves have been the subject of a number of recent studies: e. g., Helen Angelomatis-Tsougarakis, The Eve of the Greek Revival: British Travelers' Perceptions of Early Nineteenth-century Greece (London and New York: 1990); Robert Eisner, Travelers to an Antique Land: the History and Literature of Travel to Greece (Ann Arbor: 1991); Olga Augustinos, French Odysseys: Greece in French Travel Literature from the Renaissance to the Romantic Era (Baltimore and London: 1994). Stoneman himself has contributed two good books to the catalogue: Land of Lost Gods: the Search for Classical Greece (Norman, OK: 1987), and A Literary Companion to Travel in Greece (rev. ed., Malibu, CA: 1994). One of the first modern studies of the visual representation of Greece is Fani-Maria Tsigakou, The Rediscovery of Greece: Travellers and Painters of the Romantic Era (London: 1981), which is also richly illustrated.
2.   It is not difficult to find literary parallels for such inventiveness, even after authentic reports were available. The Abbé Barthelémy's enormously popular historical novel, Voyage du jeune Anacharsis, was first published in 1788; much of its success was due to its vividly detailed topographical descriptions, but its author had never set foot in Greece; see Augustinos, op. cit. 37-48.
3.   Their findings were first published in Amsterdam in 1679: Voyage d'Italie, de Dalmatie, de Grèce et du Levant fait aux années 1675 et 1676 par Jacob Spon et George Wheler I-II; see Augustinos, op. cit. 95-112, and Stoneman, Land of Lost Gods, 56-83.
4.   See Stoneman, Land of Lost Gods, 110-135; also, Richard Jenkyns, Dignity and Decadence (Cambridge, MA: 1991) 40-86, esp. 50-57.
5.   See Stephen Bann, The Clothing of Clio (Cambridge: 1984).
6.   In an odd and quite uncharacteristic slip, Stoneman says of Rottman that he "rarely included human figures and never portrayed contemporary Greeks in his paintings," a claim that is disproved by the picture for which this comment is part of the caption and in all by seven of the nine of his pictures reproduced in this volume. What Stoneman may have meant is that Rottman never painted the kind of costume study or ethnographic portrait produced by others at this time.

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