“The whole object of travel is not to set foot on foreign land; it is at last to set foot on one’s own country as a foreign land.” - Gilbert K. Chesterton
Nicholas Gyzis (Tenos, Greece 1 March, 1842 – Munich, Germany 4 January 1901) was one of the most significant Greek artists of the nineteenth century, active in the so-called School of Munich. He excelled in all of his studies and received multiple prizes in painting, etching and printmaking. Gyzis was one of six children of the carpenter Onouphrios Gyzis and his wife Margarita Gyzi (née Psaltis), who lived in the village Sklavohori on the Greek island of Tenos. In 1850 the family moved to Athens and Nicholas began attending classes in the School of Fine Arts, initially as an auditor and then as a student between 1854 and 1864. When his studies concluded he met with Nicholas Nazos, a rich art connoisseur, through whose intercession he received a scholarship from the Charitable Institute of the Cathedral of the Virgin on Tenos, to continue his studies in the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Munich.
In 1856, Gyzis arrived in Munich, where he met his good friend and fellow painter Nicephorus Lytras. The latter helped him acclimatise to the rather challenging German environment. His first teachers in Munich were Hermann Anschütz and Alexander Wagner. In June 1868 he was accepted in the studio of Karl von Piloty. He concluded his studies in Munich in 1871 and in April 1872 he returned to Athens with the intention of converting his family home on Themistokleous St into a studio. In 1873 he travelled to Asia Minor accompanied by Nicephorus Lytras.
In May 1874, disappointed with the situation in Greece he returned to Munich where he would spend the remainder of his life. In 1876 he travelled to Paris, once again accompanied by Lytras. A year later he married Artemis Nazou, with whom he had four daughters Penelope (born 1878, died 12 days later), Margaret-Penelope (born 1879), Margaret (born 1881), Iphigenia (born 1890), and a son Onouphrios-Telemachus (born 1884).
In 1880, Gyzis was elected an honorary member of the Munich Fine Arts Academy and in 1888 he became a lecturer there. In 1881 his mother died and a year later his father also. In 1895 he visited Greece for the last time, although he always felt a deep love and nostalgia for his homeland. He died in early 1901, succumbing to leukaemia. His last words are reputed to have been: “Let’s not give up hope and try to be of good humour.” He was interred in the Northern Cemetery of Munich.
Gyzis was one of the most significant artists in the school of academic realism of the latter part of the nineteenth century, in the conservative art movement known as the Munich School. He took part and won prizes in many Greek and European exhibitions from 1870 to 1900. Posthumously, in 1901 his work was exhibited in the Eighth International Art Exhibition of the Glaspalast.
While still a student in the Fine Arts Academy of Munich he adopted all of the ideals of his German teachers, achieving art of exceptional technique, working within the confines of historic realism and often selecting genre subject matter representative of his homeland and having a distinct style and a rich, dark palette. In addition, with “German” work, he earned the characterisation “more Teutonic than the Germans” and he received favourable criticism in the press of the time.
Two of his grand Teutonic works (“The Liberal Arts” and “The Spirits of the Artistic Crafts” – 1878-1880), which adorned ceilings of the Decorative Arts Museum of Kaiserslautern, and “The Triumph of Bavaria” (1895-1899) in the Meeting Room of the Decorative Arts Museum of Nürnberg were unfortunately destroyed during the second world war.
Of his Greek genre paintings, some are based on local folk tales and scenes of everyday life, while others are illustrations of Greek history. Gyzis was a deeply religious man and towards the end of his life he devoted much of his work to subject matter that was allegorical or religious in nature. In his later work he often depicted the struggle between good and evil and he delighted in the personification of abstract concepts such as Art, Music, Glory and Spring – all of whom were depicted as beautiful young women. In his later work, especially in his chalk and charcoal drawings, Gyzis shows a tendency towards expressionism, unshackling himself in these sketches from the academic realism that characterised most of his work.
In his painting “The Engagement” of 1877 shown above, Gyzis illustrates a scene taken from the oral history of the Ottoman Occupation of Greece. At that time the engagement of children was common and served a useful purpose in aligning families and maintaining the traditions, religion, cohesiveness and integrity of the Greek community under Islamic rule. The painting displays Gyzis’ technique to advantage with an elegant composition, rich colours and an illustration of a scene that displays academic realism to a tee. The two children being engaged under the watchful eye of the priest in the centre are flanked by the two clans being united. The dowry of the girl on the right is counterbalanced by the proud family of the boy on the left.