History Through Art: The Great Painters of the Hellenic War of Independence

March 29, 2021

With the Hellenic War of Independence commencing in 1821, the historical event preceded the invention of early photography by a few years. It was in the form of traditional artwork, lithographs, and oil paintings that the various scenes, from rural life under Ottoman rule, to fiery battles and the grand entrance of King Otto into Greece, were captured, a means by which history was preserved.

Created by Greek and foreign artists alike, these images were used to spread awareness and influence support on an international scale, for the war efforts in Greece, conveying the Greek spirit and struggle for freedom on an emotional level. The artwork of Carl Wilhelm von Heideck (1788-1861), Eugene Delacroix (1798-1863), Peter von Hess (1792-1871), and Theodoros Vryzakis (1814-1878), among others, painted a picture of early 19th century Greece and the fight for independence we celebrate this year especially.

Growing up during the years of the Hellenic War of Independence, Theodoros Vryzakis was directly influenced by the resistance, his father having been lynched by the Ottomans at the very start of the war in 1821. An orphan with artistic talent, he was discovered by scholar Friedrich Thiersch, who is said to have played a role in securing the throne of the Kingdom of Greece for the young Bavarian King Otto. Vryzakis attended the Athens School of Fine Arts and traveled to Munich on a scholarship to continue his studies. He was a student of both Carl Wilhelm von Heideck and Peter von Hess, who were known for their illustration of several independence-related scenes.

Vryzakis’ oil painting The Exodus from Missolonghi (1853) captures a scene during the third siege of Missolonghi in 1826, when the Greeks attempted a mass breakout in hopes of escaping famine after a nearly year-long blockade. Communicated through the work is drama, tragedy, and the sincere struggle by both Greek men and women to overcome their tyrant, while angels and Jesus Christ give blessings from the heavens. Romantic in spirit, the painting captures Greek heroism, and a willingness to risk one’s life for freedom.

Painted the year of the siege, La Grèce sur les ruines de Missolonghi by French painter Delacroix depicts the disaster that resulted when the Greeks revolted against the Ottomans. Now part of the Musee des Beaux-Arts de Bordeaux collection, this oil painting depicts a kneeling woman dressed in blue and white, symbolizing Greece. With her arms open amongst the rubble and death, she is overtaken by sadness as a man in Ottoman attire stands with an enemy flag in the background. Stretching more than four meters tall at the Musee du Louvre, another one of Delacroix’s masterpieces is that of the Scènes des massacres de Scio (1824) depicting the 1822 massacres on the island of Chios. The painting displays the suffering of Greeks of all ages, from the very young to very old, under Ottoman rule. It is said that some 20,000 Chiotes were massacred over the span of several months, and that those surviving were sold into slavery. Filled with misery, suffering, terror, and disease, this painting lacks the presence of a heroic figure, rather, it communicates the exhaustion and helplessness of the Chiots under their brutal rulers. 

A romantic illustrator of the Greek War of Independence, Peter von Hess brilliantly captured the essence and soul of Hellenic revolutionaries through his artwork. Among his most known is a collection of 39 paintings immortalizing the likes of Andreas Metaxas, Laskarina Bouboulina, and Dimitrios Ypsilantis, all of whom played major roles in the fight for freedom.

Well-travelled and experienced in military settings, von Hess in 1833 was selected by Ludwig I of Bavaria to accompany the young King Otto to the newly formed Kingdom of Greece. Following the historical succession of events, von Hess illustrated scenes based on gathered stories and information, as well as his very own imagination of what each moment may have looked like, thus, painting an image of the gallant effort for independence. 

Marked by oppression, revolution, and independence, the 19th century was a turning point for Greece and the Western world. The artwork of the Hellenic War of Independence surely painted the Greeks as the freedom fighters they were, capturing their heroic heart, resilience, and the moments in time that determined the course of history.


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