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Louvre Museum set to open 'Paris - Athens The Birth of Modern Greece, 1675-1919'
A man looks at artworks during a press preview of the exhibition "Paris-Athenes. Naissance de la Grece moderne 1675-1919" at the Louvre museum in Paris on September 24, 2021. Christophe ARCHAMBAULT / AFP.

PARIS.- 2021 is the bicentenary year of two events: the beginning of the Greek War of Independence, traditionally dated to 25 March 1821, and the arrival at the Louvre of the Venus de Milo in the same month of the same year – on 1 March 1821 – following its discovery in April 1820.

The proximity of these two events is rich in meaning. It raises the questions of the special place of ancient Greek art in the Louvre’s collections and the singular role of Greece in the construction of the cultural identity of Europe, and of France in particular.

However, the fascination with Greek antiquity continues to obscure our knowledge of modern Greece, which the French began to rediscover from the 18th century onwards. The birth of the Greek nation in the 19th century was determined to a large extent by the development of scientific archaeology and by French and German neoclassicism. This exhibition spotlights the cultural, historical and artistic links between the two nations, which led to the definition of modern Greece.

The exhibition Paris-Athens, The Birth of Modern Greece, 1675–1919 is organised chronologically and divided into eight key periods.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, ambassadors on their way to the Sublime Porte (the central government of the Ottoman Empire) in Constantinople discovered an Ottoman province, which aroused the interest of artists and intellectuals. In 1821, the Greek War of Independence received military and financial support from certain European countries and generated considerable popular enthusiasm. Following its liberation in 1829, Greece proclaimed Athens as its capital in 1834. Influenced by the German and French presence on its territory, the new Greek state drew inspiration from French and German neoclassicism to build a modern cultural identity.

The European contribution to the preservation of the Greek national heritage is illustrated by the founding of archaeological institutes, such as the French School of Athens in 1846, which revolutionized knowledge of the material past of Greece. This exhibition is a first attempt to cross reference the history of archaeology with the development of the Greek state and of modern art. The excavations of Delos, Delphi and the Acropolis led to the rediscovery of a colourful Greece – a far cry from the neoclassical ideal.

The great Universal Exhibitions held in Paris in the late 19th century (in 1878, 1889 and 1900) presented a modern Greek art bearing the imprint of the country’s Byzantine and Orthodox identity. Our exhibition ends with works by the Techne group, Greek artists who were close to the European avant-garde and who exhibited in Paris in 1919.

Ottoman Greece and the war of Independence

The territories that make up present-day Greece were part of the so-called Byzantine Empire, under Ottoman rule from 1071 onwards.

Athens was captured by the Turks in 1456, but the Christian tradition endured and the Orthodox religion remained a central part of Greek culture.

The exhibition opens with the visit to Athens in 1675 by the Marquis de Nointel, Louis XIV’s ambassador to the Sublime Porte. At that time, the French saw Greece as a rather sleepy province of the Ottoman Empire.

On 25 March 1821 – now a Greek national holiday – Archbishop Germanos of Patras incited the Greeks to rise against the Ottoman Empire, marking the beginning of the War of Independence. After the liberation of Athens, the Peloponnese, Missolonghi and Thebes, Greece declared its independence on 12 January 1822. The Ottoman Empire launched a fierce war against the province, destroying Souli and massacring the inhabitants of the island of Chios. Eugène Delacroix depicted this dramatic battle in his painting The Massacre at Chios.

The battle of Missolonghi was also depicted by Romantic artists, inspired by the heroic pride of the Greeks and the example of Lord Byron who, after committing himself to the Greek cause in his writings, went on to participate in the military action and died in the besieged city of Missolonghi in 1824. Delacroix, who had a close artistic friendship with the English poet, paid him a vibrant tribute with his painting Greece on the Ruins of Missolonghi – a work blending ancient and modern, which he presented at an exhibition in support of the Greeks at the Galerie Lebrun in Paris, in 1826. The philhellenic movement in Europe was nourished by this Western perception of Greece and by support for the Greeks’ aspiration to independence and freedom.

The Greek proclamation of independence on 12 January 1822 sparked a violent response from the Ottomans. After the intervention of the great European powers and the Russian declaration of war on the Ottoman Empire, the modern Greek state came into being in 1829. A European dynasty was established in Greece with the ascension to the throne of the Bavarian prince Otto in 1832, and Athens became the new capital in 1834. For the Greeks, the monuments of the ancient city were reminders of their former glory; for the Germans, they were symbols of power. The young Greek state now faced the challenge of becoming a modern nation like its European neighbours. How did the Byzantine and Ottoman past fit into this scheme of things, and how did Germany and France contribute to defining the new Greek identity?

To make a clear break with the five centuries of Ottoman occupation, the Greek state had to reinvent everything and create a new European identity. New codes of language had to be established and a new kind of urbanism (inspired by Munich) needed to be defined. This remodelling appealed to Western photographers, who soon turned their attention to Athens and Greece.


The discipline of archaeology was truly established in the mid-19th century with the emergence of a more scientific approach to excavation. Before then, highly qualified students of history or classics had been sent to excavate in Greece, where they attempted to locate the great ancient sites through research on ancient texts, such as those of Homer and Pausanias.

The creation of archaeological institutes, beginning with the French School of Athens in 1846, spurred the development of archaeology as a truly scientific discipline. The French School of Athens conducted its first excavations in 1870 on Santorini, bringing an unknown history of Greece to light. From then on, archaeologists turned their attention to periods predating what is now known as ‘classical Greece’. At the same time, after the War of Independence, the Greek authorities introduced protective measures for antiques, such as a ban on exports.

When the Archaeological Society of Athens was founded, excavations at the great archaeological sites were shared out among the European institutes present in Greece – mainly those of Germany and France. That is how the site of Olympia came to be excavated by the German School (from 1875 onwards), and how Delphi – and Delos in particular – came to be explored by archaeologists from the French School. Those ancient sites still attest to the strong ties between the two countries, as French archaeologists continue to work there today.

With the advent of new scientific techniques – such as photography (which facilitated documentation), casting, stratigraphic drawings, etc., the reception and treatment of archaeological discoveries also evolved.

During excavations, archaeologists began to record their finds in notebooks which they filled with diagrams and sketches. Photography also made it possible to document excavations in detail, recording both the context of finds and the excavation techniques used. Furthermore, plaster casts of the new discoveries were circulated or used for study purposes. This archaeological adventure will be illustrated in our exhibition by a mosaic from Delos and rare bronzes from the Museum of Delphi, presented for the first time.

The exhibition will also feature a reconstruction of the French archaeology display at the Universal Exhibition in Paris in 1900.

Colour in Antiquity and the construction of Greek identity

In the late 17th century, two British travellers, James Stuart and Nicholas Revett, were surprised to find traces of polychromy on fragments of Greek architecture. This discovery contradicted the accepted theory of the whiteness of Greek sculpture, associated with classical beauty. Although more and more evidence of polychromy was found in the early 18th century, the myth of whiteness in classical Greek art remained deeply rooted in people’s minds. Little by little, however, the idea that ancient sculpture may have been painted gained ground, and by the late 19th century the polychromy of ancient architecture had become an accepted fact. This is reflected in the reconstructions of polychromy on Greek monuments (notably the Parthenon) proposed by French architect Benoît Loviot, at the request of the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris.

The Gilliéron family, Swiss artists who settled in Greece in 1877, helped raise awareness in Europe of Greek archaeological finds. Émile Gilliéron set up a business creating a new national imagery, which was widely circulated on the occasion of the first modern Olympic Games, held in Athens in 1896. The images of archaeological finds he reproduced on postage stamps, bank notes, diplomas and posters contributed to awareness of the finds themselves, but also to the construction of a modern national identity.

The rediscovery of the Byzantine past

In their battle against the Ottoman Empire and their desire to assert their Orthodox and Byzantine identity, the Greeks endeavoured to increase their knowledge of the Christian past by expanding their collection of archives and drawings.

The Byzantine past of Greece was long overshadowed in France by the ancient classical period. Travellers to Greece in the 17th and 18th centuries and the first half of the 19th century took little interest in the Byzantine period, and it was not until the 1840s that interest developed in Byzantine Greece, with travellers such as Adolphe Napoléon Didron and Dominique Papety (who were not always accurate in their dating of monuments, some of which actually post-dated the fall of Byzantium in 1453).

The first Byzantine excavations conducted by French archaeologists, in about 1900, were led by Gabriel Millet, whose interest in Byzantine Greece led him to amass a wealth of documentation on Byzantine monuments, churches and art objects. The material thus made available for the study of Byzantine art history in France was equivalent to the documentation on ancient Greek archaeology.

The Greek architect Lysandros Kaftantzoglou also played a key role in the preservation of Byzantine art. In 1849, just after the destruction of the Byzantine church of the Prophet Elijah at the Staropazaro (the Athens wheat market), he had a mid-15th century fresco detached and sent to the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris.

The entry into modernity and the construction of a European identity

The Athens School of Fine Arts opened its doors in 1836, shortly after a Bavarian dynasty ascended to the Greek throne and Athens was chosen as capital (in 1834). There was constant exchange between Bavaria and Greece, particularly in the field of art – as reflected in the influence of Munich-style neoclassicism. Due to the political and cultural links between Greece and Germany, Munich continued to be the city of reference for Greek artists – and their favourite place to study – until the late 19th century.

In the second half of the 19thcentury, however, the artistic centre of Europe moved from Munich to Paris and increasing numbers of Greek artists went to study in the French capital.

Each in turn, the Universal Exhibitions of 1878, 1889 and 1900 marked an important step in the development of the Greek artistic identity.

The Greek artists present at the 1878 Exhibition included the most distinguished representatives of the Munich School. They asserted their presence on the European art scene with painters and sculptors who inspired comparison with their great ancient ancestors. Although the classical tendencies characteristic of the Munich School endured, some Greek artists began to study in other European capitals such as Brussels – and especially Paris.

The Greek pavilion at the Universal Exhibition of 1889 was still distinctly classical in style: a triangular pediment, straight lines and ancient Greek letters surrounding a sculpture by Leonidas Drossis based on the statue of Minerva by Phidias.

The Greek presence was far stronger at the Exhibition of 1900. The great names in Greek painting (the upholders of tradition) were still represented, but other artists, such as Iakovos Rizos (aka Jacques Rizo), who had studied in Paris, distinguished themselves by their modernity. Rizo was awarded a silver medal for his painting Athenian Evening – a work strongly influenced by artists of the Parisian Belle Époque, Alexandre Cabanel in particular.

The Greece of the late 19th and early 20th centuries was strongly marked by a number of geopolitical events. At the Berlin Conference of 1878, the European powers defined new borders in the Balkan Peninsula, mainly in order to counter the Greek ‘Great Idea’ of uniting all Greeks within a single nation state, with Constantinople as its capital. This arbitrary division of territory led to the Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913. Greece, weakened by the wars, territorial losses and the ‘National Schism’ between the Germanophile monarchists who supported King Constantine I and the partisans of the Triple Entente who backed Prime Minister Eleftherios Venizelos, was late to enter World War I alongside the Allies. The king abdicated in 1916 after a coup d’état led by Venizelos, who took his country into war against Bulgaria.

The Treaty of Sèvres, signed in 1920 between the victors of World War I, divided up the Ottoman Empire and awarded eastern Thrace and Smyrna to Greece. However, Turkey recovered those territories as a result of the Greco-Turkish war of 1919-1922, putting paid to the ‘Great Idea’ and causing the ‘Great Catastrophe’ – the displacement of populations in horrendous conditions.

The Greece that emerged from these multiple conflicts was a profoundly changed country, and this transformation was reflected in its artistic output. The Techne Group, which exhibited in Paris, imposed a new vision of the Greek artistic identity: its artists, inspired by the European avant-garde, put paid to the Parisians’ clichéd view of Greece with an art that was European through and through.

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