Vasily Polenov and the Parthenon, Athens

Click on photos to enlarge.

It has been called the most influential architectural structure in history; it has been called the most beautiful. I can only trust that the former claim is true, while the latter, I will say can only be understood as an understatement. Beauty, as great as the concept is, is not nearly sufficient to describe the impact one feels when standing beneath the columns of the Parthenon.
My approach to the Parthenon today is by way of the Russian painter Vasily Polenov (1844-1927). I recently wrote about a painting Polenov did of the Erechtheion, a structure right next to the Parthenon, in the course of approximately eleven days in the spring of 1882. Now I would like to spend a few moments considering the painter’s rendition of the Parthenon itself, done at the same time. Now hanging in the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, it is the first image above.
I am pretty sure, though not certain, that Polenov painted the Parthenon’s short western face and the longer northern facade. This is the angle that all visitors first come upon when they enter the Acropolis through the Propylaea. (See photo immediately below.) If I am right about this, then the tiny fragment of a building we see in the far left of Polenov’s painting is of the Erechtheion, the other structure that interested him these days.
However, one could also argue that the painting was done from the “back” side, from the east, capturing the short eastern face and the longer southern facade. (My second photo above is taken from this angle.) These two images do fit, don’t they, because you see the damaged middle columns in the very same place in both the photo and the painting. But that can be explained away easily enough, for the major restorations undertaken by Nikolaos Balanos from 1894 to 1933 had not even yet begun when Polenov visited the Acropolis in 1882. And the middle columns had been severely damaged on both sides ever since the Venetians tossed a bomb up into Turkish ammunition reserves in the Parthenon on 26 September 1687. In fact, the structure then lay in ruins for nearly 200 years before the first minor attempts at renovation were undertaken in 1845. But it was not until the Balanos campaign that major repairs were done. (This goes beyond my topic, but I can’t help but mention it: It is considered that, for all his wonderful intentions, Balanos may have done more harm that good with his “repairs” because of the materials and methods he employed. But we’ll skip over that, now.) If, indeed, this is the angle from which Polenov worked, then the fragment of some structure in the far left of the painting would be a corner of the Propylaea.

Still, I am inclined to think that in The Parthenon. The Temple of Athena Parthenos, Polenov painted the western and northern facades. There are several reasons for this (aside from it being the most common view that all visitors see). The expanse to the left of Polenov’s Parthenon, to say nothing of that in front of it, is very much like the space that separates the structure from the Erechtheion and the Propylaea. The southern side has quite limited space, for here the Parthenon stands close to the Acropolis wall, overlooking the old Roman theater and the Greek Dionysian theater. The tiny figures of trees in the distance would correspond to several trees that still stand on that (far eastern) end today.
The loose stones we see in the foreground of the painting probably don’t tell us a lot. There are quite a few stones strewn around at both ends of the Parthenon today.
Polenov saw more of the (partially restored?) tympanum atop the Parthenon than we do today – that is the flat triangle space under what should be a roof, and over (what should be) the frieze. These are areas that once displayed beautiful sculptures and bas reliefs, many of which were cut out crudely and shipped back to England by Thomas Bruce, the 7th Earl of Elgin, in the early 19th century. These items, many of which are displayed in the British Museum in London, are known as the Elgin Marbles. There is a concerted effort now underway to get the British government to return the artworks. The possibility of this actually happening has increased thanks to Brexit, although one still assumes the chances are still slim it will happen. In any case, it has become a topic of regular diplomatic conversation nowadays.
In my previous piece about Polenov and Athens I quoted a few lines from his diaries of the time. So as not to repeat that here, but to provide as full a picture of Polenov and Athens as possible, I insert here what Polenov noted in his diary on a second trip to Athens on July 16 (July 29 Old Style), 1911:
Athens is now a large European city, with marvelous Greek buildings. We spent the mornings yesterday and today on the Acropolis. Very hot, but I work. In general, painting eases the exhaustion of traveling, and in recent days my exhaustion has increased due to the heat and everything I have seen… Tomorrow we go to Delphi…
I don’t know what “but I work” refers to. As far as I know, Polenov only did the two paintings in the Acropolis in 1882. If anyone can shine a light on my ignorance, there’s a place to do it in the comments below. Language Hat?



2 thoughts on “Vasily Polenov and the Parthenon, Athens”

  1. I’m afraid my ignorance of painting and painters is virtually complete (though I now know quite a bit about Leonardo, having just read Merezhkovsky’s novel about him), so I can’t help you with Polenov’s working habits and production, but like elisabethm I’m thrilled to see images of old Athens!

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